February 28, 2003
Last August, the U.S. Air Force quietly joined (with money, people and aircraft) a U.S. Navy program to speed up the response time between a target being spotted and a bomb, shell or missile hitting it. The program, originally called "Navy Fires Network" is now called the "Joint Fires Network" (with some participation by the army and marines as well). The program comes out of the realization that if targets are attacked within minutes of being spotted, more of them will be hit and destroyed. This is particularly true with moving targets, which currently can only be hit by some types of aircraft (A-10s, gunships) and artillery. Worse yet, the sluggish communications systems now in use can take an hour or two to get target information from a spotter (satellite, UAV, recon aircraft, or a marine on the ground) to a shooter (bomber, ship with cruise missiles or even a marine artillery unit.) Afghanistan showed that the technology was here, now, to link all these units together into the long sought "battlefield Internet." In Afghanistan, firepower was often put down on a target with 10-20 minutes of someone on the ground, or in the air (but without weapons) spotting an opportunity. But for larger and sustained combat operations there have to be strict standards, so that those missiles don't blast friendly targets. One of the things that makes the current system so slow are the layers of decision making and delays (for someone to make a decision.) Sixty years ago, it was possible for one guy on the ground to get on a radio and speak directly with pilots overhead, or fire control officers on a warship offshore, and get immediate firepower. But there are hundreds, or thousands, of guys who would like to get the use of available firepower, and hundreds of warplanes and guns available to deliver it. A system like Joint Fires Networks tries to keep the senior commanders informed enough about the overall situation so that they can quickly redistribute firepower to the folks that need it the most. The idea is not just to take the word (via a static filled radio message) that one unit is in the greatest need for firepower, but to put video, radar or picture proof right on the commanders screen so he can confidently click on the icons that will give the firepower to the people who really do need it the most. Right now, the air force and navy have improvised systems that beam pictures and videos to aircraft, ships and ground commanders, and provide a chat room type environment where decisions can be made. The challenge is to go beyond chat rooms, which are real time, to software that will have the same immediacy, but less potential for confusion.
The navy took the lead by establishing standards for different types of military communications equipment in use, so that all the services would have standards that allowed all of them to cooperate. And the cooperation is needed more than ever before because there are more radios on the battlefield, and more people, and machine, on the lookout for targets. In Afghanistan, you had army, navy, air force and marine forces all cooperating and fighting as a team. This rarely happens. During the Afghanistan operations, the air force often hit their goal of ten minute response (elapsed time from a guy on the ground calling for fire and the bomb hitting the target.) But in many other cases, it took over an hour. The marines, looking at the way Joint Fires Network is set up and equipped, feel that 150 seconds (2.5 minutes) could be a reasonable goal. The navy already has some Joint Fires Networks set up, but they are expensive (over $12 million each) and the other services are considering how far to follow the navy lead. Two major problems are getting sufficient satellite communications capacity to handle all the information (especially the video) and dealing with the highly classified nature of a lot of the information that is flying around. Decisions will have to be made.