XML-based software program offers low-cost solution to the complex problem of military information sharing.
By William Miller
An innovative Air Force approach to achieving machine-to-machine integration, called Cursor on Target (CoT), is stirring hopes of solving the historic problem of interoperability—the inability of field command and control systems to talk to each other and share mission-critical information.
CoT is currently in prototype development, although segments of it have already gone to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Being built modularly with commercial components, CoT has been developed at a modest cost, with a total investment so far of only about $800,000, according to Air Force sources.
The goal of the project is to replace the human voice and physical interface needed when combat controllers in the field transmit targeting data. For example, controllers call in target coordinates to a forward command center, which in turn relays them to an airborne command center. The data is then given by voice to an Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft and then relayed again by voice to a strike aircraft pilot.
The CoT process speeds up operation and greatly reduces the possibility of human error in such circumstances. It will allow all the necessary information and tasking orders to flow to the target as needed when command center personnel literally put their computer cursor over the target and click to approve.
A partnership that began in 2002 between the Air Force Electronic Systems Center at Hanscom Air Force Base, MA, and MITRE has produced this prototype software initiative designed for speeding information sharing between service communities. Based upon a simplistic, universal machine language, CoT is eliminating the text format problems that have historically impeded the ability of various warfighting elements to communicate easily and quickly in the digital same language.
CoT is made possible by extensible markup language (XML), a simplified version or subset of the standard general markup language (SGML). XML was developed in 1996 by a working group within the World Wide Web Consortium and was primarily directed at electronic business. It wasn’t long, however, before the military potential of XML became apparent.
Common Message Elements
CoT is a small initiative with a large and ambitious objective: improving the effectiveness of the entire military messaging process. Because it’s keyword-based, CoT doesn’t carry the connotation of complexity generally attributed to other machine languages.
CoT requires only a few hundred lines of XML code, according to the Air Force. As one senior engineer close to the project commented, the best part is that XML is not rocket science—it’s actually very easy to do and can be widely used.
Employing common message elements, CoT helps space, air and ground forces work as a synchronized unit. At the same time, it brings their communications together as a single network to expedite mission critical information across all segments. It eliminates the problem of incompatible user formats by introducing a common data overlay that lets them communicate.
Colonel Mike Therrien, who is director of the Command Interoperability Program Office for the C4ISR Enterprise Integration Office at ESC, said he is paying considerable attention to the ongoing CoT work.
“This is a major step in moving mission-critical information,” he said. “Each service traditionally builds its own systems, and CoT is a specific capability we’re using to connect those individual systems together. Voice and manual data exchange today takes time. We need to shorten our timeline in a machine-to-machine format and improve our accuracy.
“Net-centric capabilities are in demand today, and we need to take advantage of Web services and move on to the next level. That doesn’t mean taking the man out of the loop. The decision to put the cursor on the target and bring firepower on it always has to be a human decision,” Therrien continued.
That perspective is shared by Richard J. Byrne, executive director for networks and information integration at MITRE, who oversees major infrastructure and transformation programs targeted to replace existing systems with next-generation capabilities. He also leads a set of Four Star Rapid Prototyping Initiatives that focuses on finding ways to rapidly bring some of the key net-centric capabilities to warfighter systems operating in the field today. This immediate value is critical, since in many cases full capability deployment of the next-generation systems may be a decade or more away. CoT is one of these initiatives.
Byrne explained how CoT received the emphasis it has been given. “Four Star Rapid Prototyping Initiatives must address a priority warfighter need that’s currently unmet,” he said. “They also have to be net-centric in terms of their scalability and be aligned with the enterprise integration vision of the Air Force. Finally, they must be cost-effective enough to be rapidly applicable to fielded systems without major re-work or expenditure.”
The name of the of the project, Therrien explained, came from comments made by General John P. Jumper, the Air Force chief of staff, in 2002. Addressing a Four-Star Summit Conference, Jumper referred to the criticality of bringing all information to bear so that “the sum of the wisdom is a cursor over the target” without regard to where the information came from. The Cursor on Target initiative is intended as a step in that direction.
Learning the Language
“Cursor on Target essentially is designed as a simplified software translator in a machine-readable format containing a core of data elements or strategies satisfying the ‘what, where and when’ data requirements,” in order to rapidly achieve message interoperability between user communities, Byrne said.
“When you’re in a foreign country,” he noted, “you don’t learn the entire language, just the key words necessary to get your message across. Some words are much more valuable and useful for achieving that goal than others.”
Similarly, in a fast-paced military messaging environment, some data elements are significantly more useful than others. “Therefore, the Extensible Markup Language allows us to tier the value of the data, accommodating the most mission-critical and important information first and expanding the capability, if needed, upon that foundation,” Byrne said.
“The advent of Cursor on Target is a fundamental augmentation of existing machine language standards,” he continued. “Each battlefield system contains a myriad of data that takes time to learn and understand. CoT contains a kind of abstract of the key data that’s common across the user communities. It provides a lightweight, simplified common interface language that contains the important elements. That means it can be quickly read, or understood, by the next user community in the chain.”
CoT isn’t just a drawing board initiative, however, but is already at war and scoring impressive successes. Developed by a team comprising ESC, MITRE, Air Force Special Operations Command, Air Force Research Laboratory and the Navy, CoT was initially designated for deployment to special forces units to provide improved time-critical targeting. Tests have shown that sensor-to-shooter paths enabled with CoT software improve the speed of the process by nearly 70 percent, while also significantly increasing firepower accuracy.
There currently is no official program to implement CoT data message standards across the services. But Byrne pointed out that a coalition of between 40 and 50 systems across the Department of Defense is working to add CoT to achieve rapid, machine-to-machine interoperability. The systems are in various stages of development on a wide variety of platforms.
“Implementation means looking for every program or system that contains the core data requirements of ‘what, where and when’ and offering them a very low cost tool that will allow them to talk to a multitude of other systems,” he said.
“This is a shift in the way we do enterprise integration. It’s a way of building a different strategy to get major communities talking to each other and interoperating with the simplified approach that CoT provides.”
That approach has already drawn attention within the technical community. The Air Force-MITRE partnership effort on Cursor on Target resulted in an International Golden Link Award for excellence and innovation from the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association (AFCEA) this spring.
The AFCEA award is significant, Byrne said, because it will help more potential users become aware of the CoT capability and its availability. “The voluntary partnerships being created between ESC, the Air Force and the other services will extend beyond CoT to provide other innovative, net-centric capabilities. These will accelerate the realization of net-centric operations to the warfighter.”
At ESC, work on CoT continues, as the Air Force coordinates closely with other services to define areas of applicability for the concept. The schedule calls for some upcoming testing to be done under fire at joint exercises.
“While major segments of the system are being implemented in theater, other elements are set to go under extensive test at JEFX04, the Joint Expeditionary Forces Experiment, at Nellis AFB, [NV], and at other areas starting in the July-August time frame,” Therrien said.
“We’re looking ahead to CoT development to improve Air and Space Operations Center communications activity, and that work will be part of what is planned for the JEFX04,” he said. “We will also be looking at using CoT to link to the Navy’s F-18 cockpit and bringing in the Army’s Blue Force Tracking system, which enables the commander to track his forces on the battlefield and provide situational awareness.”
Therrien summed up the CoT initiative: “CoT has been shown to work. It’s simple to use, secure and can handle mission-critical information. We would like to see this capability proliferate in terms of solving the interoperability problem.”
“I think we were somewhat surprised in that it was an idea that we gave a try, and we found that it became quickly successful,” he added.