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When Warfighter Networks Go Dark

June 2012
By George I. Seffers, SIGNAL Magazine
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Soldiers from the 4th Sustainment Brigade use the largest ground vehicles in the U.S. Army’s Transportation Corps to haul an M1A2 Abrams Tank. The unit experienced severe network disruptions during the drawdown in Iraq.

Signal officers offer advice gleaned from a chaotic drawdown in Iraq.

The military network that broke new ground serving U.S. units in Iraq also generated lessons in how to take down a network at the end of operations. For some U.S. Army network experts, those lessons include how not to transition a network during a theater exit.

As combat operations in Iraq drew to a close late last year, the strategic-level network that units had depended on for eight years had to come down. Forces across the country were transitioned instead to the tactical network. But signal officers on the ground say that poor prior planning resulted in near chaos with some units left disconnected and in the dark during dangerous operations. To avoid similar networking failures in the future, they suggest several remedies, including early planning for the network shutdown; providing sustainment units a more robust tactical networking capability; and reducing the Army’s reliance on contract workers, who are prone to quit too soon.

“With the drawdown came the collapse of the operational backbone that many of the units in place relied on,” says Maj. Dan Walker, USA, the S-6 communications officer for the 4th Sustainment Brigade (4SB), Fort Hood, Texas. “At the tail end of the deployment, this caused almost chaos as the network across the theater fell apart, slowing down supplies and, in effect, putting soldiers at risk because of no command and control in a dangerous situation.”

The 4SB is responsible for planning, coordinating and synchronizing combat service support within an assigned area of responsibility. The unit provides command and control for all assigned or attached battalions and other units to sustain combat or disaster relief operations. As combat units packed up and went home, the 4SB “Wranglers” swung into action. “In this case, our mission was unique because we assumed responsibility for the entire retrograde of all the equipment in the theater of Iraq,” explains Chief Warrant Officer 2 Shawn Petermann, USA, the brigade’s information systems technician responsible for local area networking. “I think you could characterize our mission as the cornerstone of this drawdown during the end of operations in Iraq.”

The unit continually ran supplies in and out of every forward operating base and every contingency operating base in theater, and it also moved equipment from those bases out of Iraq. The unit’s workload increased every day as the December transition back to Iraqi governance drew closer. And it remained heavily reliant on data, voice and video assets until the very end.

The United States Forces–Iraq (USF-I) strategic network was, at one time, the second largest network deployed by the U.S. Defense Department. It connected thousands of devices and served hundreds of thousands of users. It was centered at the Victory Base Complex near Baghdad International Airport. Deployed forces were so dependent on the vast system that the Army delayed dismantling it until the last possible moment. “They were very scared to bring this thing down,” Maj. Walker says. He adds that the decision kept getting “pushed to the right” until it could be put off no longer.

Planning to bring down the strategic network did not begin in earnest until eight months before the proverbial switch was turned off. “The network grew into this monster, and nobody knew how to scale it down, slim it down, move it somewhere else and then eventually shut it down,” says Chief Warrant Officer Petermann. “We rely heavily on data. Everything we do is one binary bit or another. But when we arrived in February, there was very little discussion about what was going to happen over the next 10 months. It wasn’t until May that USF-I brought everybody to the table and started discussing how we’re going to draw down services.”

The Army debated for months how best to transition to the tactical network. Options included connecting through either the 36th or 21st Infantry Divisions, each of which controlled different regions of the country. Eventually, the mobile technical control facility (MTCF) at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, was designated the central hub—but that facility did not even open until after the network at Victory Base already had been dismantled. “Ideally, you would have wanted at least three or four months of overlap, giving the MTCF time to adjust, time to bring in all of the links. But instead, some units were completely in the dark at times. A lot of units had several days of no connectivity,” Maj. Walker reveals.

Combat units were included among those left in the dark, but the hardest hit were the nondivisional forces, including the 219th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, which is an Indiana Army National Guard unit. “A domino effect on networks across Iraq occurred on the day the lights went out at Victory Base. The transition was pushed forward before the engineer team was ready. Systems that should have been tested and engineered months prior were tested and engineered literally as brigades across [the theater] transitioned,” Maj. Walker says.

The major and his team recommend planning for the eventual shutdown as the network expands. “Eight months before you leave theater isn’t when you plan how you’re going to shut down the network. It has to start two or three years out. The best approach would be to incorporate your drawdown into your network design as you expand. You plan your way out at the same time you’re growing the network,” Maj. Walker suggests.

