search menu icon-carat-right cmu-wordmark
2021 Year in Review

Improving System Interoperability with a Data-Centric Universal C2 Language

Many incompatible standards are in use for information exchange and storage, impeding Department of Defense (DoD) goals for interoperability and resilience across a range of mission, weapon, and command-and-control (C2) systems. Any solution must address essential variation, imposed by differences in application domains, while eliminating spurious variation due to independent development by vendors and programs. Variation makes everything harder, ultimately hindering interoperability and resilience.

Fully Networked Command, Control, and Communications (FNC3) is a modernization priority of the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (OUSD(R&E)). To address longstanding issues of interoperability and resilience, FNC3 is investing to develop a standard for information exchange that builds on existing C2 protocols to eliminate spurious variation, enables the incorporation of essential variation, and evolves to add new information types and functionality while preserving backward compatibility. The program, called Universal Command and Control (UC2), applies data-centric principles that data should be self-describing and expressed in open source formats.

The UC2 program comprises a set of technical working groups led by a coalition of six federally funded research and development centers (FFRDCs) with representatives from the military. Together, FNC3 and the Aerospace Corporation, the Institute for Defense Analyses Systems and Analyses Center, the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, the MITRE National Security Engineering Center, the RAND National Defense Research Institute, and the SEI are developing a universal C2 language and standard. The SEI brings extensive experience in model-based engineering, C2 architectures, tactical networks, other DoD interoperability standards, and domain experience in air defense and special operations technology.

When each new capability requires new messages, that becomes hard to evolve.

John Klein
Principal Member of the Technical Staff, SEI Software Solutions Division
Photo of John Klein.

To be successful, UC2 must not degrade critical qualities, such as latency, message size, data rate, and computational burden. Compliance with the standard must not significantly increase costs compared to current C2 protocols and software architectures. Two main factors affect these costs: encoding method and message structure.

SEI team lead John Klein explained that UC2’s data-centric approach is novel: “Many DoD standards define message-centered protocols, with a distinct type of message for each type of information. When each new capability requires new messages, that becomes hard to evolve.” Modern data-centric practice uses a small set of flexible message types, each carrying many types of information objects defined in a data model. Evolution adds information objects rather than new message types. The data model simplifies translation to and from other operational standards. It also helps engineers rapidly assess the cost of, and risks to, interoperability during an integration.

The UC2 data model carries forward the best approaches of the National Information Exchange Model, the Air Force’s Unified Command and Control Initiative, the Army’s Integrated Sensor Architecture, the Missile Defense Agency’s Adaptable Toolkit for Open Message Service, and other operational standards. UC2 employs modern commercial standards like Efficient XML Interchange (EXI), whose variable-length encoding is more interoperable, evolvable, resilient, and efficient than the legacy formats used in many DoD systems. Klein said, “While some DoD protocols use variable-length encoding, most are customized formats. EXI allows us to participate in the mature ecosystem of XML technology.”

UC2 will significantly increase interoperability between diverse DoD platforms while minimizing engineering and operational costs and constraints on system design. The DoD will benefit from easier component reuse and replacement at the system level, easier integration at the system-of-systems level, and improved C2 resilience for the enterprise.

Though development of UC2 continues, early implementations have validated the language and standard, and transition is accelerating. OUSD(R&E) acknowledges that the adoption of a standard like UC2 will be gradual as program offices recognize the benefits for their mission needs. Program offices and industry are invited to collaborate on UC2 system development through existing contractual relationships.

Mentioned in this Article

John Klein (project lead), Phil Bianco, Brandon Born, Patrick Donohoe, Carl Gruhn, Charles Holland, Harry Levinson, Reed Little, Marc Novakouski, Jason Popowski

Software Architecture