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Army, Air Force Merge Instant Messaging Systems

June 2004
By Henry S. Kenyon

Effort allows joint communications, coordination and information  sharing.

U.S. military personnel across all armed services soon may be able to share information quickly with the click of a mouse. A pilot program is using a software-based gateway to connect U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force networks in a single instant messaging system. The program planners seek to enhance communications for training and combat operations.

Instant messaging has become popular with military users because of its immediacy and low bandwidth consumption. Because the application permits real-time communications when compared with the delays that e-mail can encounter, instant messaging systems have become an important tool for conducting business for military personnel. However, while instant messaging is available on individual military networks, it is often impossible for one service to contact another with the application.

If successful, the Army/Air Force interdomain messaging pilot program will connect all of the U.S. Defense Department’s service branches into a federation of instant messaging systems. The key tool for achieving this objective is a gateway software application developed by Bantu Incorporated, Washington, D.C., that permits cross-network communications.

Launched in April, the interdomain messaging capability enables the services to select the amount of access individuals have to personnel in other service branches. Because user policy is set at the administrative level, the software can permit individuals or groups to access the wider network, or it can restrict messaging to specific mission-oriented domains, explains Larry Schlang, president of Bantu. For example, it may be inappropriate to permit a U.S. Navy seaman to have access to an Army general’s instant messaging address unless there is a mission-specific requirement for it, he explains.

Besides allowing cross-service communication, interdomain messaging software can create temporary user groups, chat rooms and public forums for specific operations. Once the mission is complete, these venues can be quickly shut down. Schlang notes that such an event recently took place in the homeland security arena. The event required multiple agencies and groups within them to mobilize and collaborate quickly in ad hoc groups. “Let’s say that a multiagency operation or team is working for a period of months. You can build it up, put it in place and take it right down. It’s very easy to do that,” he says.

The interservice gateway also will promote tighter coordination and integration between warfighters, explains Lt. Col. Joseph Besselman, USAF, program director for the Global Combat Support System and the U.S. Air Force Portal, Hanscom Air Force Base, Massachusetts. This is important because of the U.S. military’s emphasis on joint operations, planning and training.

Although the pilot program currently focuses on the Army and the Air Force, the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Navy also house Bantu’s instant messaging system on their portals. While no formal agreement had been reached in the spring, Col. Besselman notes that the service portal program managers had informally agreed to begin by connecting the Army and the Air Force, followed by the Marine Corps and the Navy as the effort evolves. The immediate goal for the services is to develop an interdomain messaging policy. Although the pilot has an interim authority to operate, work is still underway to coordinate the system’s use by both services.

Once the new gateway is up, the Air Force will promote its services, especially to deployed personnel, Col. Besselman shares. He notes that the original Air Force gateway, established for operation Iraqi Freedom, was designed to permit servicemen and women to keep in touch with their families. The colonel describes how one airman used instant messaging via the gateway to make sure his children arrived home from school safely because their mother works. “He could contact his kids directly. You can’t put a price on the peace of mind that gave him,” he says. The Air Force gateway had shut off its family communications feature, but it was reactivated in May.

The gateway’s main use is between groups of users with specific duties. Col. Besselman notes that instant messaging is still the only way some units can coordinate operations. Air Force logistics teams deployed across Southwest Asia use instant messaging to coordinate the movement of supplies in and out of theater. “Most of them didn’t have telephones, and they had no way to coordinate. What they ended up doing was setting up a chat room and having meetings at set times to coordinate the movement of [aircraft] parts,” the colonel says.

Another advantage of Bantu’s enterprise instant messaging software is that users can make documents of a discussion and attach them in an e-mail to personnel unable to attend the meeting. This capability allows the creation of documentation for any agreements or policies made during a virtual meeting, Col. Besselman explains.

The Army/Air Force interdomain messaging gateway includes a security feature that masks military users from identification. Personnel accessing the Internet from the nonsecure Internet protocol router network do not appear as Defense Department users on commercial networks but as America Online or Yahoo subscribers. This feature allows military personnel to contact their families and visit commercial sites, but it prevents individuals not affiliated with the Defense Department from accessing or viewing the government network.

