A New Network Emerges On an Ancient Battleground
Communicators have looked ahead in developing their system architecture in Iraq.
A group of communicators working within the Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command–Iraq has used Iraq as a laboratory of sorts, experimenting with new ways of supporting the network and finding unexpected successes in the process. Their immediate result is they have developed a robust network capable of supporting command and control of coalition forces. For the long term, they have established an architecture that should continue to evolve with changing technologies, force shifts and operational conditions.
Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command–Iraq, or CJFLCC-I, has been building a robust communications network in an austere, expeditionary environment to enable command and control of coalition forces supporting operation Inherent Resolve (OIR). The CJ-6 staff section of CJFLCC-I, with the support of U.S. Army Central (ARCENT), Combined Joint Task Force-OIR and U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), have been toiling behind the scenes to find creative solutions to the challenge of providing communications to a diverse force in a restrictive environment.
The current operation contrasts with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when the United States led a coalition into a hostile country and built a network from scratch. Legacy systems such as Mobile Subscriber Equipment (MSE) were used to establish a tactical network. Then, over many years, U.S. forces developed a strategic network connecting the myriad bases and outposts with robust, reliable connectivity. Fixed-station satellite earth terminals and hundreds of miles of fiber optic cable provided a level of connectivity comparable to a garrison environment. However, the U.S. military withdrew most troops at the conclusion of operation New Dawn at the end of 2011, and like the ruins of Ozymandias, few remnants of this strategic network now exist.
With a new coalition of troops entering Iraq in 2014, the CJFLCC-I could not simply pick up where it left off in 2011. As in 2003, it entered with an expeditionary mindset and established a tactical network to provide initial capabilities. Yet technology has advanced considerably since 2003, and the command is harnessing these new technologies to provide better command and control than previously was available. Instead of the MSE, the CJFLCC-I is using systems from the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) program, supplemented with some key commercial off-the-shelf systems. As in 2003, the goal is to build a strategic network that provides additional bandwidth, flexibility and reliability to commanders. But now, this effort must be balanced against political and military constraints as well as the transitory nature of the mission itself.
In 2003, the United States could dictate who entered Iraq, and it could assert control of Iraq’s electromagnetic frequency spectrum. Today, coalition forces must request clearance through diplomatic channels for all uniformed military personnel who enter Iraq. Additionally, civilian support personnel, such as field service representatives (FSRs) and logistics assistance representatives (LARs), must obtain a visa to enter the country. U.S. forces must request the use of electromagnetic frequencies through the Iraqi Ministry of Communications, which also must protect the frequency allocations for Iraq’s flourishing commercial communications sector. This is not the permissive environment of 2003, and it has required U.S. forces to be careful and deliberate as they plan network expansion.
These constraints have been overcome in a variety of ways. Manpower is a scarce resource in this operation, and the CJFLCC-I has maximized efficiency by relying on secret Internet protocol router network (SIPRNet)/nonsecure Internet protocol router network (NIPRNet) access points, or SNAPs, to provide connectivity to smaller and more remote bases. SNAPs are easy to transport, easy to install and require very little oversight once they are operational. This generates substantial manpower savings, as WIN-T systems such as command post nodes, Joint Network Nodes (JNNs) and single shelter switches—all of which can be used in some capacity at larger U.S. bases in Iraq—require teams of up to 15 soldiers to operate and maintain.
The CJFLCC-I further has reduced the number of personnel it needs in country by minimizing its maintenance footprint. Rather than keep a bullpen of FSRs and LARs in country, it has trained a small team of maintainers who can respond to minor outages. For outages beyond their ability to repair, the equipment is shipped to Kuwait for maintenance.
Additional manpower savings were found by leaving the communications security (COMSEC) vault at the home station. This COMSEC vault emails the cryptographic key material, which the CJFLCC-I then downloads to a simple key loader via data management device software for loading into local COMSEC devices.
Most importantly, the CJFLCC-I has cultivated a symbiotic relationship with the Iraqi Ministry of Communications and relies on it for frequency allocations. Despite the inherent scarcity of the electromagnetic frequency spectrum, the thriving commercial communications industry actually is an advantage. The CJFLCC-I can contract local companies to provide Internet service over existing circuits. This is in contrast to U.S. experiences in 2003, when few opportunities existed to contract services to local companies.
