WASHINGTON: The Pentagon is not nimble. That’s more of a problem than ever in an era where even terrorist groups can increasingly download, buy, or steal sophisticated technology. So how can America’s bureaucratic military stay ahead? While Congress is wrestling with acquisition reform, some experts both inside the Pentagon and out argue that there’s more… Keep reading →

Falcon Hypersonic

WASHINGTON: “We’ve been complacent,” Frank Kendall said. For decades, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer said yesterday, the US has assumed its forces will be better equipped than any foe, but that’s increasingly in doubt: “Our technological superiority is very much at risk, there are people designing systems [specifically] to defeat us in a very thoughtful… Keep reading →

The Navy's UCAS demonstrator made history as the first drone to take off and land from an aircraft carrier. Its proposed successor is called UCLASS.

WASHINGTON: August is the month of decision for UCLASS, the Navy’s controversial program to build armed drones that fly off aircraft carriers. At stake: whether the “Unmanned Carrier-Launched Surveillance & Strike” aircraft will be primarily a scout (surveillance) or a bomber (strike). The new Deputy Secretary of Defense, Bob Work, delayed the Navy’s release of… Keep reading →

Future USS Freedom undergoes builder's trials on Lake Michigan near Marinette, Wisconsin

It’s a delicate time for the Navy’s controversial Littoral Combat Ship, largely because of acting Deputy Defense Secretary Christine Fox. It was Fox who wrote the memo directing the Navy to¬†slash its long-term LCS buy from 52 vessels to 32. So we’d love to know how strained the smiles were yesterday when Fox stepped aboard… Keep reading →

WASHINGTON: Since 9/11, the armed services have made great strides in applying information technology to warfare — but their implementation to date has relied on costly, manpower-intensive “brute force,” said the Navy’s director for “information dominance,” Rear Adm. William Leigher. As budgets tighten, he said, the services will have no choice but to operate more efficiently and, above all, more cooperatively with one another.”This is going to force us to take a different approach with jointness,” Leigher told the audience at an Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association (AFCEA) luncheon yesterday. Under the growing fiscal pressure, he said, consolidation of separate networks to a single “joint information environment [JIE] becomes more possible in this downturn … than it might have been.”

It’s hard to think about the future, though, when you don’t know how much money you’ll have next month. With the automatic cuts known as sequestration set to start March 1st, and the Continuing Resolution funding the government expiring March 27th, all the services are frantically cutting back on costs. That includes conferences and speaking engagements requiring travel: “For those of you who expected a panel, I’m your panel,” said Leigher, the sole speaker left on the day’s agenda.

The real near-term damage is to military readiness, with the Navy cancelling ship maintenance and even deployments overseas — most dramatically of the aircraft carrier USS Truman. But modernization programs will feel the pain as well, said Leigher: While major procurements are often funded years in advance, smaller improvements are routinely installed during maintenance “availabilities” now being cancelled.

For example, eight warships won’t be upgraded as scheduled with a new shipboard network called CANES (Consolidated Afloat Networks and Enterprise Services). That’s a single system meant to replace the no less than five separate networks, each serving a different purpose, currently installed on the typical warship.

Five networks on one ship is just a simple example of the inefficient kludges characteristic of today’s military information technology. Information pouring back from high-tech drones, for example, hits a low-tech chokepoint at analysis centers doing the “processing, exploitation, and dissemination” (PED), Leigher said, where the chief method of sifting through that data is entire rooms full of “22-year-old sailors” sitting and staring at screens for hours, watching for the one moment of life-or-death significance in hours of data.

“We throw people at the problem,” said Leigher. “People are the most expensive thing [in the military budget]. There’s got to be different ways we can attack this.”

What the military really needs is “better artificial intelligence,” said Leigher, able to sort through the information overload, identify patterns and anomalies, and only pass what matters on to the human analysts.

The ultimate goal, said Leigher, is a single seamless network sharing intelligence, targeting data, and commands among manned and unmanned assets from every service — yet without today’s dependence on satellite communications systems that can be hacked or shot out of orbit by a high-tech adversary (translation: China).

