The headlines warn us to expect austerity in future defense budgets. In this coming environment of constraints, some of our smartest investments then will be in technologies that make the most of legacy systems. America’s recent experience in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) suggests that our air and missile defense systems are in dire need of just such an upgrade.

But how can such pervasive systems be upgraded cost-effectively? Business history provides a lesson: adopt an open architecture approach.

In business, after all, open architecture has been the standard since Microsoft and Apple first vied for market dominance at the dawn of the computer revolution. Microsoft won out because the open architecture of its Windows system allowed individuals and other companies to write applications to it.

A similar approach, however, has yet to become pervasive in the military sphere — and specifically not in the domain of air and missile defenses, where it might achieve the greatest effect. Instead of an open architecture, we have a forest of stovepipes — each system with its own proprietary sensors, command and control, and the software to support them.

What function do these stovepipes serve? They make the warfighter dependent on sole providers to perform one-off fixes as problems emerge. This is a business model guaranteed to further harden the overall nature of systems against significant change.

In the last war, our rear areas bristled with radars nested virtually on top of one another. Every time commanders needed a new link or feature, the Department of Defense (DoD) was forced to go back to the contractor to pay and pay again to improve the same system.

One result of this stranglehold on proprietary software was a series of one-off solutions that yielded very little in the way of netcentric capabilities.

The worst side-effects came on the battlefield. In specific cases, firing units were forced to deploy autonomously where they could not be netted to other units — raising the risk of fratricide. Two such cases actually occurred in OIF, one involving a U.S. pilot, another involving two allied pilots. In both cases, the information that may have prevented these incidents was available, but our stovepiped systems prevented it from reaching decision-makers.

In other cases, our stovepiped systems produced a type of blindness — for instance, when Iraqi forces fired a handful of cruise missiles into Kuwait that simply were not recognized. Why not? Because when our Patriot system radars were postured to defend against SCUD ballistic missiles, our stovepiped systems couldn’t correctly characterize the incoming cruise missile attack.

In the next war, this vulnerability will be a threat not just for our land-based forces, but also for the Navy as well. (Every commander recalls vividly the destruction of HMS Sheffield by an Exocet missile during the Falklands War.) Closing the cruise missile gap will also be critical for the security of the U.S. homeland.

Sensors alone are not the answer. In both Desert Storm and OIF, sensors were widely dispersed but could not be effectively netted with each other to form a seamless whole. The next war will exact harsh penalties from the side that settles for a narrow field of view based on largely unnetted sensors, counting on an enemy to attack precisely as we had planned.

Worst of all, the current paradigm forces the warfighter to the periphery. The warfighter scrambles to service and operate a plethora of air defenses instead of the air defense systems serving the warfighter. It does the warfighter no good to have systems that are ostensibly open architecture, but are hampered by proprietary interface documentation. We need an air defense architecture that restores the warfighter to his rightful, central place.

How do we achieve this? It will take more than mere integration. In the U.S. Army’s Field Manual, battle command is described as an art as well as a science. We need to provide situational understanding — the science of the netted sensor funneling knowledge and awareness to the warfighter that, when combined with his experience, permits him to exercise the art of command. If we can achieve that, air and missile defense will become a common space in which all systems — from mortar defense (C-RAM) to cruise missile defense (J-LENS) to Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense theater ballistic missile defense, all the way up to Aegis and Ground-based Midcourse Defense strategic interceptors, are netted and commanded by warfighters empowered by knowledge.

Every war brings its own cold realization and turning point. In 1983 commanders liberating Grenada were shocked that the lack of joint communications between U.S. forces would prove more lethal for our soldiers than the resistance of the Cuban forces. The result was the passage of the landmark Goldwater-Nichols Act that smashed service stovepipes to put combatant commanders “in the driver’s seat” in determining requirements and force structure needs.

It is time for an equivalent commitment in military technology to open architecture and non-proprietary interface documentation, particularly for air and missile defenses.


Jay M. Garner, a retired Army lieutenant general, was the U.S. Army assistant vice chief of staff from January 1996 to September 1997.