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France Joins Afghan Mission Network

May 13, 2011
By George I. Seffers, SIGNAL Online Exclusive
E-mail About the Author

Other nations lined up to connect to history’s most expansive combat network.

On Sunday, France became the fifth nation to officially join the Afghan Mission Network, the system used by NATO nations and coalition forces to conduct warfighting operations in Afghanistan. France now will be able to fully share information with other nations, including such data as human intelligence and full-motion video.

Norway and Germany are both well on their way to joining the Afghan Mission Network (AMN), and the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic, Poland and Spain all have taken initial steps to do so. In addition, Austria has begun discussions with the United States to piggyback on the Combined Enterprise Regional Information Exchange System (CENTRIXS), the U.S. portion of the AMN.

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Secret Network provided by the NATO Consultation, Command and Control Agency is the heart of the AMN. It is connected via six network interconnection points to CENTRIXS and to the networks contributed by Italy, the United Kingdom and Canada. The network already has roughly 90,000 users, according to Col. Derek Orndorff, USA, the communications director for the ISAF Joint Command in Kabul, Afghanistan. “When I got here in July, we had about 40,000 users, so we’ve more than doubled the amount, and we’ve probably tripled the amount of objects on the network, to tell you the truth,” Col. Orndorff reports. He adds that CENTRIXS is the fastest growing portion of the network, and the United Kingdom’s Overtask recently has started growing because it is being made available at lower levels within the British chain of command. “We’re constantly pushing this network further and further down as time allows,” the colonel says. 

With the network rapidly expanding and more nations eager to connect, Col. Orndorff’s team has helped create a governing process that countries must go through to join, which includes a security check of the nation’s network. It is that governance process that France now has completed.

According to Lt. Col. Joseph Hilfiker, USA, communications director for Regional Command-East, France will be a welcome addition to the AMN because every workstation on the French network should be able to access AMN data. Before France officially joined the network, U.S. forces in the region were able to provide limited AMN connectivity to their French counterparts. The United States extended CENTRIXS to French tactical operations centers with embedded U.S. forces, for example, but French units without U.S. troops attached were largely left without access. “If you can’t communicate effectively and seamlessly, it builds barriers between coalition partners. We allow coalition partners to use CENTRIXS. We will share that with our French partners or other coalition partners to enable and maximize communications,” Col. Hilfiker states. 

The AMN was created to promote data sharing at the secret level among myriad nations and a complex array of systems, Col. Orndorff explains. “We have the NATO nations—28 of them—and ISAF is now 48 nations. Then we have the global terrorism force, which is more than 90 nations. Then we had all these different networks out there, and all these different battle command systems. There were 42 of them that we defined as absolutely critical to the fight—42 systems out of the hundreds out there,” Col. Orndorff says.

To add to the complexity, the various nations were using an array of systems for viewing the data, so not everyone was receiving the same picture of the battlefield situation. “I told my guys it doesn’t matter where data comes in or what viewer they’re looking at, but one spot had better be the same—on the same map, moving at the same speed, same azimuth, same altitude every time. This is a zero-fail process,” Col. Orndorff asserts. 

While the common perception is that battlefield systems provide information about friendly and enemy forces—so called blue and red forces—Orndorff reveals that in Afghanistan, it may be the green and white icons on the screen that make the real difference. Green is the color for the Afghanistan government and security forces, while white represents the local population centers. “We’re trying to separate the red and the white, the insurgents from the population, and insert the green between them, which is the Afghan government and the security forces,” Col. Orndorff points out. “That information is not in the normal, everyday battle command systems that we just pull off the shelf. This is all stuff that is created from the bottom up, from the guys who are on patrol walking around in the bazaars, who had a key leader engagement with an elder in a village. That information has to get into the system in ways that we’ve never done it before. We’ve been getting after that here in Afghanistan.”

One way of providing access to that information has been to add a wiki capability to the AMN that allows tip-of-the-spear forces to share vital human intelligence at all levels. By clicking on a particular city or region, for example, a commander can research local leaders, based on impressions and information provided by personnel who have had first-hand encounters. 

Because Regional Command-East includes some of Afghanistan’s most rugged mountainous terrain and shares an extensive border with Pakistan, forces there arguably conduct more dismounted patrols than those in other regions, according to Col. Hilfiker. Now France will be better able to maximize data gathered on those patrols. “If you want to maximize everybody’s contributions to the coalition network, everybody’s gotta be able to talk. It’s got to be seamless and simple. The French brigade can’t be any different from an American brigade in terms of functionality and capability. This is a huge step forward,” he says.