After decades of the Navy thinking about platforms — ships, planes, satellites — “I’m seeing the change,” said Leigher: “We really are talking about network warfighting capbilities” in a way the military wasn’t just a few years ago. And that change goes across services, especially between the Navy and the Air Force under their AirSea Battle initiative. “You really can’t look at this in a vacuum with the Navy,” he said, but instead must build in links to joint air operations centers and to so-called “5th generation” fighters like the Air Force F-22 and the F-35, which the Air Force, Navy, and Marines will all fly.

One project Leigher singled out was the awkwardly named NIFC-CA (pronounced “Nifca”), short for Naval Integrated Fire Control – Counter Air. Intended to coordinate defense against incoming enemy aircraft and missiles, NIFC-CA was begun to connect Navy fighters, shipboard radars, missile launchers, and reconnaissance aircraft like the E-2C. In September, however, the Navy and Army ran a test together at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, where a NIFC-CA connection allowed a Navy SM-6 Standard missile to intercept a target using data from an Army radar blimp called JLENS (Joint Land Attack Elevated Netted Sensor).

That kind of connectivity, Leigher said, “is really the first time we’ve approached what AirSea battle talks about, network integrated attack.”

Ultimately, the admiral said, the cutting edge of the new combat network will be unmanned platforms that can fight, not just collect intelligence. “This is where it all comes together,” he said, showing a slide of the experimental X-47 drone: artificial intelligence, weapons, targeting, command and control, and networks with the bandwidth to tie it all together.

At the same time, Leigher acknowledged, America’s omnipresent new technology creates a vulnerability as well — one that will require constant effort to secure. “These things,” he said, holding up his smartphone, “will keep me in business forever.”

And the challenges aren’t just technological. “Where I feel a little bit uncomfortable, as a guy that grew up in the intelligence community, is about what this means for privacy,” Leigher said. “We’ve got to be very careful as we go forward to protect individual rights, because it’s very easy to cross the line.”

Edited at 9:40 am, Feb. 21 to add term “Processing, Exploitation, & Dissemination.”

WASHINGTON: In a telling sign of the uncertain economic and spending climate in the defense world – faced with sequestration and the possibility of a year-long Continuing Resolution — at least three defense conferences have been cancelled in the last two months and defense companies continue to pare their participation in even the biggest shows, the air show in Paris and Farnborough.

Cancelation of the Military Health System Conference, set for Feb. 11-14, was announced in a memo signed by Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, and the three service surgeon generals. In past years, the conference has attracted 3,000 attendees and exhibitors. Keep reading →

VIRGINIA BEACH, VA: Coping with China and Iran at the same time is stretching the Navy thin, and it will soon have to choose which theater to prioritize, warned Peter Daly, the recently retired admiral who now heads the prestigious US Naval Institute. Keep reading →

VIRGINIA BEACH, VA: Google will soon make public information about virtually every ship at sea, giving the current location and identity even of American warships. Meanwhile, the company is consulting with the Navy and others about security issues.

UPDATED: (3:30 p.m.) Clarified Google Uses Satellite Technology, Not Building Satellites Keep reading →

VIRGINIA BEACH, VA: In an era of shrinking budgets, the military’s future is less about buying new hardware than making better use of what it already has, the armed forces’ top officer said yesterday, and that kind of change requires focusing not on equipment but on people. Keep reading →

VIRGINIA BEACH, VA: During a decade of relentless focus on counterinsurgency, the military has let other skills erode, skills it will have to struggle to get back even as budgets tighten. In particular, the capacity of the US and allied navies to hunt enemy submarines has suffered even as potential adversaries like China and Iran have built up their sub fleets.

That’s not to say it wasn’t necessary to put Afghanistan and Iraq first — just that we’ve paid a price. “They were good choices,” said Rear Adm. Phil Davidson of the Navy’s Fleet Forces Command, speaking at the annual Joint Warfighting Conference hosted by the US Naval Institute and the electronics industry group AFCEA. “They were needed for the current fight,” Davidson went on, “but these choices were not without cost.” Keep reading →

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