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Special Operations Forces Become Network-Centric

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

Afghanistan proves the worth of total battlefield awareness.

Network-centric warfare proved to be a key enabler for U.S. special operations forces to rout the Taliban in Afghanistan, according to a general in the U.S. Special Operations Command. These forces were empowered by shared situational awareness and robust communications that allowed them to maximize the effects of air and naval support against Taliban positions.

This new approach to special operations did not emerge overnight. The command had sown the seeds of this capability several years ago with a shift in emphasis toward battlefield situational awareness. New technologies and systems acquired over the intervening years proved their worth in the network-centric environment.

The result has been a dramatic change in the way the U.S. Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, conducts its missions. Its personnel in the field have the same training and ability to adapt to changing situations on the battlefield that has been their hallmark over the years. However, as part of the network-centric community, they now are able to tap a growing wellspring of battlefield awareness as well as link operationally with conventional forces from all the services.

Special operations forces (SOF) personnel now deploy with accurate maps, current information on the disposition of friendly and unfriendly forces in their area, and connectivity to support forces located throughout their battlespace. This new way of leveraging battlefield awareness represents the biggest change in the way SOCOM conducts its missions.

Brig. Gen. (P) James W. Parker, USA, is the director of SOCOM’s Center for Intelligence and Information Operations. He explains that the adoption of network-centric capabilities laid the groundwork for the success in Afghanistan. This not only gave SOF greater access to vital information, but also created an environment that allowed greater flexibility on the part of both SOF personnel and those equipping and supporting them.

“Network-centric warfare theory and practice came together with great effect for U.S. special operations forces fighting in Afghanistan,” Gen. Parker states.

Yet, even these successes gave SOCOM only a taste of its network-centric future. Ahead lies more work to ameliorate shortcomings exposed in the Afghanistan operations as well as to improve capabilities to an even greater degree.

When special operations forces arrived in Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001, attacks, they often found that they had the only communications assets for miles. The vast distances between units, coupled with this absence of an indigenous communications infrastructure, forced SOF units to rely heavily on their own line-of-sight and space-based systems, the general relates. He notes that the entire process of working with Northern Alliance forces was communications-intensive.

Congress aided these efforts by establishing the Defense Emergency Response Fund. SOCOM’s acquisition executive used some of this funding to fill key communications shortfalls throughout the command, Gen. Parker recounts.

He describes several communications and information systems as “big winners” for SOF in Afghanistan. The biggest success, he says, was the most sought-after system, the Thales AN/PRC-148 radio, known as the multiband inter/intra team radio, or MBITR. The 31-ounce handheld squad radio with embedded communications security was the lifeblood for dispersed team members, as it extended the operating range of the teams and proved extremely reliable in the harsh desert environment, the general offers. “A typical comment was ‘this is the best SOF communications system in years,’” he relates.

Ground-based SOF also used the multiband multimission radio, or MBMMR. This single-channel, ultrahigh frequency satellite communications radio proved highly useful for transmitting the locations of al Qaida and Taliban targets to various operations centers, which then could rapidly direct bombers and fighter aircraft to strike those targets.

Iridium handheld satellite telephones with secure sleeves also proved to be invaluable for diverse SOF units conducting split operations in the rugged mountainous terrain. Gen. Parker notes that the Defense Information Systems Agency worked closely with SOF to outfit and manage Iridium assets throughout operation Enduring Freedom. He reports that SOF liaison teams carried Iridium units during all operations with the Northern Alliance.

The rugged terrain and the wide dispersal of SOF teams increased the importance of satellite communication systems in Afghanistan. The general describes the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command’s communications team as key to SOCOM’s strategic communications during operation Enduring Freedom. “Their innovative approach to assemble small, easily transportable communications packages set the standard, and the initial communications element—ICE—was a clear winner,” he says. It gave SOF an early-entry, lightweight, multichannel satellite communications system and terminal equipment for initial communications in several undeveloped staging bases, he explains.

