Boeing Frontiers
October 2002 
Volume 01, Issue 06 
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Plugged into the NETWORK

An explanation of what ‘network-centric’ means—and why such programs have great potential for Boeing


In September 2001, the Department of Defense issued its Quadrennial Defense Review, a report outlining its strategy to defend America in the future. A main objective of the report was to shift the basis of defense planning from a “threat-based” model, the Cold War–era thinking that focused on who an adversary might be or where conflict could happen, to a “capabilities-based” model that addresses how a foe might fight.

In the report, the Defense Department defined the goals that would transform today’s armed forces into the new capabilities-based model. One of these goals is to best use information technology to assist American joint forces. As Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of Defense, said at a U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in April, “U.S. forces must leverage information technology and innovative network-centric concepts of operations to develop increasingly capable joint forces.”

This objective reflects Boeing’s vision of combat in the future, as spelled out by Integrated Battlespace, one of Boeing Integrated Defense Systems’ most significant growth markets. Instead of exclusively developing next-generation weapons or stand-alone systems and hardware, Boeing elected to focus on integrating systems—in effect, designing network-centric applications that bring multiple entities across a wide area into a network where everyone can access the same information.

These developments raise a question: Just what does “network-centric” mean?

To those whose daily jobs don’t involve information technology development, the phrase “network-centric” may carry mysterious, futuristic overtones. While it's true that the advances brought on by today’s information age, where desktop computing and Internet usage are commonplace, serve as the precursors to network-centric applications, the basic, underlying principles of what a network-centric application consists of are relatively easy to grasp. And recognizing these principles makes it plain to see why Boeing’s network-centric programs have so much potential both to its customers and for its future business opportunities.

“The power of information dominance has been shown both in the battlefield and in the business world. The organization with the right information at the right time will prevail, whether it’s in the military arena or in industry,” said Don Winter, director of the Network Centric Operations technology thrust for Boeing Phantom Works, Boeing’s arm for advanced research and development.

The basic objective of a network-centric application is simple: put information to the best use possible for all who need this information. Amid the ongoing technology revolution, what you know is as important, if not more so, than what you can do. Accordingly, a network-centric application is designed to maximize the usefulness of information “held” by different parties within a group.

“If one plus one equals three because of teamwork, then one plus one equals five when using teamwork supported by network-centric operations,” said Jim Evatt, vice president and general manager of Missile Defense Systems for Integrated Defense Systems.

Traditionally and historically, people generally have disseminated information through one-on-one processes. We call upon suppliers or customers individually to discuss business. We telephone friends to catch up with them. We stand alongside our fences and chat with neighbors.

In contrast, a network-centric operation permits the instant distribution and utilization of information to everyone in a network spread across an enormous area. This network allows everyone to get the up-to-date facts they need to make the best decisions possible—and reach these decisions faster than they could before.

Indeed, one way to compare traditional communications processes with network-centric systems is to consider life before and after the advent of teleconferencing.

Let’s say you were planning a meeting to be held someplace several hundred miles away from your office. You’ve secured all your service providers, such as a meeting facility, a caterer, an audiovisual consultant and a promotional products firm.

Now you want to make sure all suppliers are “in sync” with each other, as well as with your plans. Before teleconferencing, you’d have to recall each supplier separately to confirm arrangements. If someone had a problem with anything, you’d have to make additional rounds of calls to the affected parties. And since you were the only one making calls, not only would your suppliers not know as much about the gathering as you did, but they’d learn secondhand from you about any questions or issues brought up by your other suppliers. The whole process would take lots of time and effort, and because your suppliers aren’t aware of all arrangements of your event, some details could slip through the cracks.

With teleconferencing, you can discuss your meeting plans as all relevant parties listen in. That permits everyone to hear current information, bring up whether any aspect of the planning could cause problems and resolve any of these issues. In the meeting example above, let’s assume your promotional products firm will be providing gift bags for meeting attendees but wanted to know where within the meeting hall to place them. The meeting hall representative could instantly suggest a specific location within his facility and promise to provide a large table and an appropriately sized tablecloth.

