Center for Strategic Decision Research


The Transition Toward Network-Centric Operations

Mr. John Quilty
Senior Vice President, The MITRE Corporation

Mr. John Quilty
shared situational awareness becomes the foundation for a range of crucial operational capabilities, including collaborative decision-making, synchronized tactical operations, and targeting which reduces...the probability of friendly fire incidents and collateral damage."

The theme of our workshop is the changing global security environment and the possible responses to the resulting global security challenges. Within that context, the concept of military and broader security transformation has come up several times. The concept of network-centric operations (NCO)—sometimes referred to as network-centric warfare or, in NATO parlance, network-enabled capability—is widely viewed as central to this transformation. 


The term network-centric, at its most fundamental level, implies that all participants in a military operation are broadly and interoperably connected and have full, shared access to the best available information. This notion of shared situational awareness becomes the foundation for a range of crucial operational capabilities, including collaborative decision-making, synchronized tactical operations, and targeting which reduces to the absolute minimum the probability of friendly fire incidents and collateral damage. In American sports terms, it is like “transforming” from playing football, with pre-defined plays and assigned roles, to playing soccer, with dynamic, opportunistic play enabled by situational awareness on the field. 

Making network-centric operations functional requires two things: Building an enabling digital information infrastructure (the “smart network”) and then exploiting that network, and the rich set of information it provides, to accomplish military missions. The first, more technical dimension involves introducing the Internet paradigm into military operations. The network is based largely on commercial technology, but with additional provisions to ensure that the resulting capability is robust and trustworthy. The exploitation dimension, which is operationally-driven, is often viewed as the introduction of new and innovative ways to execute missions (e.g., combat, peacekeeping) with all the derivative implications, including operating in a mode in which information flow and, therefore, decision making is far less hierarchical. This constitutes a culture change, indeed. 

While the NCO concept arose in the early 1990s in the context of what might be called traditional warfare, its fundamental tenets have been adapted in less traditional domains as well (e.g., special operations). Progress has been visible in recent operations in central and southwest Asia. For example, we all saw Special Operations soldiers on horseback in Afghanistan calling in air support from B-52s delivering GPS-guided munitions. We also witnessed the application in Iraq of satellite-based networking to allow tactical commanders to see the positions of friendly troops in real time (so-called Blue Force Tracking).  

This is not to say that NCO capability is a mature reality within the U.S. military or anywhere else. It is to say, however, that NCO capabilities are emerging in the field and that being connected and sharing information in complex situations has demonstrable operational payoff. I would also like to note that such capabilities are being developed in several European and other countries, both within and outside the NATO alliance. Although I have referred to U.S. experiences with which I am most familiar, several other countries have made both intellectual and tangible, practical progress in advancing NCO concepts and capabilities. 

So here we have a concept that is becoming a reality across the global security community and which (1) integrates capability “building blocks” provided by individual nations to more effectively and efficiently support the conduct of Alliance/coalition operations, responding to General Jones’ pleas for what he called “usability”; (2) is central to the notion of knowledge-based warfare as articulated by Secretary Wynne and (3) inherently facilitates the cooperative leveraging of the strength of national partners, as emphasized by General Naumann and others. 






















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