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British Warfighters Exploit Network Centricity

September 2003
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

Interoperability challenges; information empowers.

Communications experts in the United Kingdom’s Iraq War forces have paved the way for that country’s force transformation. The information networks that they established to serve British forces during the war both exploited a host of new solutions and exposed a range of challenges. Many of the lessons learned in that conflict are being applied to develop a new network-centric British military.

The Iraq War provided a fertile field for U.K. communicators to explore new network-centric technologies and applications. Some of these efforts were driven by the need to interoperate with vital U.S. command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I) systems that were rife with imagery. Others reflected long-standing differences among legacy systems that were exacerbated when taxed by the increased demands of a modern network-centric battle force.

Air Cdre. Andrew Warnes, RAF, the director of operations at the Defence Communications Services Agency, was the joint forces communications and information systems commander during operation Telic, the United Kingdom’s name for its Iraq War operations. The air commodore notes that many diverse solutions had to be applied to serve British warfighters in the rapidly changing battlespace.

“We put in place a completely untested, untried communications architecture that was fairly flaky in terms of the experience levels of the people who had to maintain and support it,” Air Cdre. Warnes allows. “It actually came together very well, despite some early difficulties.”

The air commodore draws a distinction between communications and the communications and information systems (CIS) architecture. Communications were very reliable, he says, but there were some problems with the information systems that ran on the network.

“It became quite clear early on that the assets available to us were much less than those available to the Americans,” Air Cdre. Warnes allows. For example, the British national contingent command headquarters in Qatar was receiving 4 megabits of data per second, while its U.S. equivalent received 300 megabits per second—a data rate 75 times higher. Nonetheless, the British CIS organization was considerably more advanced than anything previously established, and troops had 10 times as much available bandwidth as they did in the 1991 Gulf War. British forces in that earlier war had the capacity equivalent to six VSC-501 satellite communications terminals, while in this war they had nine times as much.

The air commodore continues that, while these capabilities did represent “a step change,” British forces still encountered difficulties in guaranteeing the robustness of their communications. This especially became apparent on several key events when forces could not afford even short-term communications outages. “Even though overall availability figures might be quite good, what our commander needs is a seamless, guaranteed delivery of communications at all times with a self-healing network—which he doesn’t have today,” Air Cdre. Warnes notes. “We couldn’t afford to miss delivery of weapons on key targets just because the communications were down, which happened to us very nearly on one or possibly two occasions.”

Much of the U.S. command and control communications traffic involved imagery that produced data-rich messages. Lacking the pipelines necessary to move these messages throughout the force, British communicators had to resort to some unsophisticated solutions, the air commodore reports. One approach, for example, was to move large amounts of data physically using CD-ROMs. Even paper made a comeback in the desert operations.

With these drawbacks, moving on targets of opportunity in as quickly as 15 minutes proved challenging. Even when U.S. assets could provide data that would interoperate with British systems, moving that information from a U.S. assessment center to its British counterpart in time to be useful could be daunting. British forces had to put in place specific information management procedures to help smooth that process, Air Cdre. Warnes allows.

“It was a mixture of using coalition systems such as XNet or using other shared high-security-level systems, or using other unsophisticated systems such as CD-ROMs from the SIPRNET [secret Internet protocol router network] and taking them across and loading them into our own equivalent command and control system,” he explains. “That was a serious challenge, and [the solution] is not as slick as it needs to be if we’re going to go to war regularly with the Americans.”

In addition to transferring the air tasking order on the coalitionwide XNet, the allies had a backup mechanism that permitted transferring the air tasking order to the Royal Air Force (RAF) command and control information system (CCIS). These orders then would be distributed throughout the RAF. Another chain passed data back to the United Kingdom for distribution to the primary joint command and control system, known as JCCS. Using these series of interoperable mechanisms allowed some information to move fairly well, Air Cdre. Warnes says, but this approach is not always applicable to newer requirements such as time-sensitive targeting and large-scale imagery transfer.

“We need to think how we are going to set up a standing coalition command and control system, or how we are going to interact with systems such as SIPRNET on which most of the American planning activities are undertaken,” he declares.

Some measures are underway to solve that problem. U.S. experts are looking for appropriate gateways between the two countries’ systems that will allow their British counterparts to plug into the U.S. data flow, the air commodore says.

