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Pacific Command Forges Agile Network

October 2003
By Henry S. Kenyon

Interoperability, reliability key to theater force connectivity.

Bandwidth and interoperability concerns have forced the U.S. military in the Pacific theater to rely on flexible communications networks to maintain connectivity across the expansive region. Because of geographical constraints and limited infrastructure in many parts of the theater, the U.S. military transports and maintains agile satellite-based networks capable of operating with local coalition units.

The U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), Honolulu, conducts military operations across the Pacific Rim. The command directs U.S. sea, land and air units and plans operations with partner nations. Because of the diverse cultures and technological capabilities in the theater, a nimble approach is necessary to carry out missions.

To support and protect U.S. interests across the Pacific basin, command, control, communications and computer (C4) systems are vital, explains Col. Randolph P. Strong, USA, director for C4 systems, J-6, PACOM. The colonel coordinates, provides and maintains U.S. C4 assets in the theater at the command level. Theater elements include satellite communications, terrestrial radios, fiber optic cable, tactical datalinks and theater ballistic missile defense systems.

Such technologies are necessary because PACOM’s territory covers roughly 50 percent of the Earth’s surface and crosses 16 time zones and the international date line. “You cannot command and control dispersed forces like that without great communication, and you can’t leverage the enormous capabilities of the force without world-class C4 systems,” the colonel says.

Connecting these components presents considerable challenges. Ground and terrestrial links cannot be used because of the distances covered, and the fiber optic cables laid across the Pacific in the past decade do not reach many of the places where PACOM operates. “I spent some time in East Timor. There are no fiber cables that go there. It’s the same for some places in the Philippines and even areas where we do exercises like cobra gold,” Col. Strong observes.

The enormous distances from support bases and lack of convenient infrastructure in many operational zones necessitate a reliance on satellite communications. However, PACOM faces a short-term threat to its already tight satellite bandwidth because many of the spacecraft supporting its operations are well beyond their normal operational life spans or are becoming unstable in their orbits. But the colonel hopes that recent military satellite launches will improve the situation.

Frequency spectrum is another issue because Pacific Rim nations do not allocate these resources in a uniform manner. For example, it is difficult to use systems such as the enhanced position location reporting system and joint tactical information distribution system in some countries’ airspace because those frequencies may not be authorized for local use.

Civilian technologies also are encroaching on military frequencies. Some nations are allocating parts of their spectrum traditionally reserved for government communications to commercial use. “The growth of cellular telephones is constantly putting pressure on military frequency managers to provide or release spectrum,” Col. Strong explains.

The United States and its allies continue to work around these difficulties by conducting exercises off shore or in areas where frequency demands are not as high. However, while NATO countries share a degree of frequency spectrum management standardization, the colonel notes that these types of agreements do not exist in the Pacific. “You have a lot of countries out there on their own doing what they feel is most advantageous [for themselves]. There’s no umbrella organization to coordinate that,” he says.

Technological compatibility presents other difficulties. Col. Strong notes that as the United States transforms its military, it must be careful not to widen the technology gap that exists between it and many of its partners. He warns that the danger lies in inadvertently widening the gap to the point where potential coalition allies cannot participate in joint operations with U.S. forces.

Pacific Rim nations were able to integrate their systems into various coalition communications networks during operation Iraqi Freedom, but interoperability issues still remain because of the region’s mixed political nature. The plethora of bilateral and multilateral agreements among Asian nations makes it nearly impossible to connect all coalition partners into a single network. “You wind up having these stacks of hardware for each one of these networks. One of the lessons we learned from the Joint Warrior Interoperability Demonstration [JWID] and other exercises and operations is the need for a dynamically reconfigurable network with agile communications security that can be reconfigured on-the-fly to accommodate whatever coalition partners you want in the system,” he says.

Coalition operations represent a balance between security and interoperability. The colonel notes this is not only in terms of technology, but also techniques, tactics and procedures and the information being exchanged, from Excel spreadsheets of logistics data to PowerPoint slides of an upcoming operation. But security can be threatened by a single classified e-mail sent via an unclassified coalition network. “So you do things such as limit attachments, or prevent them from going through some networks. For example, you can maintain security in a coalition network by permitting only text-based information that can be scanned for sensitive classified information to travel through it. But that’s a barrier to interoperability and coordination, so one of the big lessons that we learned—but that we are still struggling with—is how do you balance that, because the balance isn’t always the same, depending on the country you’re dealing with,” he explains.

Some allies, such as Australia and New Zealand, present fewer interoperability and security concerns. For these nations, the primary goal of the PACOM J-6 is providing them with the most vital situational awareness data for their theater of operations. But other nations require a more cautious security approach, Col. Strong says.

Events such as JWID (SIGNAL, September, page 77) and recent military missions have taught PACOM a number of operational lessons. The colonel notes that the most important lesson was the need for good communications among coalition partners. This was borne out during operation Iraqi Freedom when a number of regional allies such as Australia participated.

Although JWID emphasized the importance of interoperability and inspired coalition compatibility programs, maintaining networks with allies is still difficult. Barriers include geographic and cultural differences that add to communications difficulties in the region.

PACOM is applying new technologies to manage important resources such as satellite communications bandwidth. By using the demand assigned multiple access technique, satellite communications bandwidth can be managed efficiently, especially at the single channel ultrahigh frequency level. “We’ve pushed that very hard at PACOM to help overcome the limited satellite bandwidth that we have here. It’s been very successful. Like many efforts, it’s a modernization effort that requires funding dollars in order to make it happen,” he says.

Modernization also improves force situational awareness. Creating a common operating picture that displays the location of units permits greater coordination across the theater. Collaborative planning tools are important new technology. PACOM’s new headquarters facility, scheduled to open in 2004, is designed specifically to take advantage of these capabilities and provide better situational awareness and collaborative planning capabilities for operations (see page 53).

These improvements apply to U.S. forces across the theater. Video teleconferencing (VTC) sessions and Internet-based meetings allow subordinate commands in Korea and Japan to participate and better understand situational issues. The colonel notes that tools such as Net Meeting enhance understanding because information is presented on several levels. “Everybody who is participating in that session better understands the issues being discussed because they see them in writing and on the VTC—it’s not just a spoken word over the telephone or a written document that’s subject to interpretation,” he offers.

Collaborative planning tools help increase U.S. forces’ operational tempo by incorporating subordinate elements and shortening the planning cycle. Traditionally, command staffs handed down a portion of their planning to subordinate commands. Today, collaborative planning software permits all levels to be involved simultaneously, greatly increasing turnaround cycles, he observes.

But challenges remain. Col. Strong offers that PACOM could provide more efficient information technology support, and moving to the Navy/ Marine Corps Intranet is a major step. The effort turns over all information technology services to a private contractor who also will service the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s networks, generating savings through increased efficiencies of scale.

In addition, PACOM is consolidating many of its information technology resources to eliminate stovepipes formed by independent systems. The colonel hopes to increase future efficiencies by sharing resources across PACOM’s networks. “We’re pretty good at sharing networks—SIPRNET [secret Internet protocol router network], NIPRNET [nonsecure Internet protocol router network] and JWICS [joint worldwide intelligence communications system]. Where we’re not good at sharing and what we can really work toward improving in the future is the sharing of servers and clients and reducing the footprint and the number of systems administrators that are required,” he says.

Additional information on the U.S. Pacific Command is available on the World Wide Web at http://www.pacom.mil.