Commercial Inmarsat also played a large role in providing connectivity to remote locations. The SOF Deployed Node–Lite terminal, based on the M-4 Inmarsat terminal, provided secure voice and data capability to deployed SOF teams. The system comes with an Optiva server and Palladium secure modem to permit SOF users to dial into the secret Internet protocol router network, or SIPRNET.

Unexpected requirements generated surprise results. Some SOF teams operating with the Northern Alliance discovered that they needed to establish videoconferencing capabilities among the alliance’s various elements. So, SOCOM procured small, briefcase-size units that were deployed among its forces.

On the networking side, the Tactical Local Area Network (TACLAN) suite of computers, network gear and associated software was another major SOF success, the general reports. The hardware platform for the SOF mission planning and execution system, TACLAN provides commanders with a ruggedized scalable system for command and control. The 20th Special Forces Group (SFG), a National Guard unit headquartered in Alabama, was the first unit to take TACLAN into Afghanistan using SOF’s latest mission planning, coordination and collaboration tool suite, known as the SOF Digital Environment (SDE). SDE, under the management of one program manager, takes a system-of-systems approach to integrating the components of SOF’s network-centric warfare into a single cohesive program.

SDE is the key battlefield information system for deployed special operations forces, the general continues. Residing on TACLAN hardware, it provides situational awareness, collaboration and mission planning software for three networks: Unclassified, Secret and Top Secret. It also includes display hardware such as projectors and screens to view graphics and overlays. The 20th SFG staff was able to plan future missions and monitor ongoing missions from several locations using collaboration tools and software suites, including Microsoft NetMeeting and Information Work Space.

The 20th SFG used situational awareness applications such as the Automated Deep Operations Coordination System and Command and Control for Personal Computers (C2PC) to receive frequent and current unit location updates in near-real time. It used the Web Information Center (WIC), developed by the Special Operation Command–Joint Forces Command (SOCJFCOM) in Norfolk, Virginia, for sharing information using Web browsers on the SIPRNET. Units were able to access and coordinate plans, documents and briefings without e-mailing or faxing the material to all who needed it. The unit trained on SDE during exercise millennium challenge 02 in August 2002, and it took the tool suite to Afghanistan one month later.

Not all of SOCOM’s network-centric experiences in Afghanistan were ideal. For example, the situational awareness picture was not available to everyone. Gen. Parker offers that the command must deploy the capabilities brought by SDE to all of the theater special operations commands in the regional combatant commands around the world. Additionally, it must include command and control enablers of its components, such as the innovative Mission Support Center developed by Naval Special Warfare Command, which provides Web-based access to vital information for deployed SEALs (sea, air and land). All SOF elements must be interlinked as SOCOM takes on the challenges of global operations, he says.

“It remains a challenge to get the common relevant operational picture to all operators on the ground,” Gen. Parker allows. He notes that the Global Command and Control System (GCCS) populates and builds the common operational picture from several different feeds, and then it delivers this picture via the SIPRNET to many different automated systems such as GCCS–Army, GCCS–Maritime and C2PC. However, SOF operators cannot always carry desktop or notebook computers with them—especially equipment requiring SIPRNET connectivity. This is a luxury usually found at the “O5-level” tactical headquarters and higher, he says.

Part of the problem is that SOF teams must rely on low-data-rate tactical radios or mobile satellite services for their data feeds. The SDE program office is researching and developing ways to provide situational awareness down to SOF operators using wireless technology, data compression techniques and secure personal digital assistants, the general reports.

Inasmuch as network-centric warfare was a key ingredient in SOF’s success during operation Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan offered more of a promise of the advantages of network-centric warfare than an operational validation of its tenets, Gen. Parker states.

He continues that SOF needs to move beyond situational awareness to situational understanding. This will involve finding ways to collaborate across the enterprise to reach a common visualization of the battlefield and of the enemy’s intent. This visualization must reach all levels of the enterprise, the general emphasizes.

