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CHIPS Articles: Transformation...the Role of XML

Transformation...the Role of XML
By Erik Chaum - October-December 2002
A Net-Centric Warfare (NCW) environment requires that we rethink how we organize operationally, implement technically and execute tactically. Extensible Markup Language (XML) can accelerate the Navy's NCW transformation by supporting a broad, new and open information-sharing paradigm. What are some of the key enablers required to achieve the NCW vision/goal? What role could XML play in this transformation? To answer these questions, we must begin by considering some of the explicit and implicit NCW requirements.

Communication connectivity is essential to enabling distributed netted warfare operations, but it is not sufficient to achieve the NCW vision. On close inspection, the vision demands a long-term transformation to achieve more effective and agile Joint and Coalition operations. Specifically, the NCW vision requires that we fundamentally expand and improve our ability to share information about planned and ongoing Navy, Joint and Coalition operations. Benefits to the warfighter, derived from timely and effective electronic information sharing, include improved shared operational and tactical situational awareness, speed-of-command, and enhanced collaboration and force synchronization.

To be an effective decision-maker, a well-trained watchstander must understand more than the current tactical picture. Decision-makers need an operational context within which to make decisions. Operational context provides situational knowledge and is essential for reasoning about the operational and tactical situation. However, the current generation of command and control and tactical systems does not adequately grasp operational context. Some examples include: Commander's intent and guidance; Scope of Operations; Command relationships; Mission Assignments/Objectives; Task Force Order of /Battle (OOB) and Planned Disposition of Forces; Courses of Action (COA); Rules of Engagement (ROE); Operational Net Assessment (ONA); Coordination measures (e.g., Airspace Coordination Order, Waterspace Management); schedule of operations; Air Tasking Order; Resource Management Plans; Weather Forecasts; Unit readiness/health and status and Shared track data.

The NCW future demands a broader range of warfare systems and processes that are more interoperable and automated. We want our systems, like our people, to be context-aware and context-driven. The desired result is computer support for the warfighter that is more sophisticated, knowledgeable and proactive. This is true whether the automation is embedded in decision-support systems, autonomous vehicles or intelligent software agents. We are not speaking about uncertainty, but about information access and the ability to process known information. Thus, warfare system and process automation requires the exchange of operational context information between information systems.

This relationship between automation, operational context, and interoperability defines a critical DoD transformation. We must be able to represent operational context, about the full scope of military operations, in a manner that Naval, Joint, and Coalition warfare systems can understand. This requires a fundamentally new interoperability baseline. It is a new baseline because of its broad range of content and the need for a single system-independent representation of operational context.

But why emphasize the need for a single system-independent representation? Can't each system simply choose its own way to represent context? The answer is: "Independent system-specific models often create unsolvable interoperability problems." Unfortunately, independent system-specific models often create unsolvable interoperability problems. Consider these two system-unique models of classification uncertainty. System A uses a probabilistic classification description (e.g., track X is 60 percent sub, 30 percent surface, 10 percent air). System B uses a single best guess (e.g., track X is unknown, sub, surface, or air). This is one small example of what often considered a classic "Tower of Babel" problem. There is no unambiguous translation between System A and System B.

Limited shared understanding results when information is lost or cannot be exchanged between systems. XML alone, or any technology, cannot "fix" this problem. Only a shared model [i.e., shared vocabulary -- semantics (meaning) and syntax (format)] and associated meta-data [i.e., relationships or grammar that define logically how the vocabulary elements can be used] can ensure shared understanding and interoperability. Thus, DoD's holistic operational transformation requires complementary transformation in the way we design and implement systems. This might be somewhat sobering to those who believe a clever interface can easily handle all interoperability issues. To the contrary, our objective future lies in the ability to evolve to systems and processes that share an operational context model based on a common ontology.

How might we represent and share operational context? Today, operational context is initially built through a top-down planning process. Each echelon effectively adds detail to the Operations Order, Daily Intentions message, etc. At each level, watchstanders receive this common guidance, read it for general knowledge, and then re-read the specific details most relevant to their functional responsibilities. Similar streamlining must occur in passing operational context to our warfare systems. Context information must be entered or generated once and shared. Each system would then distill what is relevant to its function or tasking. During tactical execution, operational context will change. We must ensure that the warfighter is not a data-entry clerk for our automated systems. We will need efficient, low- or no-workload methods to share these changes in an automated manner across the Naval, Joint and Coalition forces.

Today, much effort is applied to improving military operations by directly interfacing functional systems. This N-squared approach often relies on point-to-point information exchanges, typically of limited scope. Although it can provide near-term improvements, this bottom-up approach will fall short of the NCW transformational objective. It does not promote a broad, shared situational awareness and understanding. In addition, it is expensive. Each interface is unique to design, limited in functionality, and costly to develop and maintain. Moreover, systems may not be able to successfully exchange information because of underlying model differences. XML applied in a similar manner will suffer related limitations. My XML will not be the same as your XML, and there may not be a way to convert.

To achieve the NCW transformation, sharing operational context and achieving ubiquitous interoperability demand we work top-down, from a shared ontology. If you think about it, this derived requirement is consistent with XML community best practices. That is, XML succeeds when interested parties form functional communities and agree to share a namespace and its associated ontology. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, we need an ontology that is country, Service, process, system, application, technology, and contractor independent --a generic ontology that is appropriate to all and specific to none. In the Joint and Coalition arena, we cannot rely on identical hardware and software to ensure interoperability. Rather, we must depend on system-independent information exchange specifications. This is consistent with XML's underlying tenets. Thus, we must seek a new information exchange standard that addresses the broad scope of battlespace information/operational context we have been discussing.

For the past 20 years, several North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries have been working to define and demonstrate data interoperability to support command and control information exchange between nations. This effort has led, in the last 10 years, to the creation of the Land C2 Information Exchange Data Model (LC2IEDM), or Generic Hub version 5 (GH). This model is a rich Joint battlespace operational context model. Many NATO countries have developed prototype and fielded systems based on GH, and are progressing its NATO future.

GH provides a way of describing who, what, where, when, how and why. It is very generic, Joint, and Coalition by design. It is explicitly designed to ensure data interoperability, and the technical implementation is hardware and software independent. The GH battlespace information is captured in an entity-relationship model that enables arbitrarily complex statements to be made about forces, plans, capabilities, courses of action, orders, health and status, etc. The model's metadata captures relationships between information elements and is crucial because relationships explicitly provide much of the situational awareness and understanding that supports decision-making. GH provides the rich and generic ontology required to capture, share, and use operational context. Thus, it provides a rational mature Joint and Coalition framework for interoperability and building more sophisticated and automated warfare systems for planning, analysis, command and control, and tactical operations.

Sharing operational context is key to building future netted warfare systems. XML, derived directly from the NATO GH specification, can serve as one method of beginning to implement the infrastructure that will enable the NCW transformation.

Erik Caum is a member of the Combat Systems Department at NUWC Division Newport.

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