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Technology Empowers Information Operations in Afghanistan

March 2002
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

Significant bandwidth demands accompany breakthrough capabilities.

Satellite communications, Web services and imagery have come of age in the battlespace of operation Enduring Freedom. This first network-centric war has revealed an explosion in capabilities that has been matched by information demands at all levels of command.

Many of these capabilities represent the fruits of technology investments and developments begun years ago. Both military and commercial satellites are whipping digital streams of voice, data and imagery between the United States and the theater of operations, as well as among units on the battlefield. Web messaging has all but rendered the venerable pencil and map obsolete, even at the individual warfighter level. National technical assets and tactical surveillance and reconnaissance platforms provide imagery for distribution to the full range of command and control nodes.

The maturing of these technologies and capabilities has allowed the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) to establish a seamless command, control, communications, computers and intelligence network that literally runs from the White House down to the foxhole.

“Technology has allowed us to flatten the command and control structure,” states Brig. Gen. Dennis C. Moran, USA, director of command, control, communications and information systems (J-6) at CENTCOM. “The CINC [commander in chief], because of the command and control system that has evolved in support of this operation, has the ability to reach out and get information quickly from the lowest level of command.

“That has brought with it the challenge to ensure that information flows not only vertically but horizontally so that everybody knows the same thing about the same time,” he adds.

The CINC often will receive a report or a piece of information at the same time as intermediate levels of command, the general notes. As a result, the ability of intelligence specialists to collaborate quickly on a report has become more important.

Operational situation reports have both operational value and intelligence value, and CENTCOM is following existing doctrinal arrangements for linking all of its forces. Operational forces report to a command and control node, which in turn assesses the information, collates it and passes it on to higher headquarters when appropriate.

Information about the battlefield may be collected from a number of different types of sensors and platforms. Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information, whether collected by national technical means or tactical unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), is routed to a command and control node.

Some equipment in the field even allows ground-based personnel to locate a target and transmit its location data to a weapons platform for input into precision-guided munitions. This would be used by a U.S. Air Force forward air controller who would communicate directly to the aircraft.

A tremendous amount of logistical information is moving through the network. A side benefit of this is that it provides asset visibility to virtually any level of command that requires it.

“Gone are the days of faxing reports, posting information on maps or even taking down reports over the telephone,” Gen. Moran declares.

Communications in CENTCOM’s area of responsibility, which encompasses 25 countries, depend heavily on military and commercial satellites, Gen. Moran relates. To move information around the Afghanistan battlefield, planners are employing ultrahigh frequency (UHF) and super high frequency (SHF) tactical satellites as well as commercial orbiters. The general continues that these satellite links serve as the primary means of communication both from the United States into the theater of operations and from bases on the Arabian Peninsula to Afghanistan and its surrounding countries.

The prime driver behind the use of satellite communications is not the ruggedness of Afghanistan’s terrain but instead the wide dispersal of CENTCOM’s forces. Unconventional warfare forces, for example, tend to operate in remote areas independently of other forces. Widely dispersed command and control nodes rely on satellite communications because they are beyond the line-of-sight distance to their headquarters.

Communications in this operation are different from others in the amount of bandwidth being employed, the general offers. Bandwidth requirements at each command and control node are considerably higher than previously experienced. “We always had a model that said that at a higher headquarters you need a lot of information; at the next level headquarters you need a little bit less information; and when you finally get down to the people operating and actually executing, you need only a little bit of information. What we are finding is that the demand for all forms of information—voice, data, video, imagery, topographic—is great at every level of command,” he declares.

The general continues that even the smallest command and control node requires nearly the same amount of bandwidth as the larger nodes. This runs counter to previous experiences, so CENTCOM had to resort to establishing bandwidth priorities and allocations for the various information services.

Bandwidth allocation is the single biggest issue facing CENTCOM communicators in operation Enduring Freedom, Gen. Moran states. The command has not had enough bandwidth, particularly satellite, at the right place at the right time. The problem has focused mostly on the timing of having the right kinds of terminals at the right places as well as the need to sort through which communications services are most required at particular command and control nodes. Accordingly, the command has had to decide on allocating bandwidth for voice, data and video. Time sharing has been one remedy.

The great demand for UHF tactical satellite communications has required considerable prioritization, the general continues. Newer technologies that provide capabilities such as demand assigned multiple access or narrowband satellite channels have proved very useful in this endeavor, he states.

Other emerging technologies are playing a big role as well. The global broadcast system (GBS) has served as a method of distributing some of the high bandwidth products directly from the United States down to the lowest levels of command. It permits moving large data files on an as-required basis down to a command and control node. This includes both classified and unclassified material, the general notes. Part of the GBS system allows encrypted transmissions using National Security Agency-approved encryption, and the command is moving all types of information over GBS except voice transmissions. This encompasses Internet protocol (IP) traffic, video and large data files. GBS has been deployed ahead of its initial operational capability to several headquarters both on the Arabian Peninsula and in the Afghanistan region.

