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Revising Information on the Fly Accelerates Signal Corps Functions

November 1999
By Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

Exercise facilitates interaction between active and reserve units, training with critical technology of future joint missions.

In routine headquarters operations or in a wartime theater command center, military personnel soon may be able to rapidly update their unit’s World Wide Web pages to display vital, time-sensitive data without a webmaster’s intervention. During a recent training exercise, a Web site content management tool patented this year enabled Signal Corps participants to revamp the Web pages themselves without complicated programming languages or hours of training. Leaders along the entire chain of command could immediately view changes in personnel and equipment readiness, information that is critical on every battlefield or during natural disaster victim-assistance activities.

Currently, standard operating procedure for changing Web page content generally requires all revisions to be funneled through a webmaster. The new technology relieves already overburdened technologists by allowing personnel with the most current data to send the information directly to the Web page. Because revisions are transmitted via e-mail, no direct access to the Web server and no interaction with the webmaster are needed. The password-protected procedure prevents outsiders from copying, reading, renaming or deleting server files or directories. By delegating content management duties, Web professionals can focus on network upgrades and maintenance. In addition, site visitors have access to the most up-to-date information.

The technology was incorporated into GRECIAN FIREBOLT ’99, an annual Signal Corps exercise that brings together active, reserve and national guard units to become familiar with the new technologies they could be asked to deploy during a conflict or peacekeeping mission. The event also gives troops the opportunity to get to know each other as they work together or participate in the turnover of duties to incoming units.

This year’s event was designed to test multiunit readiness capabilities in planning, engineering, building and operating a large-scale, multinational communications network during a major crisis such as war or global disaster. More than 4,000 participants at bases throughout the continental United States, Hawaii and Korea participated in GRECIAN FIREBOLT ’99, employing a number of technologies to provide data, voice and video transfer to various units.

The U.S. Army Reserve’s 311th Theater Signal Command served as the executive agent for the exercise. With the support of the U.S. Army Reserve Command and the National Guard Bureau, the three-week event provided all available reserve and active component units aligned to the Pacific Command area of responsibility with the communications means for command and control of operations. The command also supplied signal support staff to the U.S. Forces–Korea and the 8th U.S. Army. Participants included active and reserve Army personnel as well as both Army and Air National Guard Signal units. GRECIAN FIREBOLT is part of the Army’s total force integration initiative.

Although this annual event is designed as a communications exercise for the Signal Corps, the training activity supports a number of other scheduled military exercises by furnishing the communications capabilities required by other commands. This year, Signal Corps participants supplied connectivity to several events, including GOLDEN MEDIC of the 3rd Medial Command, GOLDEN KASTLE conducted by the 372nd Engineer Group, GLOBAL PATRIOT managed by the National Guard Bureau, and SUMMER EX administered by the U.S. 8th Army in Korea. Single connectivity extended between more than 27 different locations in the United States and overseas. Units deployed in phases to validate that planned efforts would lead to a successful assessment of their mission capabilities. This ensures that communication resources would provide the capabilities for command and control during a mission, according to Col. Edwin E. Spain, USAR, deputy chief of staff for operations and plans, 311th Theater Signal Command.

In addition to planning, engineering, installing and maintaining a network that could sustain data, voice and video transmission, GRECIAN FIREBOLT demonstrates the Signal Corps’ capabilities to the commands that are responsible for a variety of missions. It is also an opportunity for units to view emerging technologies while testing their interoperability. On the human side, GRECIAN FIREBOLT allows active duty personnel and reservists to become acquainted with the people they would work with during a mission, Col. Spain offers. The 1999 exercise included 17 active, 11 reserve and 12 National Guard units.

One of the capabilities this year’s staff was tasked to demonstrate was the ability for individual organizations to report the status of personnel, equipment and logistics readiness on the network. “You have to know who’s in the theater, what equipment is in the theater, and what skills are in the theater so that people and/or equipment can be moved around to accommodate what must be done or so equipment can be fixed,” according to Col. William E. Beasley, USAR, plans and operations deputy chief of staff, information management, 311th Theater Signal Command.

In the past, attempts had been made to develop customized software to accomplish this task; however, the Army discovered it was unable to do this, notes Maj. G. Kenneth Thompson, USAR, automation officer, 311th Theater Signal Command.

“Personnel, logistics and the command wanted to link up and down the command chain. One reason this is a problem is that this shouldn’t be done at the [U.S.] Defense Department level. In other words, what department in the Army is going to tell the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force to do it the way they’ve set up? So we were trying to come up with a standard way and add up all the numbers,” Maj. Thompson explains. Although the unit was searching for a specific method, the reporting system that gave commanders at all levels the readiness information they needed had to be flexible enough for each unit to continue using its own procedures. This changing data would then have to be communicated in an easily accessible, timely manner.