When warfighting operations began, several changes needed to be made in the communications infrastructure. Air Cdre. Warnes allows that British forces did not have an appropriate joint strategic communications architecture to meet the requirements that emerged during the Iraq War. A contracted system, Cormorant, was not delivered on time. So, communicators built from scratch the Operational Systems Communication Architecture, or OSCA, to a requirement from the joint headquarters.

OSCA was designed to be deployed in a series of cabins that would be located at all strategic headquarters—national, land, air and maritime—which were not mobile facilities. Maneuver elements used VSC-501 terminals, which have lower throughput but can be mounted on Land Rovers.

However, even this plan was obsoleted quickly as the land contingent commander, who doubled as the 1 Division commander, wanted mobile connectivity to move with his forces. The OSCA cabin that supported the land contingent commander could not support him in that maneuver element. So, the communicators built a mobile OSCA (MOSCA) terminal, which was deployed within weeks. Eventually, vehicles were configured to move the original OSCA cabins around the battlefield. Air Cdre. Warnes relates that these OSCA terminals proved to be more robust than originally expected. One was moved from its forward headquarters in Kuwait, dropped deep in Iraq and brought online rapidly.

These efforts affected planning for postwar Iraq, the air commodore continues. Much of the forces’ communications and electronics gear was designed for short-term usage, but it might not be able to provide long-term support needed for an in-place network in the desert.

RAF communications worked fairly well with only a few minor glitches. Some challenges arose regarding resilience and bandwidth. The RAF did not deploy a “sufficiently robust” JCCS network, which provides much of the British command and control information. By relying instead on the RAF CCIS system, the RAF did not have good interoperability with the JCCS. Problems arose in accessing some necessary Web pages as well as in providing guaranteed delivery of      e-mail between the two systems, Air Cdre. Warnes reports. Planners are looking at reference models to determine how to improve interoperability between the two systems or even merge toward a single U.K. command and control system.

Interoperability with U.S. systems—especially the lack of it in some sections—was another area of contention. “There was a considerable degree of frustration that some of our staff did not have access to SIPRNET for understandable reasons,” the air commodore reports. “However, if you are going to embed RAF planners as part of the American planning effort, then it is clear that they need to be working from the same baseline.”

Nonetheless, the communicators largely were able to move the necessary information to the correct customers. Air Cdre. Warnes credits personnel who reconstituted systems that had gone down, especially with the land contingent forces, for much of that success. The Joint Forces CIS organization in Qatar “gelled well,” he says. And, some information management techniques that were designed from scratch just before the onset of hostilities performed well in ensuring the delivery of weapon system video and time-sensitive targeting information.

Communicators used Microsoft NetMeeting to move urgent imagery information from the theater back to the United Kingdom. Web technology became a fundamental staple in how British forces passed information “probably for the first time,” the air commodore relates. The convergence between civilian standard technologies and British military requirements increased in importance among solutions in the war.

“Generally, we didn’t fail any commander,” Air Cdre. Warnes states. “Commanders managed to get their message through one way or another at all times, even if by tortuous routes.”

Air Cdre. Warnes adds that some contingent commanders’ expectations varied widely, and this complicated C4I efforts. For example, the army tends to operate by following the last order received. If no further communications arrive, the force continues along the lines of its standing order, which might have British soldiers continuing to head north, for example. These army forces are satisfied with communications that need not be as robust as those of other services.

On the other hand, the air force tends to run on “guaranteed delivery” of air tasking orders before even launching an attack, the air commodore notes. Accordingly, “pilots cannot stand any communication outages and are therefore much more demanding customers,” he says.

Another problem was that British forces did not have some information management tools in place that they needed. These included tools that enabled the distribution of weapon system video for battle damage assessment. The air commodore allows that British forces were “struggling to provide a lot of capabilities,” that took considerable time and effort.

Having more than a month to develop the communications architecture helped solve many problems before the onset of combat. In a few cases, some communications came online just a handful of days before the fighting started.

However, British experts never were able to solve the problem of providing robust communications, Air Cdre. Warnes notes. Their solution was to rely on a series of alternative communications systems to provide the necessary resilience. However, that approach was not ideal for the commanders. As the air commodore relates, these commanders want “one guaranteed terminal on a desk that will give them all the communications that they need.” Lacking that magic terminal, communicators had to place up to six terminals to ensure that all of the force’s various systems provide the necessary robustness.

