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Innovation, Diversification Define CENTCOM Communications

November 2007
By Rita Boland and Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

 
A U.S. Air Force MQ-1B Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) takes off on patrol from Balad Air Base, Iraq. Not only do UAVs provide vital intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions over Iraq, they also may be called on to provide airborne communications links among forces throughout the region.
New battlefield capabilities are laying the groundwork for big-ticket programs.

The U.S. Central Command is juggling new technologies with new missions amid joint and coalition environments as it fights adversaries that change tactics quicker than the command can upgrade equipment. Many of the command’s communication and information system requirements mirror those of other U.S. commands. However, the acid test of combat is highlighting capabilities and drawbacks of many new tactical systems in ways that could change long-range planning for defensewide communications.

The Central Command (CENTCOM) is emphasizing reaching out to the tactical edge and providing a robust and efficient information reach-back capability. “The guys out there on the tactical edge need the data,” declares Brig. Gen. Mark Bowman, USA, director of command, control, communications and computer (C4) systems (J-6), CENTCOM. “They’ve got to reach back; and they’ve got to be able to get it; and it’s got to be timely and dependable.”

C4 affects every aspect of tactical operations, the general declares. It is a critical enabler of command and control (C2), of combat support and of force protection. To succeed in a military operation, forces must be able to move, shoot and communicate, he emphasizes. And, the three must be coordinated. “You can’t effectively or efficiently move or shoot if you can’t talk,” he points out. “Communications is the enabler for shooting and moving.”

Gen. Bowman explains that his command’s path forward aims at joint, achievable, complementary systems and architectures to national strategic guidance. This translates to a joint C2 network in the CENTCOM area of responsibility (AOR) that is ubiquitous.

No single technology solution exists for meeting CENTCOM communications needs down to the tactical edge. Radio over Internet protocol (IP) router network (RIPRNET) technology has proved to be important for convoy C2, the general notes, but RIPRNET is not the last word in communications. The warfighter must be able to tap a number of different means of communications both to suit varying requirements and to be able to maintain connectivity when one particular communications medium is down.

So, CENTCOM aggressively is pursing a variety of existing and new technologies to provide ubiquitous coverage for remotely dispersed forces, especially in the first tactical mile. High on the list are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), air platforms and dirigibles as airborne radio relay systems. The command also is working with the U.S. Marine Corps on netted Iridium satellite connectivity, and the general offers that this capability may even be tied into the RIPRNET.

Joint network operation is another key technology area. The general allows that CENTCOM is pursuing an integrated network management capability that includes the appropriate governance to provide “a unified and tailorable integrated view across our theater and the Defense Department.” Having joint requirements along with new and emerging technologies makes CENTCOM well-positioned to lead the U.S. Defense Department in achieving this integrated view, Gen. Bowman declares.

The command continuously evaluates the size and scope of its network resources, he adds. This helps CENTCOM scale its communications infrastructure for ongoing missions. But the command also must anticipate future missions and ensure that its network infrastructure is well-positioned for the next event.

Joint regional services receive strong emphasis. CENTCOM will be hosting Defense Knowledge Online (DKO) forward in Bahrain. Based on Army Knowledge Online, DKO will provide added capability to CENTCOM’s Navy elements with its forward posting. CENTCOM is working closely with the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) on Net-Centric Enterprise Services (NCES) Button One and Button Two, which are the two collaboration tools that DISA has placed on the Web for defensewide users.

Regional messaging is addressed by the Automated Message Handling System, or AMHS. Gen. Bowman explains that the AMHS is the only record message traffic capability the command has at hand. A regional secret releasable demilitarized zone also allows sharing information with allies.

Not all of the CENTCOM J-6 pursuits involve communications. Biometrics is vital for identifying friends and enemies. This involves recognition technologies such as fingerprints, handprints and retinal scans. Being able to incorporate this type of security, particularly for base access, helps identify and track threats, and it is crucial for combating the threat that CENTCOM faces in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Gen. Bowman offers.

Another exciting technology cited by the general is one box, one wire technology—OB-1. It provides multiple levels of security over the same interface. It represents a consolidation of classification domains on one desktop over one wire using separation technologies similar to those of the F-22 Raptor fighter aircraft, the general relates.

