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Guest Blog: Mobile Battlefield Trends and the State of In-Theater Communications

June 4, 2014
By Chris LaPoint

It is impossible to protect a network you don’t even know exists. Identifying and protecting networks are a few of the many challenges the U.S. military faces today. Thousands of small networks exist across the Army alone—just one of the organizations attempting to consolidate, eliminate and standardize its service while following the evolving Joint Information Environment (JIE) standards. Ongoing changes in the tactical networks—the mobile battlefield—should provide the U.S. Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) with an increased ability to discover and address vulnerabilities in these networks.

USCYBERCOM centralizes command of cyberspace operations, organizes existing cyber resources and synchronizes the defense of U.S. military networks. Increased coordination among agencies has also led to efforts such as the interagency JIE. These cross-agency efforts are meant to not only help streamline security, but to standardize, modernize and allow visibility into all the different networks that make up the Defense Department. It is essential for the military to understand where and what all these networks are, then prioritize and address the issues.

Another trend changing the way military networks are managed is moving away from building Government Off-The-Shelf (GOTS) NetOps software and other software tools, which often take years to construct and can become obsolete very quickly as the commercial technology base rapidly evolves. The commercial market forces (spending on commercial information technology) that drive technology innovation are very powerful, so figuring out how to continuously leverage the rapidly evolving commercially available technology base (COTS), rather than trying to develop GOTS products is the accepted way forward. Buying COTS technologies that are better positioned to keep pace with the rapidly evolving commercial technology base is the best way to harness the most recent powerful information technology innovations.

The remaining challenge with COTS tools is integrating them to provide centralized visibility and situational awareness. The government is realizing it is impractical to expect COTS software vendors to integrate their competing tools with each other, especially since there is virtually no demand for commercial customers to integrate competing products from various vendors. Of course COTS software vendors do integrate with other COTS tools based on market demand. As the JIE operational use cases have evolved so far, it is clear that the manufacturers of COTS information technology management tools must support robust applied programming interfaces (APIs) so that appropriate data easily can be moved both up and down the chain of command.

Tactical units have different information technology equipment and tools depending on their roles. They can be highly mobile, often assigned to different units, and when they are connected, need to provide a higher-level view to higher echelons for situational awareness to ensure units are functioning and assets are usable for missions. Many of these network environments are extremely complex, with low-level continuous monitoring tools keeping tabs on and making changes to the networks. At higher levels—four or five deep in particularly complex networks—summary data needs to be aggregated and displayed for senior leadership.

This trend is already influencing military acquisitions and standardization, but is still in the early stages. An integrated framework that lets monitoring and management technology be replaced easily over time, but also integrates well to import and export data, would give senior military leadership a high-level view of NetOps while taking advantage of new COTS tools to maintain the information advantage.

Keeping communication lines clear and connected

In the not-so-distant past, U.S. military forces relied on relatively simplistic tools to communicate with soldiers in the field—from two-way radios to semaphore and signal flares. But with inevitable technological advancements, and the need for an increasingly global military reach, simplicity in communications has quickly become a thing of the past. With today’s technologies, warfighters in theater can remain in constant contact with command. However, advanced communications can come with advanced problems. Thanks to highly portable, self-contained local area networks, connectivity is there for the warfighter, but real-time communications might not be. When a critical network link is over capacity (usually the wide area network link), data packets will be dropped during the wait for transmission, and—depending on which data packets are dropped—can lead to corrupted intelligence or data that is lost completely.

Warfighters in theater tell their networks how to prioritize data. To gain this capability, quality of service (QoS) can be implemented on routers that will make these crucial decisions. On some network devices, enabling QoS is as simple as flipping a softswitch or checking a few options on a user interface. However, some hardware requires fairly complex commands, a skill not typically found in deployed companies. With this in mind, it’s important for U.S. forces to have configuration tools that can manage these complex tasks through automating QoS setup.

Two-way communications

Ultimately, it’s no longer about warfighters being in touch with commanders—that’s a given in today’s military. Instead, the onus is on providing actionable intelligence. This new necessity makes the management of communications networks a priority for the modern warfighter, whether it’s controlling bandwidth for high definition drone feeds, getting critical data through the lines or just ensuring that commanding officers can have a conference call without dropped calls.

Chris LaPoint is vice president of product management at SolarWinds, an information technology management software provider based in Austin, Texas. 

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