National Gateway System Spreads the Word

March 2006
By Rita Boland

Senior Airman John Ervin, USAF, 52nd Communications Squadron, Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, configures a router to communicate with Croughton Royal Air Force from Dakar International Airport in Senegal. The National Gateway System improves the security of organizational messaging.
Centers facilitate message transfer among legacy and defense systems.

The U.S. Defense Department’s messaging initiatives have made organizational messaging faster, easier and more secure while reducing the effort and personnel needed to perform the work.

The National Gateway System, consisting of the National Gateway Center at Fort Detrick, Maryland, and the Pentagon Telecommunications System Center in Arlington, Virginia, allows the Defense Department to communicate via organizational messaging with allied nations and other departments within the United States such as the U.S. Department of State.

The Defense Department transitioned fully in 2002 from its legacy systems to the Defense Message System (DMS). The system, which provides multimedia messaging and directory services, is operational worldwide, including in deployed locations. However, because allied countries and other U.S. organizations still operate on legacy systems, the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), Arlington, Virginia, developed a gateway that allows the different systems to communicate.

DISA’s solution, the National Gateway System, receives messages from the DMS then translates them to messages the legacy systems can accept and read, and vice versa. “The advantage [of DMS] is that it’s high-grade, organizational messaging,” says Daniel White, chief of the DMS and the National Gateway Center technical support branch for DISA.

In addition to translating the messages from system to system, the National Gateway System ensures greater security of the messages. A multifunction interpreter that converts messages from one system to another performs a security check on each message. The system ensures delivery to the intended recipient and makes certain that all recipients are cleared to read the information. Messages sent through the DMS can be unclassified, classified or Top Secret. All messages, regardless of classification, are encrypted before or after the National Gateway System translates them.

“The messages are all signed and encrypted,” Michael Enea says. Enea is the program manager for Data Systems Analysts Incorporated (DSA), a contracting firm, at the National Gateway Center. DISA officials add that the National Gateway System provides more security than a standard individual-to-individual e-mail system.

The messages handled through the system contain essential Defense Department information that can affect troop movement and maneuvers. “This is the stuff that really must get there the first time, every time,” White says.

Under the Defense Department’s previous messaging system, the Automatic Digital Network (AUTODIN), messages were sent through one of the 15 AUTODIN Switching Centers (ASCs) worldwide. Each ASC supported between 60 and 150 communications center connections at the installation or at the major command level. Messages on this system could be prepared manually on desktop terminals and released directly or couriered to the base communications center on magnetic tape, floppy disk or hard copy for release.

“The [National Gateway System] relay function is completely automated,” White says. He clarifies that unlike the AUTODIN systems, no one sits at a terminal typing a message. The DMS and the National Gateway System allow something closer to a “writer-to-reader” program, though White says that is a bit of a misnomer. “It’s really organization to organization,” he explains. One message sent on the DMS can reach hundreds of recipients and addresses within a larger organization such as a task force.

By eliminating switching centers, messages get to their intended recipients faster than through the older systems. Especially in the field, these shortened suspense times can make a big difference, White says. Deployed troops receive orders and intelligence more quickly, which was one of the benefits behind the DMS, explains Doug Wagoner, senior vice president and general manager of DSA, a contractor involved with the project.

The company has worked on Defense Department messaging systems since the 1960s. It wrote some requirements for what would eventually become the DMS and tested the program to make sure it performed as the government wanted. The firm now provides systems engineering and software life-cycle support at the National Gateway Center. “It’s critical that we have historical knowledge of legacy and the DMS,” Wagoner says.

Another advantage of the DMS is that it allows senders to include attachments with their messages, a function not available through older organizational messaging methods.

The National Gateway System allows U.S. Defense Department computers using the Defense Message System to communicate with allied countries and other government departments that use legacy systems.
DMS users access the system through a Fortezza card, which specifies the classification level of the user and contains other identifying information. Unlike common access cards, Fortezza cards are not distributed to individuals but rather to organizations and organizational positions. In the event of staff turnover, organizations do not lose vital information stored in individual e-mail accounts.

The National Gateway System also requires less manpower to operate than the AUTODIN system, as switching operators are no longer required to relay every message. Only about 50 people support the mission at Fort Detrick, and staff monitor the equipment at all times. Support staff include contractors from DSA, who mainly focus on software issues. “It’s a tremendous cost savings over time,” Wagoner says.

The switching function of the National Gateway System is largely automatic, and the system controls the message traffic. If a connection at a particular site goes down, the National Gateway Center can hold messages until the connection is restored. This function is especially critical for deployed troops, such as an airborne command post.

Enea asserts that the new system is improving the ability of an organization to communicate. “The system works well,” he says. “It has for some time. It’s using very current technology.”

The DMS is a commercial off-the-shelf (COTS)-based application. It runs through a modified version of Microsoft Outlook. “It provides the kind of service the users need for messaging,” says Bill Jones, vice president, command, control, communications and computers solutions for DSA.

DSA personnel say the Defense Department has the most advanced messaging system in the world, and DISA agrees. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about it,” White says.

The United States is the only country with a military that has migrated totally from the legacy messaging systems; however, other countries are taking steps to advance their messaging. Allied Communications Publication 145 is an initiative to establish a gateway similar to the National Gateway System among the United Kingdom, United States, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Such a gateway center would allow each country to possess a separate and sovereign messaging system without restricting communication between the systems. The United Kingdom and the United States are the first to try to make this gateway concept work. While the messaging systems developed in each country may be similar, White says they will not be compatible without the use of a gateway.

“Hopefully, this will provide the path and we can get other allies onboard as they transition from their legacy systems,” White says. “It’s a major undertaking to transfer your messaging system.”

While the main function of the National Gateway Center is to serve as the switching center between the DMS and Defense Department legacy systems—the center’s bread and butter mission, White explains—it has other functions as well, including managing address lists.

The Messaging Network Control Center management function, performed only at the National Gateway Center, communicates with other messaging control centers and switching nodes to manage message traffic load, to resolve user problems and message reject conditions, to trace messages through multiple systems and to oversee real-time routing database changes. White describes this as a nerve center for managing the flow of message traffic particularly among legacy systems.

The National Gateway System also manages the address lists for the legacy systems and the DMS. Most of the   switching processes performed on the system are transparent to users. One function noticeable to legacy users is the switch from sending mail to legacy accounts to sending it to DMS accounts. The National Gateway Center and the Pentagon Telecommunications System Center manage approximately 1,000 address lists. The National Gateway System synchronizes the routing databases. Anyone sending a message from the DMS can use the directory provided on that system, but senders must have an entry in the DMS that allows them to address the message to the recipient on the legacy systems. The legacy systems and the DMS have directories that enable them to communicate with one another. These directories include organizational, not personal, information, furthering the National Gateway System’s mission of getting critical information to the right people more efficiently.


Web Resources
Defense Message System:
Defense Message System Fact Sheet:
Data Systems Analysts Incorporated:


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