In other words, because teleconferencing lets everyone involved in an effort share up-to-the-minute information and resolve possible conflicts, it lets you better organize your event—and do it with less hassle.

A network-centric system involves many of these principles. It features a communications network that unites parties in different locations and gives everyone access to realtime information. This availability of current information lets everyone make better decisions and come to these decisions more quickly—all in the name of accomplishing the same mission.

“The term ‘network-centric’ implies designs that allow devices to contribute to an operational requirement,” said Carl O’Berry, vice president, Strategic Architecture, with Integrated Defense Systems.

Such applications are enormously intriguing for organizations that need geographically dispersed entities to share information. From Boeing’s perspective, the two most notable business programs based on network-centric applications lie in Integrated Defense Systems and Air Traffic Management.

In last year’s Quadrennial Defense Review, the Defense Department spelled out the importance of information management on the battlefield. “Our ability to leverage the power of information and networks will be key to our success in the 21st century,” Wolfowitz said at the April Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. “The ultimate goal is to empower U.S. forces through the network, as Assistant Secretary of Defense John Stenbit has put it, ‘to move power to the edge.’ The edge doesn't just mean the guy in the foxhole—it refers to anyone who urgently needs information anywhere on the network.”

Examples of how network-centric applications could help Boeing products and defense-related programs:

  • Fighter aircraft with advanced control systems can share information with aircraft that have less complex systems. Consider a network of two missile-carrying fighter aircraft, one older aircraft with an older analog control system and an F-15E with a sophisticated fighter control system. In a network-centric application, the aircraft with the older system can use the information from the F-15E’s control system. The result, in the words of George Muellner, vice president and general manager, Air Force Systems, for Integrated Defense Systems: “Now your force’s capabilities are not limited by the weakest link. Your force’s strength is based on the strength of the strongest link.”
  • Information can move directly from one platform to another without requiring human intervention. Say the crew aboard a Multi-Sensor Command and Control Aircraft—the Air Force’s proposed next-generation surveillance platform, to be built on a Boeing 767—wants to send target information to an AV-8B Harrier II. Under current technologies, a human aboard the MC2A would have to put data about targets into a data link that connects to the Harrier II. The Harrier II pilot would have to literally look at the data and translate it into something he finds on his radarscope while still flying his plane. But in a network-centric environment, the data would move straight from the MC2A’s computers to the Harrier II’s control system. “As the pilot, you’d like that [target] information to come right onto the radar scope and then shoot,” Muellner said. Such network-centric applications, he said, “eliminate steps that are non–value added, that take time and that can introduce error.”

Yet for Boeing, network-centric applications also have relevance in the civilian world, most notably in Air Traffic Management.

ATM’s vision of revolutionizing the air traffic control system is based on many of the same precepts that guide the network-centric applications sought by the military.

Most of the communication connectivity in the air traffic control system has been from point to point, such as between an airplane and a ground control station. But a network-centric air traffic management system would bring together multiple parties such as commercial, military, business, and general aviation airplanes, air traffic control centers, airport towers, airline operations centers, security agencies, and even foreign air traffic control organizations into one common communications network.

“That way, multiple entities that operate on largely separate networks today all connect to each other at the same time via a common information network. That provides a significant multiplying factor in information sharing and increases the situational awareness of all players,” said Dennis Muilenburg, ATM’s vice president, engineering.

The ability for multiple parties in the air traffic control system to share realtime information could permit quicker, more effective responses to sudden changes, such as fast-developing weather situations.

“Without a network-centric operation, system-wide communications can take hours and the decision cycle is delayed. That has a significant ripple effect through the (air traffic control) system. But in a network-centric operation, that developing weather event is well understood by all players. Plans can be modified, and the impact on the rest of the system can be minimized. That means there’s more efficiency in the system,” Muilenburg said.

The business potential for such civil and military applications is immense.