To achieve this and other changes, SOCOM plans to change its own infrastructure. Gen. Parker reports that it has set out on an ambitious program to reduce its reliance on its own command-unique garrison SCAMPI communications network and rely more heavily on the Defense Information System Network (DISN). By leveraging DISN, SOCOM seeks to optimize its infrastructure. The goal is to get off SOF-unique infrastructure at the command’s nondeploying headquarters, camps, posts and stations. It also would shift resources into strengthening the communications capabilities supporting theater special operations commands and deployed forces. The new Defense Information Systems Agency field office at SOCOM headquarters will assist greatly in achieving this goal, the general offers.

Private industry will play an important role in SOCOM’s efforts to improve its operational capabilities. For example, the general notes that the weight of the gear a SOF warfighter carries on his back today is not significantly different from the amount carried by a Roman legionnaire. “We have all seen the pictures of SOF operators on horseback and donkeys loaded down with equipment,” he says. “The warfighter needs lighter, multifunction communications equipment that has a small physical presence at the tip of the spear.”

SOF seeks several information technologies and systems from private industry. Gen. Parker cites the need for a warfighter to have ubiquitous, beyond-line-of-sight broadband communications with multilevel security, thoroughly protected. “In fact, the military needs to get to a point where there are no constraints on bandwidth—any time, anywhere around the globe,” he posits. SOF also needs long-lasting batteries, unbreakable cryptographic algorithms, interoperable secure voice telephone networks, self-healing networks, on-the-fly translating equipment and secure connectivity to coalition partners.

The general notes that SOF equipment must be able to operate in all climates and under all environmental conditions—from arctic cold to desert heat to jungle humidity. Another fact the military learned in the mountains of Afghanistan is that it needs a radio that can penetrate underground into caves. And, all radios should require little or no training to use, the general declares. SOCOM also needs radios capable of transmitting voice, data and full-motion video images in near-real time to both joint and coalition forces. “This is a difficult task to be sure, but it is where we need to go,” he states.

“Complex technologies are needed today,” he continues. “SOF needs robust information assurance tools that automatically identify, analyze and correct network and system vulnerabilities. The warfighter needs improvements in data compression techniques and multiplexing, higher throughput rates for wireless equipment and improved remotely controlled vehicles for special reconnaissance and sensor delivery.”

All of these new technologies must allow SOF to collaborate with U.S. government agencies, the military services, coalition and allied partners, and nongovernmental agencies, Gen. Parker emphasizes. This implies the need for implementing and managing enterprise systems, both in-garrison and deployed, that allow information sharing horizontally, vertically, internally and externally. He adds that implicit in this requirement is the need for open standards, interoperability, enterprise architectures and effective enterprise management tools. “Most of all, SOF needs to smartly leverage existing and forthcoming information technology to create information synergy that enhances the capabilities of commanders and warfighters,” he says.

“Without a doubt, SOCOM’s future is inextricably linked to industry’s future and the explosive growth in information technology and systems,” Gen. Parker declares.

 

Targeted Planning Lays Groundwork for Network-Centric Operations

The foundation for the success of special operations forces in Afghanistan was set years before operation Enduring Freedom, relates Brig. Gen. (P) James W. Parker, USA, director, Center for Intelligence and Information Operations, U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). The command’s leadership tasked its communicators to field a system of systems that would provide a heightened degree of shared situational awareness and knowledge for its forces. This system of systems would tap information from all the services. The goal, he describes, was to transform communications systems into weapon systems.

This led to an approach called the special operations forces (SOF) information enterprise, or SIE. Based on the tenets of network-centric warfare, SIE targeted four aims: enable robustly networked forces with improved information sharing; make shared situational awareness accessible in a collaborative environment; provide improved visualization tools that support shared understanding; and enable speed of command in executing decisions.

All of the command’s equipment modernization and information technology management programs fall under the conceptual umbrella of SIE. “The network-centric roots of SIE have changed the way SOCOM conducts its missions,” Gen. Parker declares.

The general emphasizes that a primary aspect of this approach is to avoid inundating warfighters with too much information. Instead, the goal is to bring information quickly to decision makers who, armed with collaboration tools, can reach a shared understanding of the battlespace. “In the end, leaders have more time to make critical decisions,” he warrants.