And, as with many unified commands, CENTCOM is working to collapse its infrastructure. The command is looking at thin client approaches, the general shares, which will permit increased security and reduced humanpower requirements. It will be the best use of dwindling resources, he adds, which will be especially important when supplemental funding dries up.

Warfighters have seen many improvements over the past six years, Gen. Bowman reports. Bandwidth has increased more than 160-fold from 47 megabytes to 7.7 gigabytes. Among the initiatives that are working well for CENTCOM is everything over IP (EoIP) and the RIPRNET, which is providing coverage from Kuwait into Iraq. It has been expanded with towers lining main and alternate supply routes, he adds.

Coalition information sharing is working well. The command is using the Combined Enterprise Regional Information Exchange System (CENTRIXS) for data sharing to support command coalition networks. Two elements—Multinational Force–Iraq (MNFI) and the Global Counterterrorism Task Force (GCTF)—allow CENTCOM and the coalition to share intelligence and C2 mission information in secure environments. However, they are cumbersome for the user and hard to maintain and sustain, the general says. It is becoming increasingly difficult to scale these systems financially, logistically and operationally in physically separate networks.

CENTCOM wants to improve its information sharing ability so that it can be extended to federal agencies, nongovernmental organizations and coalition partners. But it must address the risk tradeoff between need-to-share and need-to-protect. “My own belief is that we aren’t appropriately assessing the risk to mission accomplishment by not sharing,” Gen. Bowman offers.

And, of course, satellite communications have grown, and not without complications. “It’s astronomical how much satellite communications we have over in our AOR,” the general declares. These include time division multiple access (TDMA) and demand assigned multiple access (DAMA). While these systems are working well technically, the general admits that “it is difficult to manage their unbridled proliferation. Every time you turn around, someone has come out to bring out a VSAT [very small aperture terminal] or some other thing that rides over satellite into our AOR.” The transition to the wideband global satellite communications system also will entail a significant change for the theater.

“So we’re still somewhat challenged to achieve full situational awareness across all the transport in our theater,” he declares.

Commercialization has been a huge success in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Replacing tactical military communications sites with commercial equipment began early in Afghanistan, and CENTCOM has been working with the services to free soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines from fixed sites so that they can engage in other tactical missions.

 
A staff sergeant communicates with ground troops during an exercise in the CENTCOM area of responsibility. A main thrust of CENTCOM J-6 activities is to extend communications down to the tactical edge with full reach-back capability.
Gen. Bowman describes all of the communicators in CENTCOM as “amazingly innovative, agile and mission focused. They take what they have and what they’re given, and they adapt new technologies and rapidly integrate those capabilities into the fight,” he declares. Innovation examples include the use of voice over IP (VoIP) and voice over secure IP, RIPRNET, IP accelerators and performance optimization tools. Field communicators are adapting these tools and putting them into operation in amazing ways, he adds.

“The people doing the mission have become de facto operational integrators,” the general continues. “They bring us the picture of what’s going on within the realm of the possible, and it may be showing us the picture of what the future GIG [Global Information Grid] is going to look like.”

But the general sees several areas that need improvement. The ultimate goal is to have persistent, immediate and reliable communications throughout the entire AOR, he says.

Standardized tool suites will allow communicators to monitor the health of networks and applications from the foxhole all the way up to the Joint Task Force for Global Network Operations. For the near term, CENTCOM will continue to build on a comprehensive information assurance approach that includes cyber domain defense. But the command would like to evolve to a sophisticated anomaly detection capability so that it could detect even the slightest probes on its network.

Even though bandwidth capabilities have improved, using bandwidth effectively remains a challenge. Gen. Bowman cites the need for better application performance in a bandwidth-constrained environment. Systems should be designed from the start to be able to operate under bandwidth constraints. “We ought to run them in a bandwidth-constrained environment first, as opposed to running them in the Beltway or running them just over fiber,” he emphasizes.

The command also needs a more seamless information sharing capability. “There must be something easier than deploying yet another network to hook up two guys to share information,” the general suggests.

And, CENTCOM needs better near-real-time spectrum tools for situational awareness. This would permit spectrum to be managed and deconflicted based on command priorities. “There is only so much spectrum out there, and it must be shared among all of the users—host nations, our military forces. There is no more spectrum to be had, and we have to figure out how to operate within it and manage it correctly,” he declares.

