Keeping Tactical Traffic Local

April 2009
By Kathleen Bahr and Maj. Fritz Doran, USMC (Ret.)

Master Sgt. Greg Jordan, USAF, a security manager, and Treshia Jarrette, a network engineer, work together to set, examine and evaluate the network connections for the Joint Mobile Network Operations (JMNO)
joint test and evaluation tests.
Standardized procedures ensure that interoperability issues no longer stand in the way of cross-service communications.

Warfighters soon will have tactics, techniques and procedures for planning and implementing lateral communications links among the military services to pass critical Internet protocol data between tactical units. These links will allow tactical units to share information quickly, while it is still useful. Likewise, warfighters operating away from their units also will be able to connect to their home networks through another service’s network, allowing them to perform their duties more effectively.

Historically, warfighters did not share tactical data outside of their own service. According to J.D. Wilson, chief systems architect for the U.S. Marine Corps Systems Command, “Each service has a different operating mission, and their systems have been developed to support their respective mission.” Consequently, service networks evolved into stovepipe architectures, only able to pass data vertically between higher headquarters and lower-level commands.

During operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, however, military commanders and communications experts alike identified the absence of tactical command, control, communications and computer network interoperability between services as a key shortfall. Not only did the services need to maintain situational awareness of each other, but they also required the ability to share data with other government agencies and coalition forces. Moreover, attempts to coordinate connectivity between any two tactical Internet protocol (IP) networks of different services often took months to complete.

This need for interoperability was so critical to the Marine Corps that, for the first time in the 36-year history of the Joint Test and Evaluation Program, the Marines requested the opportunity to lead the project. The joint test, called Joint Mobile Network Operations (JMNO), Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, will provide warfighters with standard tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) to set up tactical IP network interoperability without purchasing additional equipment. Instead, communication planners and operators will use joint standards for planning, analysis and implementation of links among different service networks.

The joint test’s initial evaluation of current mobile network operations found that the services generally do not plan for inter-service communication links at the tactical level, that is, brigade or regiment and below. In fact, all transmissions between services—even those as close as a few hundred feet—normally use satellite communications paths through higher headquarters to travel through the joint task force (JTF) or Defense Information System Network (DISN). From the DISN, the transmissions go to an out-of-theater site before returning to the DISN to take a similar route to their destination. This out-of-theater travel leads to high latency and an increase in the possibility of dropped data packets. Initial user surveys found that e-mails often took 6 hours to reach their destinations because they traveled through the DISN to reach servers in the continental United States.

Increasing the speed of communications in the battlespace is not an unreasonable expectation. Col. Edmund Mitchell, USMC, deputy joint test director, JMNO, points out that users in the United States already enjoy a reasonable amount of interoperability. “When I make a cell phone call, the party at the other end doesn’t have to be on the same network to make the connection. I can have Sprint, and the person at the other end can be on Verizon. The same thing is true for the Internet. I can access my bank account from anywhere in the country. But, when we deploy, we don’t have an Internet-like infrastructure there already. We have to bring it with us.” Typically, this infrastructure includes satellite communications and commercial routers, he explains.

The JMNO solution involves reconfiguring the routers already employed by the services to transmit and receive data directly between the units, rather than going through the DISN. The JMNO test team focused on the routers because they are easily reconfigurable for interoperability.

The solution is based on the concepts of lateral link nodes and multilink distribution nodes. Lateral link nodes are links between two services; multilink distribution nodes are connections among three or more military services. These nodes create a tactical-level joint network known as the JMNO purple zone, which facilitates the ability of operating forces to pass IP data freely between joint command and control (C2) nodes and service elements performing combat operations.

The purple zone does not need to use traditional DISN or JTF communications paths that typically rely on satellite communications. Instead, it can use local connections, such as Ethernet cables installed between two neighboring units, or terrestrial assets such as line-of-sight radios. Thus, the purple zone improves data transfer rates and reliability while increasing flexibility for users who are connecting to networks at the tactical level. This may significantly reduce tactical network congestion at the JTF level by keeping tactical traffic local. The reduction of traffic at the higher echelon level decreases the burden on satellite communications and could allow the services to avoid the need to purchase more satellite time.

Information assurance concerns are at the top of the list of reasons the services are hesitant to consider establishing IP-based connections between tactical units. To address this concern, the JMNO solution focuses on ensuring that the information assurance posture of tactical networks is not compromised by the implementation of JMNO lateral links. The JMNO TTP incorporates information assurance into every step of both the planning and implementation of lateral links to ensure that any potential information assurance risks are identified, addressed and mitigated.

Lateral link planning addresses the support of critical joint information exchange requirements that can use IP. These include video feeds, e-mail, file transfer and chat capability—all of which can improve situational awareness and allow warfighters to share data quickly while it is still relevant.

