• The HMAS Ballarat, USS Mobile Bay, CNS Cochrane, INS Satpura, HMCS Calgary and USS Shoup prepare for a live-fire exercise during Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2016. Interoperability in the Pacific theater is a constant challenge for U.S. forces that are relying more and more on new information technologies.
     The HMAS Ballarat, USS Mobile Bay, CNS Cochrane, INS Satpura, HMCS Calgary and USS Shoup prepare for a live-fire exercise during Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2016. Interoperability in the Pacific theater is a constant challenge for U.S. forces that are relying more and more on new information technologies.

Balancing Act Defines PACOM C4I

November 1, 2016
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

More is being required of a system that increasingly is in peril.


Military communications systems around the world are being asked to do more with less, but U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific region face an even more complex challenge. Lacking a regionwide multinational alliance such as NATO, the U.S. Pacific Command is working to improve interoperability in bilateral arrangements with allies and partner nations amid an increased threat to the very networks forces rely on during crises. 

The types of missions in which forces may find themselves engaged are becoming more diverse. In addition to nonlethal or humanitarian efforts, confrontations and conflicts are trending toward asymmetric innovation. The information system capabilities needed to support these kinds of multinational operations increasingly are more varied, and the force’s use of new technologies from the private sector only complicates matters further.

The threat, which has grown in the past two years, comes from potential adversaries who realize the value of the command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I) systems that form the backbone of the force across the vast region. The U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) more and more finds itself preparing to fight in conflicts with substantially reduced C4I capabilities. So as PACOM strives to improve network interoperability, it also must train to operate in a degraded or even a denied environment. 

Rear Adm. Kathleen M. Creighton, USN, PACOM J-6, says she faces three challenges. The first is ensuring the PACOM commander can command and control his forces. Having agile, resilient and redundant communications in all areas is key to achieving this goal, she states. It is in this realm that friendly forces could find both less capacity and reduced capabilities because of enemy action.

The J-6’s second challenge is to continue to improve cyberspace operations. This includes integrating cyber into the full spectrum of PACOM’s operational planning, design and execution. Meeting this challenge will require improving both technology and training as well as procedures, the admiral notes. Exercises such as the Pacific Sentry series help in this effort. 

Adm. Creighton states that PACOM has made substantial progress with integrating cyberspace activities into the command’s overall operations. The Cyber Mission Force is nearing full operating capability, and this improves PACOM’s standing in cyberspace. Working with the U.S. Cyber Command—which ordered the creation of the cyber force in 2012—and exploring cyber activities in exercises have helped PACOM grasp how to wage cyber warfare and defend against an attack. “We have done a lot of work in this [cyber] area, and so we are starting to see more success,” she reports.

Much of this work focuses on the individual user. Each one is a cyber warrior and must practice good cyber hygiene. Each one is key to network defense and represents an entry point the enemy could exploit, the admiral emphasizes.

The third challenge is the command’s relationships with allies and partners. The J-6 role in this area largely involves interoperability, and the directorate is active with interoperability boards and the Pacific Endeavor exercise to address this challenge. “It is a big [area of operations], and we need to work at keeping these relationships,” she says. 

Adm. Creighton stresses that PACOM’s interoperability challenges are mostly technological rather than cultural. Historically, the command has operated bilateral point-to-point networks with its allies and partners. But this type of connectivity lacks agility and flexibility during operations. “You don’t have the ability to change—depending on your operation—who is in that network and who is included,” she allows. “We continue to be challenged by the way the networks are set up … so we really need to move toward a different type of network structure where we have more flexibility and the ability to stand up and tear down networks.

“We have tons of technology in the world,” she continues. “It’s achieving common standards—that all countries have the same technologies and have brought them and know how to use them.” 

International developments on the other side of the Pacific, such as China’s aggressive territorial moves in the South China Sea, have not changed PACOM’s C4I, Adm. Creighton states. “We continue to focus on ensuring resiliency, our relationship with allies and partners and our interoperability with those allies and partners,” she says. Large multinational exercises such as the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) allow PACOM to practice capabilities that might be used in a number of different types of operations.

The most recent RIMPAC exercise generated C4I results that represented “the fruits of our interoperability boards,” the admiral offers. Communications security capabilities, link architectures and other elements that emerged from those boards were proved during that RIMPAC. “We were able to fight together in a coalition environment,” she reports. “It proved a lot of the work that we do every day, but it continued to send a signal of the need for coalition networks that are more agile and support a regional approach to information sharing.”

RIMPAC participants tested various coalition network configurations. This highlighted the differences between legacy point-to-point systems and more modern architectures. Adm. Creighton explains that the maritime operation center at Pacific Fleet headquarters had more of a hybrid approach featuring reconfigurable hardware, while the Pacific Air Forces air operations center used a multi-enclave client (MEC) setup. This MEC configuration allows an operator at a single workstation to view and use different coalition networks, which is what the admiral describes as “where we are trying to go in the future.” With this validation, the J-6 is continuing to move in that direction, she emphasizes.

She added that the exercise proved the need for more cybersecurity training and understanding on a large scale. “All countries need more training and ability to exercise cybersecurity, and that’s another focus of our interoperability boards and meetings with our allies and partners,” the admiral says.

PACOM has been working at understanding its networks and what needs to be defended. Determining the operational systems and capabilities that are key to PACOM operations is at the heart of the command’s cyber defense, and Adm. Creighton says the command is focusing on learning to maneuver communications forces to defend cyberspace. 

Managing the burgeoning U.S. relationship with India, a partner nation that has drawn closer in recent years, also is a priority for the command. The admiral explains that her office works closely with the PACOM J-5, the strategic planning and policy directorate, supporting it as the relationship with India develops. The J-6 seeks ways of advancing that relationship, which currently interoperates at the level of humanitarian assistance/disaster-relief operations, she says. Her directorate will continue to look for ways to further interoperability with India.

As planners strive to cope with increasing interoperability needs, they also must ensure that PACOM assets are keeping up with evolving requirements. Large-scale technology acquisitions must go through the procurement process, which takes time. Meanwhile, the command works with existing systems and technologies to improve its capabilities. “At the unit level, at the ship level, at the squadron level, people constantly are using organic capabilities to address shortcomings,” Adm. Creighton offers.

The command is eyeing several private-sector technology areas to help achieve its mission. Adm. Creighton cites cyber forensics and analytics and cloud security as two major categories. Identity and access management are critical to using new C4I technologies securely. Artificial intelligence holds great promise, and it will be important in the future. Lessons from big data analytics also will be key to J-6 efforts, she adds.

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