Boeing is the lead integrator on two notable military network-centric applications in the Integrated Battlespace arena, which could be a $200 billion market over the next decade. These applications are the Joint Tactical Radio System, a revolutionary communications system that will be the foundation for all future Department of Defense tactical radios, and Future Combat Systems, a networked system of improved communications links and lighter, more mobile armored vehicles that essentially forms the backbone of the U.S. Army's long-term transition plan to create a lighter, more mobile and more lethal force.

The potential global market for Air Traffic Management is also significant, and if ATM can increase system efficiency and capacity, it could have a very positive impact on commercial airplane sales. ATM’s goal is to more than double system capacity, thus creating more “room” in the skies to accommodate additional commercial airplanes. Furthermore, by integrating civil and military airspace-monitoring services, ATM’s system has implications for homeland security efforts that involve air travel operations.

This sort of business potential means Boeing is seeking to develop specific skills. Certainly, expertise in both software development and networking technologies is critical, since these are two key building blocks of a network-centric application. Yet two other engineering skills stand out:

  • Systems engineering. This skill focuses upon the design of a complex platform that involves many individual systems. An example of such a complex platform: a commercial airplane, with its avionics, electronics and many other systems. Systems engineers are trained to keep the big picture always in mind and focus upon making sure everything within a product properly works together and meets the customer’s operational and support requirements. Muellner, who’s served as president of Boeing Phantom Works, Boeing’s arm for advanced research and development, said that Phantom Works’ long-range planning strategy identified systems engineering as the most important skill set the company had to develop for its future. “That’s why you see business units teaming with universities to teach systems engineering on our campuses,” he said.
  • Large-scale system integration. This competency goes beyond the design-oriented aspects of systems engineering abilities and includes capabilities such as production and supplier management. Large-scale systems integration is generally seen as more of an organizational competency, while systems engineering is viewed as a skill held by individuals. Accordingly, large-scale systems integration involves the ability to manage many tasks that are needed to produce a solution that meets a customer’s needs. The end result of large-scale systems integration can be a complex product such as the International Space Station, or a “system of systems”—a system where there’s interoperability between different systems, including older platforms that originally might not have been designed to work with other systems.

With the markets for network-centric applications having such immense potential, perhaps it’s no surprise that Boeing’s competitors in these arenas are other aerospace and defense concerns that focus on not merely developing platforms but integrated systems. On the civil side, Lockheed-Martin, Raytheon and Thales combine to own a predominant share of today’s air traffic control market. However, ATM is looking to create a new market that builds on existing efforts.

“Much of today’s efforts are focused on systems at individual airports and separate systems for domestic and transoceanic traffic. We’re looking at broad system integration that crosses global airspace and traditional air traffic domain boundaries, and creating a new business opportunity,” Muilenburg said. “It’s a tremendous large-scale systems integration opportunity. We’re talking about connecting national and regional command centers, hundreds of airports, thousands of aircraft of various types, satellites, and ground systems. All of these (entities) would be tied together with information management systems, software, and communications links—and integrated with people in the loop. They don’t get much larger than this one.”

In the defense arena, Boeing’s main competitors include Lockheed Martin, Northrop-Grumman, General Dynamics and the Raytheon-TRW combination. In the opinion of IDS’s Carl O’Berry, vice president to Strategic Architecture, Boeing is about a year and a half ahead of competitors seeking to provide the military with integrated battlespace solutions, mainly because of the architectural work Boeing has done and its development of the Boeing Integration Center.

Just over a year ago, O'Berry was charged with integrating the best of industry's systems and programs into a single communications environment. His team developed and opened the Boeing Integration Center at Anaheim, Calif., where potential government customers can see online demonstrations that apply Boeing's concept of the integrated battlespace. The Center features worldwide connectivity, bandwidth on demand, secure breakout rooms, a demonstration/briefing theater, a surround-sound system and state-of-the-art multimedia capability.

“It’s incumbent upon us to sustain this lead,” in network-centric applications expertise, O’Berry said. “There are a lot of other great companies whose objectives are the same as ours.”



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