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Alliance Forces Move Toward Unified Data Infrastructure

September 2001
By Henry S. Kenyon

Common products, practices and standards create enhanced environment for coalition operations.

The adoption of network-based operations combined with commercial information technology and telecommunications products is enhancing the interoperability of North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Partnership for Peace nations’ military forces. These developments also are allowing many smaller and former Eastern Bloc countries to rapidly evolve their militaries into modern information-based organizations.

A recent multinational exercise in Europe highlighted these trends. The annual event consists of a series of technology demonstrations and tests designed to simulate the challenges of creating and maintaining networks in an international military operation.

Held every May in Lager Aulenbach, Germany, COMBINED ENDEAVOR is designed to promote interoperability among European and allied partners. According to Brig. Gen. Gary L. Salisbury, USAF, director, command, control and communications systems, U.S. European Command, the 2001 event brought more than 1,050 military personnel from 37 nations together for two weeks of tests and technology demonstrations. First-time participants included Russia and Croatia and six guest nations from the Economic Community of West African States. COMBINED ENDEAVOR is a coalition-operated and -managed event, the general explains. While the United States is responsible for coordinating the exercise, he stresses that it is managed multilaterally by North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Partnership for Peace and nonaffiliated nations.

COMBINED ENDEAVOR focused its tests on five broad functional areas: switches; transmission, covering line-of-sight, tropospheric and satellite communications; wide area networks, emphasizing routers; high frequency (HF) radio; and information systems. According to Gen. Salisbury, the information systems category primarily examines command and control (C2) platforms. These can be anything from a global command and control system (GCCS), a laptop computer or basic e-mail used for C2 purposes, he says.

Just as commercial telecommunications products have become incorporated in U.S. forces, they began to appear in many European nations’ equipment inventories at this year’s event. Lt. Col. Michael L. Holley, USA, COMBINED ENDEAVOR 2001 technical director, U.S. European Command, cites the example of Romania. Like many former Eastern Bloc nations, it is in the process of upgrading and replacing its antiquated Cold War era equipment. When Romania purchased new tactical communications equipment, it procured the same type of commercially available switch for both small unit and strategic applications. “It’s all commercial off-the-shelf. Because things are upgraded so quickly, it’s easier for them to go through this type of procurement route rather than the long method that we’ve gone through in the past,” he says.

Gen. Salisbury observes that the United States and most of the world are purchasing commercial equipment because the technology is changing too rapidly to rely on traditional development and procurement. By using available software and hardware, nations gain a high degree of interoperability simply because Microsoft products, for example, will work together across networks, he says.

The general is sanguine about the current state of interoperability between the NATO partners and coalition allies. He notes that forces in the Balkans consisting of alliance and nonalliance members have worked well together for a number of years. However, issues remain. Perhaps the largest impediment facing multinational operations is cryptography. “How do you interoperate in a coalition environment, and how do you continue to perform your national mission?” he asks. While it is relatively easy to create and form networks for C2 and intelligence, difficulties arise when unique cryptographic devices are added to the communications path.

The choice to use cryptography is an issue of national interest, Gen. Salisbury explains. He notes that forces in Kosovo operate a coalitionwide network with predetermined security levels. By extension, at COMBINED ENDEAVOR, a common security structure was determined in the early planning meetings. While conceding that the exercise operates an unclassified network, the general explains that classification is not the goal of an event in which the communications environment must be open to all users. “It continues to be one of our biggest challenges from a U.S. perspective. It’s no different for the other 36 nations that participate with us. How do they get those national communications and information needs and fit this into a coalition environment? The bottom line is we are generally operating at two different security levels. We run our networks at a coalition-releasable level that’s basically unclassified.”

Because cryptography poses such difficulty in what is essentially an open networking exercise, the use of widely accepted commercial security protocols and technologies such as public key infrastructure (PKI) may provide a security solution. Gen. Salisbury notes that PKI was tested on a limited basis at this year’s event. He explains that some of the technology’s advantages are that it is already in use with a number of nations and that its broad commercial protocols are not country-specific.

A stand-alone network demonstrated PKI at COMBINED ENDEAVOR 2001. Participants were issued certificates allowing them to exchange e-mails on the system. The general hopes to put a PKI system on the primary network for 2002. Another important feature for PKI use is the way this year’s network was constructed. Instead of a single large system, the environment was divided into a series of subnetworks. If any individually were to fail, it would not affect the entire structure. This also allowed portions of the system to be segregated from the larger network. Gen. Salisbury hopes to use these subdivisions for PKI by separating various nations and types of data. Public key also will allow event participants to simulate secret information being passed across a common network.

