C4I: This small acronym represents a complex group of military functions that define the art and science of military operations. So much rests on these functions that we rightly spend a lot of time thinking about how to continually improve C4I, whether through technological or procedural solutions.
In the past few years, we have accomplished a great deal to improve C4I for our commanders in combat operations. Our knowledge of joint operations also has gained considerably through the years. But a great challenge remains: We need to examine coalition C4I.
We face an era of persistent conflict and can expect to be engaged in operations around the globe. In this era, we must not go it alone. Coalitions and partnerships bring important world opinion, authority and diversity to our operations. We continue to operate not just with our traditional allies, but also with our friends and interagency partners. Coalitions bring legitimacy and synergy, as well as needed manpower and capability. Additionally, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations can happen nearly anywhere. We simply cannot be everywhere. Since we must work in coalitions, we must improve our interoperability in multinational operations.
Consider Afghanistan, a country larger than Iraq, both in size and population. A country of vast environmental differences, rural and highly remote. A tough place to fight a counterinsurgency. Yet, Afghanistan is a critical other front. Many professionals do not fully appreciate the challenges of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission. More than 36 countries are bound by a common goal to help bring security and reconstruction to this war-torn country ó 36 countries working together as one force.
Consider just some of the C4I challenges of this critical operation:
Command and control. Command and control is performed by an ever-changing mosaic arrangement of personnel with diverse equipment and fragile facilities. Fortunately, some standard procedures are in place that have been developed after 60 years of NATO standing agreements. There can be no more challenging environment in which to exercise C2, although in U.S. Central Command's area of responsibility, this NATO mission reports to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, who must keep constant situational awareness. Blue Force Tracker, a real-time tactical C2 system to track friendly units, isn't with all of our NATO partners. Are you ready to clear fires and drop ordnance into the area of operation? The area of operations is not populated with only military forces. Numerous nongovernmental organizations fill a critical need. Do we know where they are? Take a look at the command-and-control diagram for Afghanistan. Are we optimized?
Command. A commander in Afghanistan faces many facets of legal authority. Under what authority do the multitudes of commands operate? NATO and Operation Enduring Freedom units operate side by side. When are troops under NATO operational control? What are the rules of engagement? How do international laws play into operations? What role do senior national representatives play? This is not all completely new to NATO, but in many ways it is, considering the intensity of the current conflict. NATO soldiers are in active combat, especially in the troubled southern regions.
Computing and communications. Ever visit a NATO headquarters in combat? Just look at some of the computer set-ups. At one time, I had six computers on my desk: U.S. NIPR, U.S. SIPR, NATO Unclassified, NATO Classified, ISAF Unclassified, ISAF Classified. (Did you get the e-mail?) Additionally, a number of Voice-over-Internet-Protocol and DSN phones were thrown into the mix. Early in my tour, phone calls from one base to the other in Kabul only 2 kilometers away would be patched through Germany. We often had difficulties communicating with the U.N. compound, which was within eyesight of our headquarters. That was the environment we were in. Although we had plenty of reasons to find ourselves with those arrangements, we must do better. Are we moving fast enough toward better collaboration? Are we postured to continue to fight this way?
Control. Having 36 nations in an operation creates great synergy, but it also creates control challenges for the command. It is tough to get a common approach across Afghanistan. The U.S. has the advantage of having its forces grouped primarily in the East, where they have great continuity, strong financial resources, a common view of reconstruction and security, all controlled by a U.S. commander. In other provinces, there are different approaches, different levels of funding and priorities. These differences make it difficult to achieve the ideal of synergy. A number of stovepipes are arranged through this complex land.
Intelligence. The toughest environment for exercising intelligence functions is in a large, coalition operation. Bilateral, alliance and other classification and release agreements were not created necessarily to provide timely intelligence to the commanders who need it. How does it work in a truly multinational staff that is not all "four eyes" (U.S., Great Britain, Canada and Australia)? Great leaders make it happen, but much more work remains to be done to streamline the process. Within our own military, we have difficulties sharing across services and with the numerous non-U.S. citizens who fill our ranks. We still haven't connected Army Knowledge Online to Navy Knowledge Online. The Navy and the Army have yet to put in place the policies that would allow us to share all our information. Imagine a command with different services, from different nations. Again, come visit a NATO headquarters in the field and ask what are all the buildings with the protruding antennas and cables? They are the various National Intelligence Centers, all physically separated. Not an environment conducive to fighting an adaptive enemy.
Despite these many challenges, the men and women of NATO are working hard every day to get the mission done. But we need to ask ourselves as leaders, are we really comfortable with the status of coalition C4I? Have we done all we can to optimize C4I to face this ongoing age of persistent conflict?
Have we really looked under the hood lately? Lets stop wringing our hands and roll up our sleeves. Ś
U.S. Army Col. Bart Howard is the assistant chief of staff of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command and is en route to serve as a special assistant to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe.