Service Secretaries Sign Joint Memo on Communications Standards

Army Secretary Mark T. Esper, Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer, and Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson talked about a new joint communications interoperability memorandum at a discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on February 8, 2019. Screenshot photo.

The Army, Navy, and Air Force’s top civilian officials recently signed a joint communications interoperability memorandum, hoping their future combat systems will not face the same inherent inability to share data as legacy platforms do.

Under the memo’s directive, each of the service’s acquisition executives will draw up guidance for how to incorporate joint communications standards into acquisition programs, as well as to continue finding capability gaps and create new standards when needed, according to Air Force spokeswoman Svetlana Bilenkina.

“The memorandum also directs that requirements and programming functions will ensure a modular open systems approach is reflected in our requirements and programs to ensure future weapon systems can communicate and share across domains,” she said.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson this week called the agreement one of the most important efforts the service Secretaries have undertaken together.

“Everybody has standards for communications and everybody knows what the other standards are,” Wilson said at a Feb. 8 panel discussion with her fellow Secretaries at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “You can have a Verizon phone and you can have an iPhone, but you can talk to each other because there is a standard for interoperability. If we’re going to multidomain operations, … we need to be able to have any sensor connect to any shooter at very rapid machine-to-machine speed.”

The military uses data link networks like Link 16 and relay aircraft laden with antennas and radios to share information between planes and other assets who don’t speak the same data language. But the trend is shifting to bake common interface standards in from the start.

“For the past several years, each of the services has developed, demonstrated, and validated common data standards through a cooperative partnership with industry and academia,” the Air Force said. “These validated, shared standards enable a Modular Open Systems Approach, which are best practices to make systems as open and standardized as possible to make it easier for machines to talk to other machines.”

The Air Force argues using open systems speeds up acquisition schedules by 80 percent and cuts costs by 70 percent. That approach will also let the military continue to compete contracts down the road instead of needing to rely on the same contractor for long-term upgrades.

Information-age warfare against advanced militaries, the Pentagon says, will demand data-sharing in near real time, heavier reliance on machines and software, and faster decision-making. Smooth, advanced communications capabilities can serve as the glue for multidomain operations.

Army Secretary Mark Esper said his own group researching multidomain operations conducted an exercise in the Pacific theater where an Apache helicopter guided a drone to find a Navy ship in the distance. The unmanned aircraft then relayed targeting data through the Apache to an Army ground-based rocket system as well as another Navy ship to engage the target.

Wilson added Air Force satellites could also be a starting point to relay information to other assets that a situation is changing below.

“Any sensor, any shooter [communicating]—that’s where we want to get to … so that when we detect a problem, everybody knows about it and the fires are directed to be able to overwhelm an enemy,” she said.