Pentagon Seeks Virtual Clone

February 2002
By Maryann Lawlor
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Defense Emergency Preparedness Moves Into Cyberspace.

Technology is liberating the U.S. Defense Department from the chains of a single location by enabling it to become a network-centric department. The initiative to create a virtual Pentagon calls for taking advantage of advances in networking, Internet protocol, videoconferencing, mass storage and data transmitting technologies. These capabilities would allow military personnel to continue to collaborate and communicate in emergency situations even if systems within the Pentagon are damaged.

Senior military officials have long recognized that their information technology systems are a virtual Achilles’ heel, but the attacks of September 11 underscored the importance of both data and communications to the highest levels of the military under any circumstances. The terrorist attacks accelerated the implementation of a distributed Pentagon concept that could improve processes across the board in both crises and day-to-day operations.

The program’s design and implementation are being handled by the Office of the Secretary of Defense; however, once in place they will be maintained by the institutional Pentagon. The monies approved for September 11 provide funding for the project response.

All of the military services and agencies that operate out of the Pentagon are involved in the work to set up the virtual Pentagon. The U.S. Army is the primary manager of the project because it is the chief service for communications at the facility. For security reasons, details of the set-up cannot be disclosed; however, senior leaders indicate that the department was in the heavy throes of implementation as of late last year.

John Osterholz, director of architecture interoperability in the Office of the Chief Information Officer, Office of the Secretary of Defense, explains that contingency plans for emergencies have been in place for Pentagon personnel for some time. And although the terrorist attack on the Pentagon accentuated the need for change, it is not the only impetus for moving forward with the virtual Pentagon idea. Three critical changes have taken place during the past several years that spur the need for a transformation of sorts in the way the department functions.

The military has witnessed a change in the nature of conflict, Osterholz points out. During the Cold War, a relatively small number of people were involved in decision making and primarily faced a single threat: nuclear attack. Today, while potential conflicts still include a nuclear component, they also involve asymmetric threats. “So we’ve moved from one overarching major threat to the homeland of a nuclear exchange to a spectrum of threats. What used to be black and white is now shades of gray,” he states.

Because the type of conflict the United States is and could be facing has changed, the nature of leadership also has evolved, Osterholz offers. Although the secretary of defense, his staff and the Defense Department are essentially in charge of the execution of military operations, other government departments also play a role when conflicts arise. When the Pentagon was hit, the remainder of the government was left largely intact, and the continuity of important processes was critical, Osterholz notes. “The services are still engaged, and we’re conducting operations overseas that are a high priority. We have to support those even if there is a strike on the Pentagon. So, continuity is very important,” he says.

Leadership has changed in another respect. Today, the secretary of defense is a leader in a larger sense than just the head of the armed forces. The military has a global footprint. The condition of the economy today is evidence of the far-reaching effects of military actions. As a result, ensuring business continuity is now considered part of the responsibilities of military leadership,” Osterholz shares.

The global nature of society intensifies the cascade effect major events can have on the economy. For example, the year 2000 (Y2K) effect on computers went far beyond the computer industry. While Osterholz emphasizes that the events of September 11 were a “horse of a different color,” Y2K was an indication of how one crisis can have far-reaching consequences.

“Don’t underestimate the United States’ ability to recover. But Y2K was a lesson that we learned, a lesson that required us to look at a different balance of response capabilities,” he states.

Advances in technology are the third change in the state of the world today that is instigating the move toward establishing a distributed Pentagon, Osterholz indicates. Networking technologies, Internet protocol (IP) and videoconferencing capabilities, mass data storage availability and the ability to move critical databases quickly all facilitate network-centric emergency operations and a network-centric Pentagon, he explains.

“A combination of the videoconferencing technologies is important at the leadership level. IP technology provides the ability to store and move data for day-to-day operations. These are the critical technologies that we have,” Osterholz maintains. “We have state-of-the-practice technologies, not necessarily state-of-the-art technologies, but that’s good enough. What you contemplate on a sunny day sounds good and needs to be done. But these circumstances bring to light that these things need to be done now.”

Network-centric operations, he emphasizes, require the “operations” at the end of it. It is more than a matter of having information centrally located; it also means being able to operate.

Establishing a distributed Pentagon poses some of the same problems that the military has faced for some time in new battlefield capabilities. Included in this list are bandwidth issues. Osterholz indicates that developing a virtual Pentagon will result in broader benefits than just being able to respond better to emergency situations.

“One of the reasons we’re doing this right now is to do what we can to improve the availability of bandwidth in the Washington, D.C., area and the United States in general. It’s hard to have network-centric if you have to build a network every time you need one,” he says. Every major military installation will benefit from improvements, he adds.

He also discloses that collaborative tools will play a key role in the operations of the distributed Pentagon. The defense collaboration tool suite, or DCTS, is in the proof-of-concept stage. The U.S. Joint Forces Command, Norfolk, Virginia, is using it for staff operations and exploring its abilities in the context of emergency situations.

Information security is a key component of the project. Best practices are being implemented because of the value of the data and the nature of command and control, Osterholz states. As is the norm, physical security issues will be addressed, he adds.

Industry can support the effort in a number of ways. “The ability to move and store data is even more critical. We need the next generation of storage that works more effectively with open standards. What we have is the first generation, and there are a lot of proprietary components. It makes it very difficult to put new things in. I would encourage industry to move down the road more rapidly and incorporate open standards. Where open standards do not exist, begin developing them,” he proposes.

Providing training on technology that has been incorporated into the set-up is critical. Because some of the applications and systems are new, personnel need to be familiarized with how they work, what they do and how to use them, Osterholz points out.

Returning to the topic of bandwidth, he reiterates that industry must address this issue. “It is not clear that the infrastructure is there to support network-centric operations. More often than not, we’re disappointed with the bandwidth we get,” Osterholz says.

One very critical element that is not often discussed is the reliability of the technology being offered. “These systems are mission-critical, and reliability matters. There has to be an understanding, and vendors have to have an overarching commitment in terms of reliability,” he emphasizes.

The move to a network-centric approach at the Pentagon is not without difficulties. Osterholz identifies change management as one of the key challenges the department faces.

Whenever change is introduced, people’s attitudes tend to go through several phases, Osterholz explains. A requirement for a new system results in an excitement about change. However, after this initial enthusiasm, people enter a freeze phase, and the momentum wanes. A single emotional event, such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, gets change moving again, but in the middle of this move forward there is a tendency to refreeze. This phenomenon is not new to the information technology community where change is a constant. But that does not alter the need to address the human element of change, he asserts.

Despite the challenges, Osterholz believes the virtual Pentagon is an important course of action. “This project is a significant opportunity to do something right. This transforms us—that’s transform with a little ‘t’—into network-centric,” he maintains.

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