The command is moving considerably more imagery than it expected, the general reports. This includes imagery generated from national technical means as well as theater-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems. Some imagery is exploited within theater, while other imagery is sent back to the United States for storage and redistribution to the appropriate users.

“We probably are getting too much information,” Gen. Moran concedes. “Information management down at the lowest level is probably the biggest challenge we face. This requires some kind of standardized system, procedures or business practices that help organize information and bring the most important information to the operator or the commander quicker without having to sift through reams of information.”

The general continues that the CENTCOM system permits a commander “at his or her fingertips” to reach into multiple databases through the secret Internet protocol router network (SIPRNET) to extract information. A key to success is to move to a level of knowledge management where information is being organized and presented to a commander in the appropriate way. CENTCOM headquarters is employing business processes to organize information in a joint operating center in the same manner that the information is presented to a decision maker. Key enablers include collaborative planning tools as well as tools that help organize and archive information for easy retrieval.

“The most important technology that we have found useful is access to data services and Web services,” the general states. “There is more information moving via e-mail and Web services than there ever has been before. Even the lowest level of command has access to secure Web services.

“This is a war that is being fought on IP services,” he declares. “This involves movement of data, whether e-mail, Web services or large files. It may be more important to move a large file or an e-mail from one headquarters to another than to move a phone call from one headquarters to another.”

The general maintains that the SIPRNET is serving a much larger role than its nonsecure counterpart, the NIPRNET. The command monitors the performance of routers much more closely than it does the performance of switches.

Commercial satellite telephone services also are playing a big role. The general cites Iridium and Inmarsat as two systems that have been important to the success of Afghanistan operations. “Iridium has performed very well in providing secure communications between command and control nodes,” he states. The command is encouraging as much use of Iridium as possible to ensure voice communications redundancy.

The Global Command and Control System (GCCS) also has worked extremely well in providing a common operating picture at all levels of command seamlessly among each of the service-specific GCCS systems.

“The killer apps [applications] of this war are e-mail, Web services, the common operating picture, the global transportation network and the Joint Operation Planning and Execution System, or JOPES,” the general declares.

One technology that has not seen action is UAV communications relay. Various types of UAVs have been tested as communications relays, especially those with long battlefield loiter times. These could perform some of the same functions of communications satellites. Despite the high demand for satellite communications, UAVs were never considered for any role as relays, Gen. Moran warrants.

“The most important mission that UAVs have right now is for intelligence,” he declares. No discussion of using UAVs as relays was ever held because the intelligence collection priority overrode any possibility of considering them for other applications.

Computer network defense is a serious concern, the general allows. The command has employed a traditional computer network defense strategy with the use of intrusion detection devices and firewalls extended down to the lowest level. CENTCOM headquarters monitors this security in concert with the U.S. Space Command, and Gen. Moran reports that CENTCOM has seen “no significant increase in any kind of probes since the operation began.” Similarly, no significant computer network defense incident has taken place since the onset of operation Enduring Freedom.

CENTCOM already had deployed land, sea and air components as part of ongoing operations when operation Enduring Freedom began. Joint procedures for land, sea and air operations had been well established. As the command expanded into combat in Afghanistan, it only had to extend the existing joint procedures into the warfighting activities, the general points out. This included having a joint network. U.S. Army earth terminals, for example, could be brought into Air Force locations and vice versa. Special operations units also were well integrated into the overall joint network.

Switches, whether tactical or strategic, all have integrated well, he continues. The data network is seamless for nodes to which the user is connected. Gen. Moran relates that the command began with a fairly extensive network of tri-service tactical communications switches in theater, and it built on that network to ensure interoperability between newer and legacy systems.

Some legacy challenges did arise. When introduced, secure telephone equipment did require configuration when operating on different types of networks. Operator training was necessary to enable this telephone equipment to interoperate with some terminals at the other end of the communications link.

CENTCOM’s J-6 notes that, as different elements of each service have been brought into operation Enduring Freedom, they have tended to be at different states of modernization, especially in regard to capabilities. This has affected tasking orders, which in some cases could be sent only to particular units. The general relates that some Army units were equipped with multiplex gear far more capable than that of other units, so the command had to be careful about ordering forces for various types of missions.

Infowarriors Ensure Local Citizenry Gets the Message

Information operations have been integral to every phase and every stage of the planning and execution of operation Enduring Freedom, according to a U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) official.