The general notes that interest in PKI was very high among the participants at this year’s event. Of 37 nations, 18 took part in the PKI demonstration. “My goal next year is to get 100 percent of them to participate. For example, something as simple as issuing a certificate and sending privileged or protected e-mail through a Web browser may be one of the objectives that we will try to pursue.” he says.

Another demonstration conducted for the first time at this year’s event was sending e-mail via HF radio. The general notes that HF is one of the most common communications media used by coalition forces. It is widely accepted by most NATO and European countries and is resistant to frequency interference problems associated with other wavelengths. Although it does not have a high data rate, ubiquitous HF may be what coalition forces have to rely on when they go to war, he says. Participants used the system to send e-mail messages with attachments back to home nations such as Canada and Uzbekistan.

There is also a growing trend toward network operations among coalition partners, the general observes. To reflect this, COMBINED ENDEAVOR 2001 placed more emphasis on network management. At the 2000 event, a very large network consisting of 43 switches was created. However, this year’s event took a different approach by dividing the system into a series of subnetworks with four and eight switches.

Gen. Salisbury believes that smaller networks place more emphasis on network management. Participants used commercial tools such as Hewlett-Packard’s OpenView to monitor router connections and Remedy as a trouble-ticketing platform. He explains that these automated software tools are common with U.S. forces. “We’ve added them to all of our networks this past year. Just the simple idea of sharing trouble tickets on networks was widely accepted to raise situational awareness and the status of networks.”

However, while there is continuing interest in network operations, the overall progress has been mixed. Some nations that lacked previous investment in military communications infrastructure are actually more capable in this area than more established forces. The general notes that he was surprised by how well some of the smaller nations understood networking.

Conversely, a number of larger participating countries are using older infrastructure and have not yet developed adequate networking capabilities. The technology is powerful because, for a relatively small investment in commercial desktop computers, a nation can satisfy a large portion of its C2 requirements. With an Internet connection, some PKI and a good suite of office applications, a government is on the way to establishing a national communications capability, Gen. Salisbury explains. “We’re going to see a lot more networking next year than we saw this year,” he says.

Military units arrive at the exercise with a variety of preselected equipment that then must be set up into communications systems. These networks are not established haphazardly, however. A full year of planning takes place before each year’s event, Col. Holley explains. Each country comes to the initial planning meetings with a list of national priorities for the exercise. These individual objectives are then incorporated into the event’s overall planning so that everyone receives their fair share of testing, he says.

The selection of tests determines the type of communications equipment a country will bring. This planning arrangement is similar to a wartime structure, Gen. Salisbury says. He notes that even during a crisis, equipment is selected according to a plan—no matter how briefly composed it is. “The better we understand what the final end-state is—in this case, what we actually want to test—then we can guarantee that the capability our allies and coalition partners bring to combined endeavor will indeed interoperate,” he says.

The 37 countries at COMBINED ENDEAVOR 2001 were placed into four multinational divisions. The advantage of this placement was that it created smaller pools of nations connected into their own subnetworks that were linked to the other divisions. Arranging equipment for optimal use is an important part of the event, Col. Holley explains. “We look at what switches we can link together—who brings transmission equipment. For example, you have nations A and B. If they want to speak together, then one will bring in a transmission link, and we’ll use it,” he says.

Some demonstrations connected two participants through a third nation’s transmission lines. The goal is to simulate uncertainty regarding what specific assets allies bring to a conflict, the colonel explains. “If I have a pool of tools and I’ve got to go from nation A to nation B, and I must use something that those two countries didn’t bring, that’s why we use nation C in the middle,” he says.

Because of budgeting constraints, not all nations participated in every event. The tests ranged from a single line between two switches and simple HF connections to complex GCCS situational awareness environments. Early in each year’s event planning, the entire range of technology demonstrations is laid out for nations to select.

When selecting communications equipment, participating forces observe two protocols: NATO and European standards. In the past, the only way for the United States to connect to some coalition devices was through the NATO standard, says Col. Holley. He adds that the majority of the NATO nations and coalition allies are now moving to the European standard. In this year’s exercise, the United States brought a device by Avaya called a Definity switch that can quickly shift between European and NATO protocols with full trunking. The colonel notes that at combined endeavor 2000, this could only be done on a single line. “You couldn’t do a full, robust network with that. The new equipment allows us to provide full trunking switch to switch, versus hanging a long, local-type system off of one of our switches,” he says.