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Interoperability Challenge: Demonstrating ISR data exchange

Information exchange is the lifeblood of militaries and multinational coalitions. If data cannot move between ground, air and maritime intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, to headquarters and to forward deployed forces in real time, operations can fail.

From a discussion in 2003 about improving communications between U.K. air assets and U.S. ground forces in Iraq, Empire Challenge has grown into the U.S. Defense Department’s premier live joint and coalition ISR interoperability demonstration.

Run by the U.S. Joint Forces Command (JFCOM), Empire Challenge (EC) is hosted by the U.S. Navy Air Warfare Center Weapons Division in China Lake, California.

The demonstration involves real-time distribution of ISR data to almost 2000 personnel at sites in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and the NATO Consultation, Command and Control Agency in the Netherlands, as well as distributed feeds to the JFCOM Joint Intelligence Lab in Suffolk, Virginia and the Combined Air Operations Center at Langley Air Force Base.

Now entering its 6th year, EC has become a staging ground for emerging technology capable of making those vital connections happen. In testing standards and procedures for coalition ISR assets through a variety of distributed common ground systems (DCGS), participating forces have been able to rapidly share battlespace information.

For Canada, much of the emphasis has been on interoperability with the U.S. and U.K. For three weeks in July 2009, the Canadian Forces operated centres in Ottawa and China Lake, establishing information databases and exchanging information between Canada and the CF in California, as well as with U.S., U.K. and NATO systems.

But the exercises was also an opportunity to evaluate the Multi-sensor Aerospace Ground Joint Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance Interoperability Coalition (MAJIIC), a nine-nation ISR project sponsored by NATO to establish standards and technologies to increase interoperability between members by, in part, allowing commanders to instantly draw data from both NATO and various national systems to develop a single, detailed common picture.

“We’ve been using the Empire Challenge event as a means of testing and demonstrating this capability,” said Major Shawn Heij, responsible for joint ISR integration within the Chief of Force Development office. The other countries involved are France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Spain, the U.K. and the U.S.

Key to MAJIIC is a piece of technology called the Coalition Shared Data Server (CSD) that allows sharing of still, video and other imagery as well as intelligence data between nations with the CSD system.

Although Canada and the U.S. have been working well together for years, Heij admits there are still a few hurdles to overcome. “We all approach the way we mark and store information differently. A lot of that is procedure and standards within our own country, but also it’s understanding what other nations consider important and how they treat their information. With that is a fairly significant piece of technology that is still being developed. It’s that one guard between one system and another that decides whether information can pass.”

That challenge is especially true in the multinational environment. Heij says nations have to be prepared to bring something to the table if they want access. “We have to really work hard to break down some of those barriers in a coalition environment where we are supposed to be sharing information. And that is really where the MAJIIC project comes into play – the nations involved spent a lot of time discussing this very issue, and coming up with those protocols that will help exchange the information.”

The choice of the California desert for the demonstration is no accident. Lessons learned from each Empire Challenge are applied almost immediately. “Generally, the technologies that we’re bringing forward are fairly well developed,” Heij said. “Each year we move the benchmarks a little bit more. From when it started in 2004, [EC] has involved a little bit more technology and has become a little bit more operationally focused.”

That will certainly be true for this year’s event in September; the focus will shift to ISR information sharing within the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

For 2009, simulation-based activities and live scenarios included irregular warfare and counter IED, joint ISR management, multi-domain awareness (exchanging data between security domains), and ISR strike integration (passing intelligence to strike assets).

While much of “joint” focus is on American forces, Heij admits it is an area Canada still has some work to do as it integrates new systems with legacy equipment. “With us, it’s in linking between the army, navy and air force that we really have to start dealing with those diverse systems.”

Adding to the challenge is the growing number of civilian systems of the various coalition partners. Interoperability with non-military systems is an ongoing part of the Empire Challenge evaluations. “Exchanging between militaries you at least understand what the other military would find useful, what type of information is best exchanged,” Heij said. “When we exchange with non-government or civilian organizations [often] the technology isn’t there to make for a seamless exchange, and there is a struggle with what information is appropriate to be exchanged.”

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