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Adapt or die
Within Defence, as in many other government departments, legacy information systems have largely been developed in isolation from one another – the stovepipe approach – with too little attention given over to the idea of integration. It is not surprising therefore that such legacy systems have been built around different standards, hardware platforms, applications, protocols and operating systems, and that they are supported by many different service providers under the terms of many different contracts.
These systems have proven to be very expensive to develop and maintain, and due to their tightly scoped requirements, many can only operate in a particular way and to a specific end. To succeed, NEC must take these legacy systems and join them up, making a seamless network from battle space to business space that can deliver the right capability to the right people at the right time; easy to say, immensely difficult to achieve.
The drive to achieve NEC stems from the perceived force multiplier effect; US studies have shown that technology provides a 10:1 multiplier. Military commanders going back as far as Sun Tzu in 500BC have recorded that information about an enemy’s position, disposition and intention is vital to winning any conflict, so the aim is to be able to fuse together strands of information from many disparate systems and sources into one consistent form that can be analysed and refined to provide commanders with the best possible view. Such intelligence is nothing without the ability to make use of it by prosecuting a particular action, which requires extensive, sophisticated, and secure command and control.
Current C4I (Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence) initiatives around satellite systems, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGVs), and sensors in the Underwater Environment (UWE), all providing near real-time intelligence and/or targeting information, are essential if military commanders are to have the so-called sensor to shooter capability. All of this will be very difficult to achieve without NEC.
There is some indication of the magnitude of the challenges involved and currently being faced by the Atlas consortium, led by EDS and Fujitsu, as they attempt to develop and roll out the Defence Information Infrastructure (Future) (DII(F)). Legacy integration on this scale, with tens of thousands of users across hundreds of sites, whilst simultaneously delivering a complete technology refresh, is no small task, but it must succeed as budgets have already been slashed on the back of promised manpower and efficiency savings. Many technical, programme management, policy and contractual challenges need to be overcome. Information security, whilst it may not be on the ‘critical path’ is one area where Atlas is attempting to break new ground within the constraints imposed by existing national security policy and standards that appear to hinder rather than support flexibility and innovation.
But hold on I hear you say…this isn’t the first large scale IT programme within Government to have had similar ambitions and challenges. Some have failed spectacularly – these are the ones that tend to hit the headlines – while others have achieved varying degrees of success.
So perhaps one might expect a degree of corporate knowledge within the MOD, a body of experienced and committed professionals, well equipped and resourced to face up to and successfully manage an initiative like NEC. Sadly, and for a number of all too familiar reasons, this may not be the case. For both military personnel and the civil servants that support them, the combined effects of reorganisation and overstretch are taking their toll. Reorganisation is nothing new; in fact it’s a constant, just like it is in other Government departments. Look no further than the Home Office or the NHS to find thousands of workers blighted by the demands of constant change and “initiative overload.” Likewise with overstretch, although Defence ministers deny that the armed forces are overstretched, merely conceding that forces are “stretched, not overstretched.”
Whatever the semantics, the effects are the same, including demoralisation and poor levels of staff retention. In some areas of the MOD there is a consequent heavy reliance on contractors and consultants, shoring up the effort and filling in the gaps. On the other side of the fence one must consider whether the Defence suppliers and partners are any better placed to rise to the NEC challenge? Perhaps not when anecdotal evidence from the DII(F) programme suggests that ever since contract award, Atlas has struggled to meet and sustain requisite levels of resource.The MOD is not the only organisation facing these challenges. NATO is also beginning to grapple with the problem through its NATO NEC (NNEC) programme, so perhaps lessons can be learned through shared experience and collaboration.
So just how expensive is this NEC initiative going to be, over what timeframe can it be expected to deliver results, and is there a realistic prospect of a “payback period” in classical financial modelling terms? Difficult questions, but it is worth noting that NEC is an initiative, not a programme or project, so identifying costs directly or indirectly attributable to it is not straightforward, but it is reasonable to assume that the sums involved are significant as this is a hugely ambitious ‘initiative.’ Notwithstanding more or less permanent budget constraints, failure to realise NEC will result in huge maintenance and support costs as legacy systems are extended simply to maintain current capability. By creating a smaller federation of systems that properly interoperate, such costs might be controlled, freeing up budget for next-generation systems developments based on a common platform of NEC-compliant architecture.
But realising the NEC nirvana will come at a cost. Individual projects need to change to accommodate the NEC paradigm. Each project team will have to change its requirements and for each change there will be an associated cost – a cost that was more than likely absent from original project plans. Similarly, each communications network - Skynet 5, Cormorant, Falcon, and Bowman has its own security model which may range from a single domain system-high operation to a multi-domain, compartmented mode of operation. Integrating the core communications networks is non-trivial and will require significant investment by the MOD.
There is also a view, shared privately by some senior military officers, that the goals and ambitions of NEC as they stand are simply unachievable. Gaps in the available technology, and policy and resource constraints present a compelling case for a fundamental review and reassessment.
Whilst the need to keep initiatives such as NEC under constant review is accepted, there may be merit in devising a two-strand reorientation:
- Short-term achievement – where the goals of NEC are limited to provide a higher degree of confidence in achieving the desired integration. Where legacy systems share common features they may be more easily integrated and this work could be supplemented by a review of the more challenging cases, and probably an extension of those projects/programmes beyond their envisaged transfer to DII(F) and/or obsolescence;
- Longer-term integration – the systems that are too difficult to migrate to DII(F)/NEC in the short term should be reviewed for extension, replacement or migration to another extant system. Systems that can’t easily be migrated to DII(F) now should be reviewed with a view to maintaining them for as long as necessary until they can be replaced. This very approach was successfully adopted when UKAIRCCIS (UK Air Command & Control Information) was replaced by RAFCCIS (RAF Command & Control Information System). Replacement systems should then be developed based on the original requirement, but updated to be NEC compliant and relevant to today’s needs. For this approach to work the scope must be limited, effectively to what would be an intermediate state. Only when a NEC-compliant architecture is fully pervasive, with effective communication over an IP backbone, can full integration be achieved.
Other problems with NEC as it currently stands are that the architecture is not defined in sufficient detail, nor are there any NEC-compliant reference or testing facilities.
Adapt or die is the way of nature and the MOD needs to adapt its systems now, and redefine what it wants from NEC in the longer term future – which is almost certainly going to be a Service Oriented Architecture. Only when there is a high availability, high bandwidth, secure and resilient IP network that extends right down to the infantryman via a personal satellite receiver built into his back-pack or utility belt can the dream of NEC be fully realised.
There is a great deal of information about NEC in the public domain. It has its own Joint Service Publication, JSP777, available for download from www.mod.uk (then search for NEC).
Steve Southern is principal consultant at Echelon Consulting