Smaller-scale operations scattered across the globe, with a range of coalition partners who aren't necessarily the usual suspects: This is what Defense Department officials say military engagements will look like going forward. Whether it's on the ground in west Africa, the Pacific or Southwest Asia, intelligence-sharing between cooperating multinational teams is increasingly critical.

Enter the Battlefield Information Collection and Exploitation Systems Extended, an expanded version of the previously existing BICES backbone that links intelligence between a range of partner nations. The system originally centered on the NATO construct of partner nations, but today's version goes beyond that. BICES-X accommodates partners from countries that may not have been part of NATO—or may not have been a U.S. partner in intelligence operations at all, until they needed to be.

"BICES-X expands the BICES enterprise concept globally, delivering technical capability and governance to provide multinational intelligence and information-sharing capabilities. It also allows access to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and general IT support to coalition operations and partner nations beyond the original NATO nations and associated partners," said Ed Drollette, U.S. BICES program manager. "So through BICES-X we're able to go global with many of the partner nations and all of the different diplomatic communities."

BICES-X builds on previous iterations of the system, BICES and U.S. BICES, expanding intelligence-sharing capabilities and global reach as mission requirements evolve.

The original BICES platform, itself a follow-on to an information-sharing capability known as Linked Operational Capability Europe, "provides the primary secure intelligence-sharing network between and among all 28 NATO member nations, seven associated partner nations and the NATO organization. It is funded by individual nations and was established in 1999 via formal memorandum of understanding," Cmdr. Linda Rojas, Pentagon spokeswoman, said in an email.

To that end, "U.S. BICES is the U.S. national contribution to the 28 NATO-member nations' BICES environment. U.S. BICES provides collateral releasable connectivity for the U.S. combatant commands, services and intelligence community agencies to the other BICES nations and NATO," Rojas said. "U.S. BICES allows U.S. users to access NATO secure networks and is the mechanism by which all U.S. producers disseminate releasable intelligence products and data into the BICES environment."

BICES-X officials emphasize it's not just NATO partners using the system.

"BICES Extended goes to the other potential partners who have no affiliation with NATO; for example, in Asia. We have a lot of partners that have no NATO affiliation but U.S. Pacific [Command] has partner relationships with them," Drollette said. "The intent the BICES-X is creating an extant environment which can support multiple partner nations and emerging coalitions as part of the combatant commands' requirements and the partners and relationships there. And it is a coalition, merging coalitions into a single aggregated intelligence-sharing capability."

Most of the technology being used in BICES-X comes from the existing U.S. BICES program. The interface itself most commonly comprises computer terminals used on-site, through which mission partners can set up password-protected collaboration environments between on-site computers and users. BICES-X isn't yet accessible through smart devices, although program officials say that's a request from some combatant commands that they currently are looking into.

Nesting with the DoD enterprise movement

BICES-X is deployed around the world — the U.S. version alone is in hundreds of locations with an untold number of non-U.S. users accessing the central BICES-X backbone from other partner nations and locations, Drollette said. Through the system, users access intelligence products, tools and services that aid in a range of missions across the globe.

Take, for example, one of the Army's most critical intelligence data systems, the Distributed Common Ground System-Army. BICES-X would serve as an interface through which users can access the kind of information DCGS-A supplies: ground intelligence in Southwest Asia, among other places. That's just one of many platforms and systems BICES-X can tap into and provide mission-critical intelligence.

BICES-X also is designed to fit in with broader enterprise IT efforts across DoD and the intelligence community, including the Joint Information Environment (JIE), the Intelligence Community IT Environment (ICITE) and the Defense Intelligence Information Enterprise (DI2E). All of those are sweeping efforts aimed at linking critical intelligence and aligning military and intelligence operations, and BICES-X officials say that's what is at the heart of their system.

"It provides secure email, file-sharing, voice [and video teleconferencing], chat, intelligence tools, and the ability to support live streaming video feeds," Rojas said. "It has flexibility to expand coalition intelligence information-sharing capabilities and is aligned with" DI2E, JIE and ICITE.

According to Drollette, as far as BICES-X fitting with the broader enterprise IT and intelligence goes, the goals are to provide a seamless enterprise-sharing capability that is interoperable with the enterprise efforts while also satisfying requirements of numerous offices, including the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, the DoD CIO, the service branches, intelligence agencies and combatant commands.

With so many players involved at so many different layers of the military and diplomatic communities, it raises one particular question: How is security classification handled in BICES-X? As it turns out, it's up to the entity supplying the information to ensure security clearance requirements are met on both the sharing and receiving ends.

"The owners have the responsibility for appropriately classifying the information. They have classification authority, and so that information, once it's [designated] secret releasable, they have designated that information can go to that country itself," Drollette said. "We facilitate the transfer … [and] it's the owners of the information that make the determination of where the information can go."

It's a point that becomes a bit more nuanced when dealing with interoperability in the intelligence communities, where the security clearances get higher and the ability to share gets tighter.

For example, at the Defense Intelligence Agency, one of the key organizations leading on ICITE, "the network primarily is at [the top-secret] level. And it's within primarily the U.S. and with select partners particularly the 'five eyes,' " or the intelligence alliance that includes Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States, Drollette said. "We sit in a coalition status and so that's a subtlety that people look at us and say, 'You're redundant, you're the same system that these other things provide.' But that's not true, particularly in the case of intelligence sharing."

It's the global reach and scalability that sets BICES-X apart from other intelligence-sharing systems, officials say. And in a world where it's increasingly the norm when crises demand multilateral communication in an instant, it's an integral part of globalized operations.

"There's a logistics aspect to it … but with the flexibility of using policies and frameworks you can actually build out virtual routes relatively easily using technology and the process and the development. So that's an important aspect BICES-X brings to the table, that it can support a combatant command that needs a subset group" to be able to share information, Drollette said.

"These are the people that are participating in a crisis response, or another response from another command. That's one of the flexibilities that we can be able to support, because the framework is built, because it is that coalition of the willing to start with," Drollette said. "These are the ones that are looking to share intelligence information from the beginning and that's why they contributed to a separate network — and that's an important aspect to this entire program. It's one of the foundational things that we go on, so it's now from U.S. BICES to BICES-X to carry that to support not only the [combatant commands' areas of responsibility] where NATO primarily resides, but it expands it across the entire world."