Ideas Become Reality as New Strategies Unfurl

April 15, 2008
by Rita Boland

The U.S. Navy has made great strides in the communications field in the past two years, but the work is far from over. When the position of deputy chief of naval operations for communication networks (N-6) on the staff of the chief of naval operations was reinstated in 2006, the vice admiral who moved into the spot recognized naval needs and implemented measures to move the sea service forward both through technology and policy. Now, as he prepares to retire and pass the reins to a successor in June, he can see many of his plans coming to fruition and make recommendations for the path ahead.

Since Vice Adm. Mark J. Edwards, USN, took over the role as the N-6, the Navy has changed in several ways, from becoming more network-centric to finding new and better ways to partner with coalition and other friendly naval forces (SIGNAL Magazine, December 2006, page 23). One of the biggest adjustments, according to the admiral, is awareness at the senior leadership level of the critical nature of computer networks and the significance of networks to commanding and controlling operations. He explains that while the Navy has long understood the importance of afloat communications networks, it has come to a new realization of the critical nature of its computer networks, such as the Navy/Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI), and how important the intranet and overseas networks are to warfighting. Without those networks, the Navy’s ability to manage troops in the field would be significantly impaired. “Quite frankly, what [these networks] have morphed into is a warfighting command and control system,” Adm. Edwards explains.

Also since 2006, the Navy has reduced its number of legacy networks by 40 percent and plans to reduce the number an additional 83 percent by 2010; it is on track to reduce its entire information technology footprint by 51 percent by then. “We pay $1.6 billion a year in legacy costs,” Adm. Edwards states. “That’s a tremendous overhead to have to fund each year. As we get off these legacy systems, we can take that money and reinvest it in our networks to make them more agile and flexible.”

In addition to his goal to reduce legacy systems when he became the N-6, the admiral also planned to take advantage of enterprise solutions during his tenure. “We’re trying to embrace enterprise solutions because we can no longer afford to buy things in onesies and twosies,” he says.

The admiral and the Navy have taken several steps to leverage enterprise options. For example, they have leveraged the enterprise through an improved and enhanced partnership with the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), which has spent large amounts of money on military networks and network tools for functions such as collaboration and Web browsing. “Instead of us developing our own, we’re going to use those tools that DISA has already provided,” Adm. Edwards explains.

Another area Adm. Edwards focused on when he became the N-6 and continues to work at is collaborating with the navies of other nations. “We really want to enhance our relationship with our partner navies in a global context, and you’ve got to be able to communicate in order to do that,” he explains. To that end, the Navy is using commercial technologies such as subnet relay that take advantage of current shipboard infrastructures. These types of architectures allow information to flow from a satellite to a large platform such as a carrier; the carrier then can transmit the information to partner ships even if they lack the same satellite connectivity.

The Navy also is concentrating on maritime domain awareness and the Maritime Security and Safety Information System (MSSIS). The system enables NATO countries to share all unclassified automatic identification data from ship and shore receivers, creating common operating pictures.

The admiral has three major focuses to ensure the Navy has the bandwidth it needs for future operations. The first is support for planned military satellite programs, whether run by the Navy or another service branch. The second focus is a partnership with industry. “We have to come up with strategies to have industry provide us with surge technical capabilities when we can’t get enough allocation to the Navy for bandwidth for military satellites,” he explains. “It would be bandwidth on demand. We would be able to buy bandwidth as needed from a commercial source that would be available when we required it.”

The third focus is on dynamically managing bandwidth through the Automated Digital Network System program. The program addresses the issue of how to manage and allocate it efficiently. “I think that’s an issue that’s very important,” Adm. Edwards says.

To illustrate his point, he uses the example of an aircraft carrier that is underway for a deployment. Onboard is the Plain Old Telephone System, or POTS. Bandwidth is allocated to that system whether or not it is in use. What Adm. Edwards would like to see is dynamic use of that bandwidth, reallocating it to systems with a higher priority, and then rededicating it for commanders when they need to make a telephone call. 

The full version of this article is published in the May 2008 issue of SIGNAL Magazine, in the mail to AFCEA members and subscribers May 1, 2008. For information about purchasing this issue, joining AFCEA or subscribing to SIGNAL, contact AFCEA Member Services.