Posted: April 3, 2017 1:11 PM

Interoperability Remains Elusive Goal as Technology Outpaces Platforms, Budgets

By William Matthews, Seapower Special Correspondent

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Interoperability is the goal, but the Navy has a long way to go before its submarines can talk to its aircraft; Marines have access to voice, video and chat on handheld devices on the battlefield; and the fleet can retrieve critical data from the cloud.

Much of the technology needed for enhanced interoperability already exists, but ships and aircraft are old, budgets are scant and the approach to designing and buying weapons continues to focus on platforms and underemphasize interoperability, a panel of senior Navy officials said April 3.

Consider the Link 16 tactical data exchange network. It has been in the fleet for nearly 23 years, but just because one plane or ship is equipped with Link 16 does not mean it can talk to another platform with Link 16, said Vice Adm. Paul Grosklags, chief of the Naval Air Systems Command. Grosklags spoke during a panel discussion about interoperability and distributed operations at the 2017 Sea-Air-Space Exposition.

The technology that supports Link 16 differs from platform to platform, often making one unable to communicate with the other, he said.

Grosklags called for designing weapons and systems by using digital models that include digital recreation of threat environments and operating environments so that interoperability can more easily be designed in from the start. The Navy does not do that well yet, he said.

Part of the problem stems from the way weapons are bought.

“Everybody likes and understands the vertical platform-oriented” approach, from Congress “on down,” Grosklags said. But the focus on platforms tends to undercut attention to underlying capabilities such as interoperability, he said.

To Vice Adm. Thomas Moore, there is a bigger problem. Interoperable systems do little good if there are not enough ships to put them on, said Moore, chief of the Naval Sea Systems Command. The Navy has 278 ships today and hopes to build to a 355-ship fleet in the future, but that’s going to be a “challenge,” Moore said.

Current warships are problematic. The littoral combat ship, for example, has “bugs” that need “ironing out,” he said, as does the new DDG 1000. To build the fleet to 355, the Navy must design a “future surface combatant” capable of handling threats that arise over the next 50 years, he said.

“If we want to be interoperable and do distributed operations, interoperability has to be in the DNA of everything,” said Rear Adm. Christian Becker, chief of the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command. “We’re not there today.”

The services must develop standards that require equipment, software and applications to be interoperable, he said.

Information has replaced artillery as the “king of battle,” said William Williford, director of the Marine Corps Systems Command. Unmanned systems promise to provide a wealth of critical intelligence information, but it is not yet readily available to individual Marines on the battlefield.  

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