According to Col. Mitchell, most C2 systems need to perform refreshes within 5 minutes because data that is more than 5 minutes old is usually too stale to be of use; friend or foe can move a long distance in the time it takes to get data through the DISN.

The TTP document not only provides the configuration changes necessary to implement lateral links but also provides techniques and tools for planning the lateral links. Planning is key because equipment and information assurance negotiations need to take place before implementation of the lateral links. Deliberate planning for JMNO lateral links allows network planners to conduct equipment analyses and, if necessary, arrange for redistribution of tactical communications assets between units. Thus, equipment settings such as router configurations can be negotiated before the link is needed.

Because deliberate planning generally is performed at the JTF level, JMNO training on communications planning has focused on JTF communications planners. However, the TTP document has instructions on performing ad hoc planning as well, so tactical unit planners can use the document to implement JMNO lateral links as necessary.

For example, an Air Force unit in a joint operation needs to send a video feed to an Army unit operating in the same area, perhaps even on the same tactical base. The Air Force and Army communications planners use the JMNO TTP to plan and implement a JMNO lateral link between the tactical units. The Air Force unit with the video sends the feed through the designated Air Force lateral link node to the Army lateral link node. The Army lateral link node router automatically forwards the data to the Army client workstation or workstations that need the video information.

Adding a Navy lateral link node to this scenario provides an opportunity for setting up a multilink distribution node. For example, if a Navy unit needs to send IP data to an Army tactical unit but is unable to establish a physical lateral link with the Army lateral link nodes, the naval unit could send the IP data using the Air Force lateral link nodes. The Air Force lateral link nodes can be configured to forward the data to the Army lateral link nodes automatically. In this case, the Air Force lateral link node has taken on the additional responsibility as a multilink distribution node.

Employing multilink distribution nodes also provides the opportunity for redundant paths, which can be invaluable as combat situations change. “Consider what would happen if an enemy were to take out our satellites. JMNO lateral links provide an alternate means of communication,” Col. Mitchell notes. Because JMNO lateral links are not dependent on equipment-specific communications paths, they are well-suited for use over terrestrial links such as line-of-sight, troposcatter or hardwire connections. Using the JMNO TTP, the JTF organizations will be able to plan connectivity between different services and reduce the time necessary to implement lateral links, perhaps from days or months to just hours.

The JMNO TTP also addresses support for mobile users who need to connect to their home network to access information resources and network services when they travel outside their home network area. A mobile user in the JMNO purple zone would be able to access network resources through the lateral link node of another service. The JMNO TTP includes planning and implementation instructions to allow a host service to provide efficient, secure support for mobile users of other services who need to connect to their home service network over a lateral link.

For example, a Marine regimental liaison officer could enter an Army brigade headquarters and connect into the Army network via JMNO-defined “purple ports” on the host service’s router or switch. The host service would configure the purple ports to ensure complete control over the mobile user’s access to the network. The mobile user then would use the JMNO TTP to implement or activate the virtual private network on a workstation to allow connection to the home service network via the lateral link. Through this virtual private network connection, the user could access an e-mail server, a file transfer protocol server or other C2 applications as if sitting at a desk in regimental headquarters, thus increasing the warfighter’s effectiveness as a liaison.

The JMNO recently completed a second field test. Service communications planners from the Air Force, Navy, Army and Marine Corps used the JMNO TTP to plan and implement lateral links between tactical units using a variety of communications paths. Operators were able to use JMNO lateral links to pass tactical IP-based traffic between lateral link nodes and allow mobile users from the Navy and Air Force to travel to another service’s site, connect to that host network and then connect to their home network.

During the field test, operators exchanged e-mail, engaged in Internet Relay Chat sessions, conducted file transfers, accessed SharePoint collaboration sites and conducted collaboration via Command Post of the Future systems, all over JMNO lateral links. An Air Force mobile user connected to his home network’s lateral link node and was able to connect to the Joint Range Extension server in his operations module on his home network to view an air picture with almost no latency. All of these connections were accomplished without significantly affecting any unit’s information assurance posture; the lateral links were used only to pass the previously agreed upon IP traffic between C2 nodes.

After rigorous testing, JMNO is now assisting joint and individual service schools to create training material that will introduce the TTPs to service communications staff. Other items being produced include computer-based training modules, training videos, and a handbook developed for operators and planners in the field.

Now in the final phase of the project, JMNO also is actively working to update existing joint and service doctrine to include the JMNO TTP. The goal is to ensure that the TTP document not only is placed into the hands of the warfighter but also becomes living doctrine that will be updated long after the joint test is concluded.

Kathleen Bahr is a technical writer at Scientific Research Corporation (SRC), Quantico, Virginia. Maj. Fritz Doran, USMC (Ret.), a former Marine Corps communications officer, is a senior analyst in SRC’s San Diego office.

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