The solution to this challenge came from a commercial off-the-shelf product developed by Reedy Creek Technologies, Four Oaks, North Carolina. Real-Time Page Management (RPM) gives content managers control of Web page data without requiring them to have extensive knowledge of Web site management or hypertext markup language (HTML). This was exactly the capability and ease of use that Maj. Thompson believed would meet the requirements for GRECIAN FIREBOLT ’99.

For the exercise, each unit was provided with a home page with hyperlinks to their personnel, logistics and commanders’ pages as well as superior and subordinate home pages. The pages were static, but the subject matter pages contained the tags RPM used to identify content insertion points. This design approach was driven by two primary factors, Maj. Thompson explains. “The tactical packet network used in the exercise is slow, and I wanted a lightweight system for better response. Also, like a joint task force, the exercise participant list was unstable so I needed to be able to alter the organizational relationships quickly and easily,” he states.

The original plan called for using an Internet development site for training. However time constraints forced training to take place during the exercise. “Fortunately, the RPM product is easy enough to make this feasible,” Maj. Thompson says.

The page management tool consists of two components: a server installed on the tactical Web server, and a Microsoft Word plug-in that content managers installed on their PCs. Users also needed the Microsoft Office 97 Service Release 1 and HTML extensions installed as well as a working e-mail configuration. RPM saves the content developed in Microsoft Word as HTML then generates a formatted e-mail message that it sends to the server component.

An e-mail address was configured for the RPM server, and Maj. Thompson created a custom rule with the in-box assistant to launch the RPM server when a new message arrived. The software took the message, matched it up to a template Web page based on an entry in the subject field and a password embedded in the message, then replaced the RPM content tag in the template document with the HTML in the e-mail message. It then wrote out the complete document to the Web server publishing directory. E-mail messages were automatically sent to appropriate personnel alerting them that the content of the specific site had changed. Visitors to the site could immediately view the new content, Maj. Thompson explains.

Participating units used the technology to report changes in personnel, equipment and logistics. Commanders of a group of units were then able to review the most current readiness information available. “I expected a lot of criticism from staff sections because we didn’t try to add up the data across the various levels of command that were reporting. Surprisingly, I didn’t get any. The staff seemed to recognize that their role was to check the reports submitted by their subordinates, determine the impact on their own status and report it accordingly,” Maj. Thompson offers.

In addition to providing units with the ability to report the condition of their own personnel and equipment, RPM was used to communicate the status of the network to all units, informing them when there were problems and when repairs were complete. “The more people are aware of what’s going on with the network, the faster they can react. If you have to wait for information to bubble up, it takes too much time,” Col. Spain offers. Because commanders and system administrators had up-to-date information about network activity, they could quickly collaborate about allocating bandwidth and moving around resources, he adds.

According to Neal Davis, president and chief executive officer of Reedy Creek Technologies, in addition to allowing content managers to update information without requiring them to understand programming languages, RPM assures webmasters that the Web server is protected. “If someone steals one of your passwords, the most they could do is disturb that one port, not the server. Also, the system records the e-mail address from which the e-mail content was sent. So, if unauthorized content appears on a page, it can be traced back,” Davis says.

The goal in developing the product was to allow Web site content contributors to update data without forcing them to learn Web processing. “Everyone wants and needs to have a Web presence, but the problem is that it now has to be maintained. As a plug-in for Microsoft Word for example this allows people to say, ‘Hey, I can use this today,’” he adds. The software is also compatible with other content editors, including FrontPage, PageMill and HotMetal. On the server side, RPM works with Windows NT, UNIX and Linux.

In addition to the readiness reporting system, GRECIAN FIREBOLT ’99 participants tested several other capabilities. According to Col. Spain, a representative from the Defense Information Systems Agency demonstrated how military and commercial off-the-shelf products work with current equipment and will also interoperate with future technologies. Included in this demonstration was the operation of an asynchronous transfer mode switch.

Videoconferencing was used and evaluated, and many units found this capability to be particularly beneficial. Korea, for example, is a heavy user of videoconferencing, so proving this capability was important in that sector. In addition, many commanders felt that videoconferencing helped an audience of subcommanders feel their presence at a location thousands of miles away, Col. Beasley explains. It is also beneficial in a one-to-many situation such as a single commander addressing an entire unit, he adds.

On the information operations front, network intrusions were attempted to verify both that an information warfare attack could be detected and that appropriate action could be taken. “Information operations is an area we all have to get smarter on. There needs to be awareness in the big community of what skills are needed and what technology is available to counter information warfare,” the colonel says.