Sunday, January 13, 2013

RMA 2.0: Information Dominance and the Democratization of Information Technology

The startlingly efficient coalition victory during the 1991 Gulf War heralded the advent of a revolution in military affairs (RMA).  Technologies that allowed rapid information collection, analysis and dissemination would receive equal if not greater emphasis relative to kinetic (weapon delivery and payload technologies).  During the majority of the last twenty-plus years, efficient military grade information technologies have remained the province of comparatively few nations due to factors of complexity, availability and expense.  This de facto technological quarantine has largely evaporated over the last five or so years due to the proliferation of powerful, lightweight and readily available integration and knowledge management tools, many of which are available under open source software licenses.  These technologies have the potential to create what is effectively RMA 2.0, marked by a global democratization of military information dominance technologies.  


In 2003, David Alberts and Richard Hayes published the seminal work on modern command and control (C2) doctrinal theory, Power to the Edge.  Key tenets of power to the edge philosophy are:

  • Providing information from which relevant situational awareness can be achieved rather than creating a single operational picture;
  • Autonomously synchronizing operations instead of autonomous operations;
  • Information "pull" rather than broadcast information "push";
  • Sharing data rather than maintaining private data;
  • Capability on demand rather than allocated capability budgets;
  • Open standards rather than interoperable interfaces;
  • Common enterprise services rather than separate infrastructures; and
  • Commerical-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) based, net-centric capabilities rather than customized, platform-centric stovepiped IT.

Industrial and Information Age Forces

For many years, the scope and breadth of the technical requirements necessary to achieve “power to the edge” placed their implementation beyond the reach of all but the largest and most lavishly funded defense organizations.   As a result, the RMA was unavailable to most for many years.  This resulted in the emergence of two discrete camps; on one side of the divide were forces that had successfully exploited technology and transformed themselves into information age forces, while on the other were forces marked by industrial age organizational and operating principles.
The difference between the two lays in their relative effectiveness in meeting modern security challenges.  Industrial age forces often have great difficulty bringing the totality of their information, assets and expertise to bear.  As a result, they are hampered in terms of operational agility and interoperability, perhaps the attributes most demanded by 21st century warfare. 

Complicating matters is the fact that industrial age force components do not share information, or normally work, with those outside their domain. Their combat and information systems are designed and procured independently of one another and are not designed to be interoperable.  This all makes sense if the organizational whole is a simple sum of its parts, and that synergies result from centralized planning.  Unfortunately, centralized planning does not work well in coalition or asymmetric warfare environments (where participants have complementary objectives but different priorities, perspectives and constraints), which are more often the norm for 21st century warfare than not.

By contrast, information age forces adopt a doctrine that empowers individuals at the point where the organization interacts with its operating environment.  These individuals comprise edge organizations, and empowering the edge involves expanding access to relevant and timely information and the elimination of unnecessary constraints.  Command intent is shared, resources are allocated dynamically and the rules of engagement are set by command but implemented by edge forces.  When fully achieved, power to the edge doctrine results in self-synchronizing forces that achieve a level of operational efficiency that cannot be matched by industrial age forces. 


      The means to achieve information age force transformations have been historically limited due to factors of cost and availability.  In the second decade of the 21st century, conditions creating a technical “perfect storm” have coalesced, setting the stage for global RMA 2.0.   Command and control theory, once exclusively the province of specialized military and government think tanks has essentially been open sourced.  The global commons is awash in C2 knowledge.  The capability of commodity hardware has advanced to levels undreamed of by early C2 practitioners.    Plentiful, cheap and secure, modern wireless communications offer the promise of robust, mobile tactical data networks at bargain prices, creating a viable method for extending tactical data communications to the lowest echelon organizations.

Open Source Software

The critical change in the technical landscape for militaries seeking transformation is the availability of advanced, lightweight, performant and interoperable open source software providing everything from operating systems to data storage, geospatial information systems, communications management, content management, hardware clustering, data integration and real-time data processing capabilities.  It’s not especially far-fetched to imagine the creation of a command and control front end using entirely open source components. 

Historically, defense solutions have focused on proprietary software.  This solution path has pitfalls, including:  Significant licensing expense, an expectation that “final” products will ship with significant coding errors which will be corrected through an institutionalized patching process and long development times and periods between updates.  These challenges were historically tolerated due to the perception that there were unique operational and security requirements and a lack of useful alternatives.

Open source software, by its nature, addresses many of these concerns.  There are no licensing costs, and the early provision of capability is prioritized over coding perfection, with the community providing both robust quality assurance and potential solutions that are implemented both rapidly and efficiently.

In the late 2000s, defense communities around the world recognized the promise of open source software.  In 2007, the US Department of the Navy (DON) issued guidance specifying that open source software was equivalent to COTS with respect to acquisition decisions.  Two years later, in 2009, the US Department of Defense (DoD) extended this guidance to the entire Department.  Currently, there are a number of open sources packages powering defense applications for both the US and NATO. 

The real power of open source software for C2 applications, however, lies in the middleware space.   These enterprise level integration technologies offer promise not only for nations seeking an initial force transformation, but also for countries finding the sustainment burden for proprietary C2 to be too onerous.  Open source middleware is the transformative technology.  These tools will allow seamless processing and distribution of information that provide edge organizations with the abilities to:
a.      Make sense of the situation;
b.      Work in a coalition environment;
c.      Rapidly identify the appropriate means to respond to  given situation; and
d.      Orchestrate responses in a timely manner.

One example of a complete middleware offering with applications to the defense domain is the WSO2 Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) Platform.  The platform consists of eighteen discrete products sharing a common core, each of which is optimized for a particular role.  


The transformation of industrial age forces to information age forces leveraging command and control mechanisms that have long been an elusive goal.  This need not be the case any longer.  The organizing principle of power to the edge, representing an information age approach to C2 now has a readily available, affordable computing infrastructure.  The combination of infrastructure and organizing principles places transformation within reach for all.

(Interested in more about RMA 2.0?  I've shared a more complete version of my thoughts on the matter in a white paper that you can access here.)

No comments:

Post a Comment