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Large Data Pipes Link Vital Military Centers

October 2003
By Henry S. Kenyon

Global Information Grid bandwidth expansion permits real-time sensor analysis, file sharing, decision making.

The U.S. Defense Department is connecting key command, control and intelligence facilities around the world with a computer network capable of moving massive amounts of information. Designed to provide the bandwidth necessary to channel live video and sensor data from distant theaters back to commanders and analysts, the system will allow users to post and share documents in real time. This enhanced networking capability offers the military and intelligence communities a robust architecture for network-centric collaboration and decision making.

Advanced sensor and communications technologies require increasing amounts of bandwidth to provide warfighters with real-time situational awareness. As U.S. forces pursue threats worldwide, the ability to reach back to a flexible, high-bandwidth network is a necessity for a variety of important decision-making and analysis functions. By developing such an infrastructure free of existing bandwidth limitations, the military can step closer to its goal of fully synchronized, high-speed analysis and decision making.

The Global Information Grid, or GIG (SIGNAL, April 2001, page 23) bandwidth expansion (GIG-BE) is a key part of an ongoing Defense Department effort to upgrade its communications and data-sharing networks. Administered by the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), Falls Church, Virginia, the initiative is intended to enhance current defense information system network links to some 100 selected facilities in the U.S., Pacific and European theaters. Improvements include expanded bandwidth and a redundant, state-of-the-art optical mesh infrastructure. Connected by an enlarged GIG core, GIG-BE will link these key sites in a high-speed, high-bandwidth network.

Five architectural tenets drive the program’s development, explains Col. Robert Horback, USA, GIG-BE program manager. They are handling information once, posting information before processing, pooling user data, using collaborative technologies within the network and making the system reliable. “What we’re all about is building this trusted, reliable network. Our basic objectives are increasing bandwidth to critical Defense Department and intelligence community customers and also providing diversity within this network—something we do not have today within many of our government networks,” he says.

By providing additional physical diversity across the network, reliability and survivability are increased because single points of failure are eliminated. This is achieved with dual-service delivery nodes connected to the main network backbone through multiple, redundant paths. Although it initially will link around 100 installations, the colonel notes that the infrastructure ultimately will transition to other Defense Department customers and services.

Designed to address the growing bandwidth needs of systems such as unmanned aerial vehicles that transmit live video back to headquarters via satellite, the GIG-BE offers large, scalable data pipes to move information in bulk and decrease latency. The network must be robust enough to permit the rapid transit of the data so that it can be downloaded quickly, allowing commanders to make real-time decisions based on that information. But the challenge remains considerable. “These packages, in terms of quantities of data, are huge. We’ve got to have the bandwidth available to allow the data to transit the network on a global scale,” Col. Horback says.

The GIG-BE also forms a common enterprise architecture permitting users to access and post information from multiple sources. The program will form a ubiquitous, bandwidth-available environment to enhance information sharing for national intelligence, surveillance and command and control functions. By creating a state-of-the-art telecommunications network that enables collaboration between multiple users, planners can attain a real-time information sharing capability to speed the flow of intelligence and sensor data.

For example, commanders can access live video data on the network and correlate what they see locally with global information posted on the system. This permits officers to make immediate decisions without waiting for others to tell them what is happening in their areas of responsibility, which enhances sensor-to-shooter reaction times. “This ability to pull information directly from the net and make decisions on this data is really what network-centric operations is all about,” Col. Horback maintains.

Although the network extends only to fixed facilities, reach-back requirements mandate that warfighters can access it. According to Lt. Col. Robert Koles, USAF, GIG-BE executive officer, the network is just a small part of larger Defense Department transformation activities. While the new network infrastructure allows large volumes of information to get much closer to the tactical-level warfighter, it does not reach down into individual foxholes or cockpits. Larger data pipes and enhanced satellite communications capabilities soon will enable connectivity to reach down to individual user terminals, Col. Koles says. Other programs such as Teleport and the Joint Tactical Radio System also are moving the military’s communications networks toward this capability. While the GIG-BE is a major improvement, it is only part of an ongoing trend. “It’s a stepping stone toward the total transformation, but it’s not the total transformation itself,” he says.

The network uses leading-edge optical technology for its backbone. This consists of components such as ultralong-haul and dense wave division multiplexing equipment that will permit administrators to increase bandwidth as requirements grow. DISA seeks an initial technical threshold of 80 colors operating on the backbone at 10 gigabits per second per color per lambda. This massive capability probably will not be deployed when the network first launches, he says. Initial tentative requirements call for more than 20 colors on the backbone with approximately 10 colors in installation access areas.

Additional equipment is being procured to enhance network efficiency. “We’re looking at optical add-drop multiplexers that will be positioned at many of our locations. The multiservice provisioning platform [MSPP] is another device that’s in our equipment acquisition. The MSPP will give us the ability to support legacy requirements because we do know that we are in a transition for a period of time and we must meet customers—users—where they are today in terms of their capability,” Col. Horback explains. He adds that the MSPP is a common, low-risk industry device used throughout commercial networks.

But the GIG-BE is more than a hardware infrastructure program, Col. Horback maintains. Beyond its data transport infrastructure, the network’s primary purpose is to provide information technology services across all classification levels. To support these applications, DISA is using core routers and edge routers to interface with customers. “Ultimately, what we are attempting to build here is a government-owned and -managed infrastructure,” he says.

Although security concerns prevent him from specifically mentioning the commands that will benefit from the GIG-BE, the colonel notes that it will support critical Defense Department command, control and intelligence information facilities. Once the system is in place, it also has the potential to serve other user communities that require high-volume data services such as training, modeling and simulation.

Because of its scope, however, DISA faces several challenges before the GIG-BE can be successfully launched. In fact, the initial hurdle is simply launching the system. “Deploying a leading-edge network that is quite frankly more advanced than most commercial networks today presents numerous technical, scheduling and other challenges. But we’re managing quite adequately,” Col. Horback maintains.

The other challenge lies in transitioning services to the new network. The colonel explains that this undertaking is somewhat beyond the scope of his program, but it remains within DISA’s purview. Thus those involved in the GIG-BE effort are working with DISA’s network services directorate to develop a transition plan to move services over to the new architecture. The goal is not to have redundant capabilities within the Defense Department. “That would not make sense from a business or cost perspective. So transitioning classified traffic to our classified Internet protocol networks is something that we’re working closely with network services in DISA,” he says.

The program’s management is moving aggressively to select source suppliers as it approaches its initial launch date of September 2004. The system is scheduled to be fully operational by September 2005. According to Col. Horback, contracts for equipment and fiber optic lines will be in place by the end of this year. Secondary site surveys also are underway. The colonel explains that these complement an initial series of evaluations taken six to eight months ago. DISA personnel now are conducting more detailed examinations to determine the cost of upgrading individual installations. These inspections cover everything from fiber optic cable to power requirements; heating, ventilation and air conditioning needs; and available rack space in facilities. Upgrades will begin once the surveys are complete.

Once the new equipment is in place, operational- and security-testing requirements must be met before the GIG-BE can become fully operational. But Col. Horback is sanguine about the program’s progress. “The good news is that we are on schedule. In fact, in certain areas we are ahead of schedule. So there is a lot of optimism here that we’ve got a program here that is very doable in the time frame that we’ve established,” he says.