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Home : Home : Warfare Centers : NSWC Dahlgren : Resources : Leading Edge : I&I Leading Edge : Carroll
Strike Force Interoperability Officer (SFIO) Program 

By Commander Matthew Carroll, USN

Preparing a Carrier Strike Group (CSG) or an Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) for deployment is a complex undertaking from a program level perspective. Regardless of complexity, successful preparation is traditionally bound by three elements: time, cost, and quality. The ship’s deployment cycle defines the time period of maintenance and modernization to meet the ship’s objective as delineated by the government. The cost is the component represented not only by the fiscal cost of modernization but also by the personnel costs associated with both those onboard and those in supporting functions ashore to train and certify the group. With regard to the quality of the group, it is more than the sum of the individual ship’s capabilities; it is the ability of those ships and aircraft to operate as a cohesive team, i.e., to be interoperable.

Dating back to the late 1990s, technology advances in Command and Control, Communications, Computers, Combat Systems, and Intelligence (C5I) capability, coupled with the need to become more interoperable, significantly impacted the surface force C5I modernization process. Although several capability gains were realized, a number of crippling deficiencies emerged as well at both the Strike Group and individual unit level. These increasingly complex and interdependent systems were developed and installed quickly as the Navy focused primarily on delivering enhanced capability to support commander’s missions and objectives. Complicating this process was the decision to transition from proprietary, government-designed equipment to commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware and operating systems. Consequently, developmental shore-based testing of these new commercially procured capabilities did not afford adequate time nor did it represent the shipboard environment in which they were to operate. Some of the most noteworthy consequences of rapid fielding included an Operational Evaluation (OPEVAL) failure of the Advanced Combat Direction System (ACDS) Block 1, the loss of an entire deployment cycle for a number of Aegis Cruisers due to a new Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) installation, and an additional Aegis Cruiser failing an operational test of the Advanced Tomahawk Weapon Control System (ATWCS). These failures resulted in system reliability falling well below design specifications for proper operation and employment.

Although the U.S. Navy enjoyed the reputation of having the most modern and capable fleet of ships in the world, they were unable to effectively work together. The introduction of more complex combat systems that now relied on the networking of systems to achieve greater capability exposed a flaw. The realization was that ships working together in a battle group may not be able to operate as a team. Shortly after these deficiencies received national media attention in 19981 the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) charged Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) with the central responsibility to address battle management and C5I systems interoperability problems within the Systems Commands (SYSCOMs) and Program Executive Offices (PEOs). Specific tenets of this responsibility included the implementation of the following: a common warfare system engineering and certification process; a codified process for defining, controlling, and certifying C5I configurations; interoperability milestones; and earlier testing of future systems with a more capable shore-based testing network. The goal was to deliver deploying assets capable of the highest warfighting readiness absent the distractions resulting from interoperability failures.

Striving for continuous improvement in warfighting readiness makes system modernization necessary for a number of reasons including being able to respond to a newly developed threat such as the development of the Close-In Weapons System (CIWS) Block 1B surface mode to defeat small boat attacks, upgrading a weapon seeker head upgrade to counter an adversary’s new anti-ship missile, maintaining technological superiority over an adversary and thereby enhancing national sea power, and overcoming obsolescence and expensive in service costssuch as the COTS refresh of the Aegis hardware. Additionally, modernization processes are sometimes required to overcome deficiencies of fielded systems that were not apparent during initial test and evaluation activities. These changes vary greatly in their complexity and urgency and are more prevalent in software; but hardware can be impacted as well. The result is a variety of requirements managed by multiple organizations– each with its own asynchronous timeline, resource constraints, and quality standards. Few of these requirements align easily to the Fleet Readiness and Training Plan. Each misalignment results in risk to the quality of the deploying group and ultimately mission success.

Although good policy, tight regulation, and robust certification applied to interoperability using sound systems engineering processes have been in place over the past 16 years to rectify the discrepancies, problems still exist. A lack of organizational ownership over the entire kill chain and the slow pace of rectification efforts for interoperability issues identified in test and evaluation activities were areas that demanded immediate focus. Through the observations of NAVSEA’s SFIO team, broad communication between the Fleet and the technical community can significantly improve modernization and interoperability issues described above. It is in this arena that the SFIO team efforts help to coordinate modernization actions and provide a valuable service to the Fleet.

The SFIO team, with officers on each coast and overseas, is the primary interface for the warfighter. They assist with early identification of interoperability issues and advocate for prompt resolution within the technical community. The SFIO team helps warfighters identify and track their issues (or risks) throughout the cycle and provides ongoing support while deployed.

Consisting of uniformed officers and project engineers located in major fleet concentration areas, the SFIO team is a small, but effective resource for the warfighter. The team is managed under Combat Systems Direction Activity (CDSA), an Echelon V command under Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD). Since 2000, this fleet support effort has crossed SYSCOM boundaries and involved regular coordination with PEOs, Type Commanders (TYCOMs), Numbered Fleet Commanders (NFCs), SYSCOM program offices, In-Service Engineering Agents (ISEAs), Software Support Activities (SSAs), Alteration Installation Teams (AITs), Regional Maintenance Centers (RMCs), Class Squadrons (CLASSRONs), Program Managers’ Representatives (PMRs), and others. The SFIO’s primary customer is the CSG, ARG/MEU staff N6 or appropriate leadership on independent deployers.