A last-minute exodus of contractor expertise exacerbated the havoc. In fact, at one point, only one “stressed out” warrant officer was manning the network at the MTCF, according to the 4SB officials. “At this critical time when all the contractors realized there would be no extension of the Iraq mission, they all just up and quit and moved to Afghanistan. Contractors have their purpose, but at the end of the day, they are hired guns. U.S. soldiers are in it until the mission is done,” Maj. Davis argues, emphasizing a need to reduce the Army’s dependence on contractors.

Wrangler Brigade officials compare the network blackouts to shutting off all of the power in the state of Texas. While some larger towns and cities might be able to provide their own power, others will suffer extended blackouts. But in Iraq, lives were on the line.

 

A soldier from the 528th Sustainment Brigade (Special Operations) (Airborne) jumps from a C-212 CASA aircraft. Some Army officials contend that sustainment units should be provided enough tactical command, control and communications equipment to be self-reliant on the battlefield.

“When they transitioned the core hub node down to the MTCF at Arifjan, we went through a 72-hour period of turmoil on the network,” relates Chief Warrant Officer Petermann. “That posed for us a lack of access to the Command Post of the Future database and other intelligence reporting databases and a lack of access to UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] feeds. At that point, our intel guys, our battle captains, all of our transportation folks could not accurately analyze the enemy threat, route conditions, improvised explosive device emplacements or anything that would impact the mission. They lost visibility of what was going on in theater.”

Divisional units were not hit as hard because they carry into battle enough tactical networking equipment to be self-reliant. Nondivisional units, however, have grown dependent on the strategic network. The deployment in Iraq demonstrated the drawbacks of that dependence. “They were not prepared for us to hit the ground, and they had no plan for us to come into the network,” says Chief Warrant Officer 2 Daryl Merrick, USA, 4SB network technician responsible for wide area networking.

The three 4SB officials argue that the blackouts largely could have been avoided if sustainment brigades and other nondivisional units were given tactical command, control and communications capabilities similar to their divisional counterparts. The 4SB is authorized one Joint Network Node (JNN) and two Command Post Nodes (CPN), but they currently own only one JNN and one CPN. The JNN provides voice, video and data communications tools for a brigade-size unit. A CPN is for battalion-size units.

Repeated requests for the additional CPNs were denied by U.S. Army Forces Command (FORSCOM), according to the 4SB officials. In addition, FORSCOM initially told the unit to leave its JNN and CPN behind, they say. “Even though we tried to rattle the cage as much as possible, we were denied that second CPN,” Maj. Walker says. “Even as we were going into Iraq, we had to fight FORSCOM just to go in with the equipment that we had. We fought that.” He reports that the unit’s leadership “argued very heavily” and “pulled every string that they could to ensure that we were able to bring in our equipment.” A spokesman for FORSCOM was unable to verify the disagreement.

Because the 4SB ultimately prevailed in that argument, the 4SB officials say, they were able to combine their assets with a CPN provided by a National Guard unit attached to them and reduce the disruptions to some degree. Other units that complied with FORSCOM’s wishes and left their equipment behind were not as fortunate. “We were one of the lucky ones,” Maj. Walker says.

He adds that he does not recall being given a reason for the denials, but he has a theory. “I think their logic was that we are a sustainment brigade and there was a strategic network in place, so we don’t need the equipment,” he says.

Given enough tactical networking technology to be self-reliant and to provide services to the various active duty, Reserve and National Guard forces assigned to them, the 4SB could have fired up its own tactical network before the strategic network was dismantled, the officials argue. That would have provided time for it to work out any issues with its own network and ultimately avoid the blackouts. “The solution was simple in our eyes from the foxhole. It was to bring our systems online running parallel to the strategic network and provide time to transition. Unfortunately, the powers that be didn’t see that as a priority,” Maj. Walker says.

The trio explains that they want to alert others in order to prevent future havoc, particularly in Afghanistan where the withdrawal of troops is scheduled for 2014. “I just want to make sure it never happens again,” says Chief Warrant Officer Merrick.

WEB RESOURCES
United States Forces–Iraq: www.usf-iraq.com/
4th Sustainment Brigade: www.hood.army.mil/4sus/
Joint Network Node: www.signal.army.mil/ocos/ac/Edition,%20Fall/Fall%2005.pdf