Ever heard the term “network centric operations” and not been entirely sure of what it means? You’re not alone.

Military visionaries explain the concept to the uninitiated using an example of fans waiting for a celebrity at an airport, according to Dean Cash, director of the network centric operations enterprise priority at Raytheon’s corporate offices in Arlington, Va.

Some of those fans are carrying cameras that shoot pictures on film that can be printed later, while others are carrying digital cameras where the photos can be viewed immediately, said Cash, a retired U.S. Army major general who began working on the concept during his career as a senior Army officer.

A third type of fan is carrying a cellular phone capable of taking digital photos. These fans can take pictures of the celebrity and immediately share them with friends, who can discuss the photos instantaneously through voice conversations or text messages, Cash said.

These fans illustrate some of the basic tenets of network centric operations — putting information into the hands of more troops and using the data for new purposes, Cash said. This involves the use of a variety of satellite and terrestrial imaging and communications assets, GPS navigation signals, and a willingness to look at using satellites and other systems in ways not previously considered.

Network centric operations is intended to replace the narrow or “soda straw” view that each soldier may have of the battlefield and provide a far wider, common perspective to U.S. forces, said Jon Armstrong, director of net-centric integration at Lockheed Martin Integrated Systems and Solutions in Gaithersburg, Md. Troops can share information to build a complete picture of what is happening in an area and identify errors that would degrade the quality of the information, he said.

Another way to envision what network centric operations will enable for the military involves a dismounted soldier fighting in urban combat, Cash said. The soldier, equipped with a helmet-mounted display, lightweight communications gear and an M-16 with special sensors, can hide behind a wall yet see an approaching enemy tank by holding his gun just past the wall (see artist’s conception at right).

Without exposing himself to the vehicle, the soldier can destroy the tank with a click of the trigger on his M-16, Cash said.

Network centric operations will not improve the firepower of an M-16 to enable its shells to destroy a heavily armored vehicle. What this new approach to technology and information sharing will do is use sensors on that M-16 to recognize the tank, share that information with other weapons systems in the area, and determine which is close enough and capable enough of taking the tank out , Cash said. For example, a nearby aircraft could be called upon to fire a precision-guided missile at the tank , he said.

That’s one example of network centric operations that Raytheon hopes will be possible in the near future, Cash said.

The Pentagon already is using network centric concepts to put more information in the hands of troops on the battlefield as well as decision makers based in the United States.

The most important aspects of this information is letting troops know their own location, the locations of other friendly forces, and that of nearby enemies, according to Mike Gianelli, vice president for national security communications programs at Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems in El Segundo, Calif. Once they have that information, troops also may want more detailed information about their enemy’s intentions and capabilities from eavesdropping and imagery assets, he said.

The Pentagon already has developed and begun using in Iraq a system that gives troops basic information about the position of friendly and enemy forces, called the Force 21 Battle Command Brigade and Below (FBCB2), which is installed in Army vehicles and built by Northrop Grumman Corp.

Neil Siegel, vice president of technology and chief engineer of command, control and communications programs at Northrop Grumman Mission Systems of Reston, Va., said that he would like to beef up the level of information that troops in FBCB2-equipped vehicles can receive, but doing so requires caution.

Sending a live video feed from unmanned aerial vehicles would dramatically increase the information that troops in ground vehicles have at their disposal, but it would not necessarily help them, Siegel said. A soldier in the vehicle might not be able to glean much from watching video of several moving trucks, for example, and the video could prove to be a distraction as well, he said.

To the untrained eye, even high-resolution video may not suggest much about a vehicle’s purpose, Siegel said. However, sending the video feed to intelligence analysts could enable them to quickly discern considerable information, such as whether the trucks are an enemy reconnaissance patrol or logistics squadron, and send that data back to the troops on the ground, he said. That type of information can significantly alter the decisions made during battle, he said.

One of the first steps in network centric operations during combat in recent years was the targeting missions handled by U.S. Special Operations forces in Afghanistan, where troops on horseback used laser-range finders, GPS devices and communications gear to locate enemy targets for B-52 bombers, Gianelli said.

Those troops generally performed this mission with several separate devices, and occasionally ran into problems when they entered the wrong GPS coordinates for transmission to the bombers, said Gianelli, who envisions the development of a single piece of equipment that is easier to carry and automated to reduce user error.

Increased information sharing and more timely updates, coupled with precision-guided bombs and missiles, has helped U.S. aircraft in Iraq and Afghanistan strike multiple targets during a single sortie, rather than requiring several sorties to destroy a single target as had been the case in the past, Armstrong said.

Military commanders often complained after Operation Desert Storm that they did not have sufficient access to information from classified intelligence sources, but the Pentagon has made considerable progress in this area during Operation Iraqi Freedom, according to Air Force Maj. James Armor, director of the National Security Space Office.

The difference between the intelligence information available to commanders between the two wars has been “night and day,” Armor said.

The military has done a good job supplying commanders with this information, but still struggles to get it to individual troops in combat vehicles, Armor said. However, the services are addressing this issue with programs like the Army’s Future Combat System, a fleet of relatively lightweight combat vehicles linked by space and airborne communications systems, he said.

Other possibilities that can be enabled by network centric operations include tapping sensors on a variety of weapons for unorthodox purposes, Armstrong said. If a missile-warning satellite detected the launch of a Scud-type missile, and commanders wanted additional information to confirm the threat, they might find that aircraft cannot reach the area in question in time, he said.

However, a networked system could indicate that a cruise missile that had been launched nearby the launch site could reach the area much faster, and take a look with its own sensors, Armstrong said. With confirmation of the threat, commanders could choose to have the cruise missile intercept the rocket if they decided that was a higher priority than the cruise missile’s initial target, he said.