When the conflict commenced, information operations began with the introduction of public information designed to achieve a tactical or even strategic goal. CENTCOM launched its Afghanistan operations with leaflet showers accompanied by humanitarian airdrops. These airdrops, which consisted of daily rations, coincided with the onset of the bombing campaign on October 7, 2001.

Planners knew that the small amount of daily rations distributed in these airdrops would not make a significant impact on hunger in that war-torn country, the CENTCOM official continues. The primary purpose of the food drop was to establish that the United States was at war with the al Qaida terror organization and the Taliban leadership, which had abused Afganistan’s citizenry for six years, and sought no harm for the people of Afghanistan. The humanitarian aid was secondary. This food aid effort eventually came full circle in December when the U.S.-assisted rout of the Taliban enabled the world food program to deliver 115,000 metric tons of humanitarian relief to Afghanistan.

A CENTCOM humanitarian drop, timed to coincide with the end of Ramadan, emphasized that the United States was not hostile to Islam, as was claimed by much of Osama bin Laden’s propaganda. Muslims traditionally end that month of fasting by eating a sweet food such as dates. CENTCOM dropped, as a token of appreciation and a recognition of the end of the fasting period, packages of dates in plastic containers, bundles of wheat and blankets for the advancing cold of winter. Messages accompanying this distribution offered Muslims the hope that their prayers had been answered and that the breaking of their fast would be enjoyable and their families would be blessed by God.

The overall leaflet drop program was complemented by transmissions from the Commando Solo aircraft, which is an EC-130E electronic warfare platform configured to transmit radio programming into an area of operations. The goal was to emphasize that the United States was aiming to eliminate terrorism, in part by eradicating it in Afghanistan, and to help that country’s people. The Commando Solo transmissions supported this overall mission, the CENTCOM official points out.

This information campaign established combat participant parameters along lines designed by the United States. It set the Taliban and al Qaida apart from the majority of Afghan citizens, which helped remove a wellspring of potential recruits for the extremists. It also cast the United States as better friends of the Afghan people than were the rulers, which helped dispel some of the propaganda myths promulgated by the Taliban. So, the campaign denied the enemy a considerable resource while helping establish sympathies among the populace at large.

Different leaflets were designed for specific geographic regions within Afghanistan. This reflected the diverse ethnicity and tribal differences long extant in that country. As CENTCOM leafleted specific areas, corresponding programming on Commando Solo targeted the same locations with coordinated messages.

The official notes that this information might take the form of a variety of different messages. Afghan citizens would be told of upcoming humanitarian drops, or they might be warned to stay away from targets such as bridges and overpasses and avoid driving at night. In some areas, the populace was asked to report the locations of the Taliban and al Qaida. These requests for information produced concrete benefits, the CENTCOM official notes.

Additional messages transmitted by Commando Solo reported the ongoing war and Taliban atrocities. These messages were tailored to the various tribes and factions according to their relative sympathies toward the Taliban leadership. People who had suffered considerably under their rule received encouraging news of battlefield successes against their oppressors. Other groups that were more sympathetic or even favored the Taliban were told about that faction’s atrocities in an attempt to soften their support or even sway them from their allegiance to the U.S. foe.

The overall information effort helped produce the results that characterize the success of the Afghanistan campaign. “In a relatively short period of time, an illegitimate government that was in control of a country and was supporting worldwide terrorism no longer exists,” the CENTCOM official relates. “Combine what occurred through the kinetic strikes with the activities of the anti-Taliban forces, along with the information provided to the people of Afghanistan. They certainly worked in coordination with each other and were able to use momentum from each other to enhance their separate results.”

This information effort did not end at the Afghan border. The U.S.-led coalition established several news centers to provide information to the mass media to help influence public opinion worldwide. The first two information centers were established in London and Washington, D.C., as a cooperative effort between the United Kingdom, the U.S. Defense Department and the White House. A third coalition information center later was established in Islamabad, Pakistan.

These centers were tasked with providing responses to requests for information around the clock. News gatherers in Pakistan could rely on the Islamabad center during their active hours. As the day wore on, the primary responsibility for providing responses to requests for information shifted to the London center. Then, the Washington center assumed responsibility during its waking hours. The goal was to ensure that media outlets anywhere in the world could obtain information constantly throughout the news cycle.

This effort paid dividends in overcoming bin Laden’s propaganda machine, which was calling for all Muslims to join him in a war against the West. The early flurry of demonstrations in favor of bin Laden and against the West eventually trailed off as the coalition message began to counter the terrorist propaganda. This was particularly helpful in Pakistan, especially since the Commando Solo aircraft focused on Afghanistan rather than Pakistan audiences. While the Islamabad information center involved only U.S. and U.K. participation, the coalition coordinated its efforts with the government of Pakistan.