Figure 1 illustrates the cycle of interaction with the Fleet at key periods in the Fleet Response Plan (FRP). Commencing with a C5I status brief delivered prior to planned modernization availabilities, the SFIO team highlights planned capability improvements and identifies potential interoperability and modernization issues for all ships and warfare areas.

The SFIO executes update briefings with ship representatives throughout the FRP and maintains contact with key staff to facilitate emergent issue resolution. Sometimes the fleet interaction role is as simple as assisting a ship with a troublesome equipment casualty by providing the support network contacts, or as complex as influencing the fielding plan for a carrier availability. The latter was achieved recently for the one of the CSGs where the carrier was scheduled to deploy without the Accelerated Midterm Interoperability Improvement Program (AMIIP) upgrades. The upgrade consisted of a series of software updates to the host combat system and other interdependent systems that allow for improved coordinated tactical picture compilation. The improvements are often best described as an “all or nothing” upgrade.

Synchronization of program test, certification, and fielding plans allowed completion of this important upgrade on the cruiser and all of the destroyers in the deploying group. Each responsible organization worked its individual program’s resources, testing, and fielding plans with good systems engineering to meet the policy guidelines for each platform of system within their purview. When viewed holistically, it became apparent that raising the priority on the carrier would result in a vastly improved capability to the warfighter during the upcoming deployment. The SFIO team successfully advocated for the change to go ahead on behalf of the strike group and thereby improved the probability of mission success.

Interoperability issues pose a potential risk to the quality of the deploying group. By acknowledging the risks, the Navy can assess, track, and manage interoperability using traditional treatment methods. Treating risk through elimination, i.e., including AMIIP on the carrier, removes the possibility of mission failure by eliminating the risk of a poor tactical picture.

Management of interoperability risks across C5I systems requires a range of traditional risk control measures. Examples of these controls include: “substitution” as an appropriate control for a software installation that is rolled back to a previous version following discovery of significant issues post roll-out, and “engineering” as an appropriate control which might entail a minor software change to a host combat system software that prevents certain Variable Action Button action from placing the combat system into an unsafe mode. This is not an ideal treatment, but suitable, most times, as an interim measure. When changes to hardware or software cannot be implemented immediately, due to schedule or budget constraints, “administrative” and “behavioral” controls are put in place in the form of Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTPs).

TTPs or workarounds for a system limitation are at best, temporarily effective; the ultimate goal should be to design out the problem. Unfortunately, in the real world we are constrained by resources and must determine if the investment to achieve such a solution is warranted. Often, training people in the techniques to limit the impact of the interoperability issue and provide an awareness and education to the operational commander and the team is the most cost effective solution.

Another significant factor in the treatment of interoperability risks is an understanding of the context in which the risk may present itself. The Strike Group Interoperability Capabilities and Limitations (SGI C&L) team, managed out of NSWC Port Hueneme, maintains a database of the known issues for each unit and potential strike group combination. This data is a valuable resource to the warfare commander in managing the risk that interoperability poses on deployment. Being at sea on an operational deployment creates a dynamic environment, and the commander continually evaluates the mission risk based on changing operational circumstances. Consequently, the interoperability risk must constantly be re-evaluated and the strike group optimized to manage that risk. This is particularly relevant when the composition of the strike group changes during the deployment as a result of the incorporation of an independent deployer or loss of a unit due to a significant defect. In addition to the SGI C&L database, for timely analysis, the ability to reach back to the shore support organizations is an important service provided by the SFIO team. With links and a wide network of relationships across SYSCOMs and PEOs, the team can help the Fleet “connect the dots” on interoperability or support issues that might otherwise distract the deployed Sailor from the mission. The ultimate goal of course, is to mitigate the impact of interoperability issues and risks to shorten the feedback loop between the fleet and the technical communities. This dynamic knowledge gathering and analysis becomes even more important as the continual constrained fiscal environment forces heavier reliance on integrated joint and coalition groups.

So where do we stand today? The message from the CNO in 1998 charged NAVSEA with the central responsibility for coordinating the resolution of C5I interoperability problems within the Fleet. Despite the establishment of robust policy and regulation that was imposed on the acquisition community to consider the interoperability of C5I systems during system design and integration, problems still persist. Perhaps the greatest achievement since the 1990s is the acknowledgment of the complex integrated fleet and the need to manage rather than solve interoperability. The dynamic operational environment in which the Navy is required to raise, train, and sustain surface strike groups around the world will always result in capability gaps and incompatibilities. The goal of the SFIO team is to educate, mitigate, and advocate for the best possible outcome that reduces the interoperability risk for the warfighter in a way that provides a value-added service to the Fleet and respects the fiscal and programmatic challenges the technical community faces.

Article Images

Figure 1. Strike Force Interoperability Officer Fleet Response Plan Interaction

Article References