Industry can help by continuing to develop technologies along the lines of its competitive advantages, Gen. Bowman offers. “When it does that, we end up with better, faster, cheaper, smaller, lighter technology,” he says. Miniaturization in particular is necessary for dismounted warfighters who need smaller and lighter equipment. Sustaining an operation may depend on smaller and better batteries and smaller and more powerful computers. Reducing the equipment footprint can lead to innovative combinations of devices, he notes.

Putting multiple computing sources on one platform—virtualization—will improve force efficiency. A related need is for agile and flexible transports to support C2 on the move. This goes beyond moving between forward operating bases: Gen. Bowman wants C2 on the move globally.

For information sharing, the general wants effective separation technology. This constitutes an agile framework that leverages cryptographic and logical separation of information based on smart tagging and need-to-know access. Another information sharing need is for a robust identity management framework for both users and devices on the network. The general places this requirement under battlefield identity dominance in the insurgent/terrorist environment. For forces on the move, a system similar to electronic highway toll tags would provide identification for military personnel.

Above all, establishing standards permits more rapid incorporation of advanced technologies. “The quicker we come to an industry standard or an international standard, the quicker we can adapt that technology within the Defense Department,” Gen. Bowman declares, citing VoIP as an example. “When industry moves from proprietary standards to a broader standard such as assured services or session invitation protocol, then the quicker we can leverage that in a multivendor environment and deploy the technologies across the Defense Department.

“Now that’s a stretch goal—a huge goal,” he continues. “In the competitive environment of industry, sometimes there’s a reason to have proprietary material. But the quicker it gets established as a standard, the quicker we can move it down and have fewer systems out there.”

This brings up the need for a more rapid acquisition process. The existing process is slow and deliberate, rife with checks and balances, Gen. Bowman points out. But it takes far too long for equipment to move to the field—five years at least. Moore’s Law states that computing technology moves up one generation every 18 months, but Gen. Bowman submits that change is coming even more frequently. Even based on an 18-month cycle, five years is 3.3 times as slow as is needed.

But even the quick reaction effort that moves technology immediately into the field has its drawbacks. Rapidly deployed gear often lacks a sustainment tail, the general says, and it ultimately ends up burdening troops in the field. He prefers a system that falls somewhere in between these two alternatives—something that obeys acquisition rules but still fields vital equipment quickly.

Information sharing policy also needs reform. Gen. Bowman is calling for a more flexible national policy and corresponding architecture to allow the military to create, process, store and distribute information once. That information would be accessed only by those with a need to know.

This technology wish list is built around jointness. “How important is jointness and interoperability to mission success? It’s absolutely critical,” the general declares. “This is a joint fight, and we’re in it as a joint command.

“In our AOR, we have an unbelievable benefit that other folks don’t,” he warrants. “We work every second of every day with our sister services and other joint activities and agencies. In no other AOR are you going to find the Air Force guys talking to the Army guys talking to the Navy guys talking to the Marines about missions that are actually happening every day—it’s not like an exercise that is going to happen two weeks from now.”

“We have things that we have to work together to accomplish our mission. It’s a wonderful environment for joint collaboration.”

This extends to international participants as well. Gen. Bowman relates how U.S. Army tactical communicators may find themselves laying wires in concrete-encased conduits to install a fixed communications system for the first time in their Army careers. They might be working with Italian or Polish engineers who, despite no understanding of the English language, still are able to do their part on specification and on time. A Canadian cable platoon might appear and join forces with the U.S. communicators in a matter of hours to provide essential assistance. Gen. Bowman cited one case in which cabling arrived with a European color coding that was unfamiliar to the installers on site. That night, a Canadian soldier awoke with a burst of intuition that solved the color coding mystery.

“Coalition works. Joint and combined interoperability works. Both of them are critical to our success in the future. We will never fight again as an army, as an air force, as a navy and as Marines. We will fight joint, and we will fight coalition,” he states.

Web Resources
U.S. Central Command: www.centcom.mil
DISA Net-Centric Enterprise Services: www.disa.mil/nces/index.html
Multinational Force–Iraq: www.mnf-iraq.com