Already in use with Army, Navy and Air Force portals, the instant messaging application has three primary features: security, presence and alerts. The software is installed on various Defense Department classified and nonclassified gateway applications and features    128-bit-secure-socket-layer encryption. System administrators control user certificates by outlining those groups and individuals a user is cleared to communicate with and providing additional security through secure single sign-in and user authentication. The application also features rules-based enterprise-level and user privacy controls compatible with firewalls and proxy servers, and its message logging function integrates into current security and compliance systems.

Presence management allows users to know when another person is online. Each user has a contact list, and when a person on the list is online, the name is illuminated. Additional features let users know when people are offline or idle.

The presence management tool enables users to contact people who are not on their list. For example, a sailor who needs a part for a turbine can use the application to bring up a list of Navy depots around the world and all the related information about those facilities, such as their locations and contact personnel. Once the sailor finds an appropriate depot closest to his or her location, the sailor can check whether the contact person is online and send an instant message about the part. “You’ve increased your collaboration and your productivity, speeded up your time to resolution, saved time and money and, in some situations, potentially saved lives,” Schlang says.

The alert feature integrates notifications from third-party software through an application programming interface (API). Schlang explains that Bantu uses a suite of APIs to leverage the messaging service across a range of software. The alert function allows users, such as troops managing networks, to know about certain types of events such as hacking or denial of service attacks.

If a situation such as a network infiltration occurs, the alert feature notifies all individuals responsible for that system. The software uses a series of interactive options instead of a simple warning sentence. It may instead give recipients a choice of clicking to a link for more information or shutting down the server. Another feature is the capability to launch a conference with other system administrators automatically. “It’s the ability to send out targeted, immediate alert notifications of emergencies, time-sensitive events or problems to the specific people that need to know and to provide them with the tools to act on those events,” he says.

A major reason the Air Force selected Bantu is that it is already successfully in use with the Army. Some 1.7 million subscribers can access the instant messaging capability through the service’s gateway, explains Lt. Col. Kenneth Blakely, USA, director for U.S. Army Knowledge Online, Fort Belvoir, Virginia. The colonel boasts that the application has 100 percent penetration with active duty personnel through the Army gateway. “We provide the ability for any soldier in the Army to be able to communicate instantaneously with any other soldier,” he says.

A key advantage of Bantu’s software is that it resides on a single server and can be centrally controlled, unlike client-based commercial instant messaging systems. This is important for troops in the field because military system administrators will not permit access to commercial applications that must be downloaded from the client. The colonel adds that Bantu software can open and access tools and programs by America Online and Yahoo, but for security reasons, the Army has chosen not to provide this access.

Col. Blakely is enthusiastic about the application’s use among deployed troops, who can either download Bantu’s instant messaging software from a Defense Department server or have it pre-installed on their equipment. The JAVA-based software enables it to operate on a variety of systems while using very little bandwidth, making it a popular application at forward bases. The colonel notes that Bantu’s JAVA-based capability is very fast, allowing instant messaging via satellite links—the main form of connectivity for Army units in Iraq.

Noting the potential of interdomain messaging, Col. Blakely says that the Bantu-based system will be key to rolling out a variety of collaborative services across the Army gateway in the next six months. “We really want to leverage Army Knowledge Online to become the collaborative platform for the Army, so that anybody can use applications like instant messaging, chat, virtual meeting rooms and video chatting. We want to make that available to the soldier with Army Knowledge Online, like we’re doing now, at zero cost and bandwidth utilization,” he adds.

With time, the pilot program may grow into a wider effort encompassing more than just the services. Col. Blakely predicts that in the future there may not be individual portals but rather a single unified Defense Department Knowledge Online system. “We’d like to be on the leading edge of setting that up,” he says.

 

Additional information on Bantu Incorporated, U.S. Army Knowledge Online and the Air Force Portal is available on the World Wide Web at http://www.bantu.com, http://www.us.army.mil/portal and http://www.my.af.mil/gcss-af.