“That is a result of not having gotten full interoperability sorted out,” the air commodore continues. “We still have single-service command and control systems [and] a variety of secure voice systems. We don’t have full interoperability with the United States yet, and therefore it is very difficult to do away with the plethora of systems that exists on each individual commander’s desk, much as it might cause him frustration.”

He offers that many of these problems may be solved by plans for moving to the new Defence Information Infrastructure system. This system is designed to provide a common base infrastructure on which all the applications that are required to support a deploying commander are based.

Overall, “there wasn’t enough equipment to provide a sufficiently well-meshed network in theater,” Air Cdre. Warnes states. This was not as much of a problem in dealing with the Iraqi foe during this recent war, but the drawbacks would have been critical had the forces been in a demanding war against a sophisticated adversary.

Providing a fully robust tactical network requires many nodes with many interconnected meshes, Air Cdre. Warnes says. Instead, the Iraq War network featured many single links that could have left forces in difficult situations. This could have had dire consequences in a larger fight against a tougher enemy.

“We would have had to deploy a lot more to provide that resilient, survivable network had that been the case,” he allows. “Some of these things were held together by fairly ingenious shoestrings.”

British communicators “will have to look very hard” at their command and control structures, especially security postures, Air Cdre. Warnes declares. Different fundamental security requirements are a major cause of interoperability among British forces, he offers. Planners also must address how to link systems to get rid of legacy systems. This may involve middleware solutions that actually allow some of these older systems to be retired.

Web-enabling some old systems might permit faster setup times. Some old systems took weeks to establish circuits in theater, and a couple of systems never were linked with others throughout the entire operation.

The air commodore warns against expecting major changes on vital programs such as Bowman arising from Iraq War experiences. However, other elements such as the JCCS infrastructure, the RAF CCIS and other command and control systems will come under scrutiny. The use of collaborative tools and how it can be incorporated into existing programs will be one focus. A future effort will examine voice over Internet protocol (IP) and integration of like services.

And, planners will study how to use bandwidth more efficiently. This may involve using a smarter technology such as asynchronous transfer mode or IP to ensure better recovery from outages—a self-healing network, Air Cdre. Warnes indicates. 

Preparation Lays Groundwork for U.K. Communicators

British forces tried a new approach in establishing multiservice communications for the Iraq War, relates Air Cdre. Andrew Warnes, RAF, the U.K. joint forces communications and information systems commander in that conflict. The country’s forces are becoming increasingly joint in the way they run day-to-day business and conduct operations, but they have not had fully joint planning, implementation and network management on-site control facilities. So, for operation Telic—the United Kingdom’s code name for the Iraq War—the country held joint meetings that determined how to implement the country’s communications and information systems (CIS) solution for the war.

This was followed by the establishment of a new organization, the Joint Force Communication Information Services Organization, in Qatar to serve as the CIS adviser to the national contingent commander, Air Marshal Brian Burridge, CBE, RAF. This organization advised the commander on all CIS issues, as he had operational control of all top-level strategic CIS assets. It provided the network management function for the theater CIS assets, the day-to-day operations staff and an information management function. The organization also had a coordinating responsibility for the traditionally single-service tactical communications that served forces in theater.

“I was able to say to an army CIS commander, ‘yes, I understand that they are your organic assets; and yes, you would not ordinarily defer to a joint organization for their use; but in this case, I want you to redeploy that asset and give it to another service,’” the air commodore relates. While, in theory, he did not have the command function to do that, he did have the coordinating authority to persuade these tactical commanders to redeploy their assets.

Not all aspects of this organization focused on purely British assets. The air commodore relates that it also worked to integrate British forces into the U.S. plan. Air Cdre. Warnes relates that he worked closely with Brig. Gen. Dennis C. Moran, USA, director of command, control and communications, J-6, U.S. Central Command, (SIGNAL, July, page 31). For example, the two officers worked to ensure that when British staff were embedded into the air forces commander’s headquarters, both countries would have access to appropriate information and could use the appropriate tools. The British personnel, for example, would have access to the theater battle management core system, on which all air planning took place.