Perspectives: Being Net-Centric

By Robert C. Williamson | February 1, 2008
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The concept of network centric operations, or network centric warfare (NCO/NCW), emerged in the 1990s. Then called "C4I for the warrior," it focused on creating a unified battle space for joint military services. NCW may be a new name for it, but the concept of effectively using information to achieve victory is as old as recorded military history. The expanding application of networked information to global aviation, emergency response, logistics and other constituencies is evidence that many civil and military leaders realize that operations flourish through command of information and interoperability with others.

Today, NCO is the foundation of the U.S. military’s "Force Transformation" initiative. Many NATO and coalition governments have put forth their own versions of net-centric principles but all have a few common goals: effective information sharing, interoperability between systems not originally designed to work together, cost savings through spiral development and re-fitting of legacy systems, and adaptation of operational guidelines to support these rapid changes.

NCO is also the cornerstone of many global civil sector efforts. Proponents believe that if we can achieve a greater degree of net-centricity, we can save lives — on the battlefield, in air travel and during disasters, to name a few critical situations. Moving forward, we can adapt our current hardware to perform more sophisticated missions, as we design and build follow-on elements to achieve even greater possibilities in safety, speed, accuracy and cost saving.

NCO is based on the belief that a robustly networked force of people who share a common operational picture can make more informed, faster decisions and dramatically improve their mission effectiveness. Thus, the network requires computers, communication systems and sensors to be linked so that they provide timely, secure and accurate information on a 24/7 basis. In other words, "mission assurance through interoperability" must be the network’s credo.

While the potential benefits of NCO are compelling, the goal of attaining net-centricity continues to challenge industry and government, alike. Pockets of interoperability, demonstrated in ongoing stakeholder experiments, illustrate the benefits of a future in which common standards would enable us to design interoperable products and systems that work effectively and securely — all the while maintaining the competitive balance of proprietary development between competitors.

Both the challenges and potential of NCO led to the 2004 formation of the Network Centric Operations Industry Consortium (NCOIC). Dedicated to the advancement of network-centric operations, NCOIC is a global, not-for-profit association whose 100-plus member companies, agencies and organizations work together to make interoperability a reality. They face the same technological and cultural issues that all stakeholders do when trying to harness the power of the information age, namely business competition, policy roadblocks, information security, national interests and more. The NCOIC operates as a test bed for solutions to these issues. With more than 600 technical experts in its working groups, members voluntarily collaborate to create tools for the evaluation and measurement of net-centricity, as well as make recommendations for patterns of use.

As a result of these efforts, NCOIC has delivered a suite of tools, including a data base of customers’ program initiatives, "building codes" and "building blocks." In addition, the consortium will soon launch a certification program that will enable companies to verify their own products’ conformance with NCOIC’s interoperability requirements. NCOIC offers its tools, analyses, reports and a lexicon of NCO terms for public use at

NCO is moving from concept to reality as NCOIC members and customers strive to increase interoperability across the globe by adopting the guidance and building blocks agreed to within the consortium. Serving as a company-neutral, industry-neutral, government-neutral source of technical information, NCOIC will continue to address key questions such as: how much net-centricity exists today; how much is enough for a particular task; can it be trusted for 100-percent mission assurance; and what are the minimum levels of interoperability required for my mission?

Going forward, the NCOIC will advocate for the use of net-centric standards as a criteria in requests for industry proposals. This one policy change would be a clarion call to industry and would do more to advance the adoption of net-centric operations than any other single action.

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