The CJFLCC-I operates a few bases spread across hundreds of miles of open terrain in Iraq, and this operational environment required a novel approach to network transport. Without the reliable fiber optic cable infrastructure and system of high-capacity line-of-sight links that were used until 2011, the CJFLCC-I had to rely on satellite communications to carry the signal out of theater. But satellite communications come with a few inherent limitations, including smaller bandwidth, increased latency and susceptibility to weather degradation. These limitations had to be overcome.
The first challenge to be tackled was the bandwidth limitations of satellite communications. WIN-T systems come with their own satellite terminals, but the command usually employs time division multiple access (TDMA), a transmission protocol that subdivides a single frequency among multiple systems and allocates a fraction of a second to each of them to transmit in short bursts. To the user, the experience is tantamount to greatly reduced bandwidth and astronomical latency. For the number of users and systems that needed support, this was unacceptable.
Fortunately, frequency competition for the satellite constellation in use is far less intense than it once was, and the CJFLCC-I has been able to use frequency division multiple access (FDMA), a protocol that allots a dedicated frequency to each system. This ameliorates the bandwidth and latency limitations that the user experiences.
However, its use also posed a new challenge: SNAPs come with only a TDMA modem. To put these into systems at smaller U.S. bases, they would need the ability to transmit on FDMA. So the CJFLCC-I acquired DMD-2050E modems, which are FDMA-capable, and upgraded all of the SNAPs before putting them into system.
The next challenge tackled was latency. The signal flow from the end-user equipment went through a switch to the satellite antenna, bounced off of a satellite in geosynchronous orbit thousands of miles in space, back down to a regional hub node in Kuwait into the Department of Defense Information Network (DODIN), and then the responding signal returned through this circuitous path. This resulted in a few seconds of latency for the user. The latency largely was negligible for data traffic, but it was unacceptable for voice and video teleconferencing. To solve this issue, the network engineers of CJFLCC-I and ARCENT created a logical mesh that created paths directly to and from the various nodes in Iraq, cutting latency in half.
The last challenge to satellite communications was weather degradation. Although much of Iraq enjoys long periods of sunny days and placid nights, some areas had periods of time that included precipitation, cloud cover or wind that interfered with the signal. To address this, the CJFLCC-I installed snow shields on satellite dishes at northern bases and set up redundant satellite terminals at sites that suffered from rain fade—one terminal would operate on the Ka band at 26.5-40 GHz, which has been very reliable in good weather, while another terminal operated on the Ku band at 12-18 GHz, which is less susceptible to rain fade. Even when one suffers an outage, the other remains up and traffic can failover to the operational satellite terminal. Connectivity has managed to persevere during periods of thick cloud cover through meticulous power-balancing between the command and the regional hub node. In areas that have strong gusts of wind, the smaller, trailer-mounted satellite terminals were losing satellite lock, and technicians thus would have to perform a peak and pole to get it back on the satellite. To these areas, the command sent a truck-mounted Phoenix terminal—an AN/TSC-156, which demonstrated far greater reliability in high winds.
While Iraqi partners prosecute the ground war, U.S. forces maintain a vigilant watch over the Da’ish, or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), with a fleet of airborne sensors and weapons platforms. This has provided an overwhelming advantage to the Iraqis, as the United States can provide oversight and fire support to their maneuver units while also performing reconnaissance and surveillance. But for these air assets to be effective, they must be piped into command and control centers around Iraq.
This is being accomplished through a group of sites that can collect all airborne platform signals that are within the platform’s line of sight and inject them into the network. It required the establishment of a dedicated circuit that not only connects all of the signal receivers in the area but also funnels them out and into the DODIN. From there, they can be broadcast back out to commanders in Iraq through Global Broadcasting Systems and Unified Video Distribution Systems.
The greatest challenge the CJFLCC-I may have faced with this solution is in simplifying the diverse array of signals. There are many different airborne sensors, from many different coalition nations, transmitting different signals on different frequencies. No single antenna can be emplaced at these sites to receive all of these signals, so a menagerie of antennas must be used—and the data circuit that retransmits the signal to the DODIN must connect to each of these antennas. In the end, it looks like an ad hoc solution, but it gets the job done.
The fight against ISIL is a team effort, and many nations are a part of this team. CENTCOM is tackling the challenge of interconnectivity through a trusted network environment (TNE). The TNE is a network of networks in which the SIPRNet, the Battlefield Intelligence Collection and Exploitation System (BICES) and the Coalition Partner Network (CPN) can interconnect. This eliminates the need for a dedicated combined enterprise regional information exchange system, which has been used in other coalition environments such as Afghanistan and Korea. Users require only one classified account to connect to each other across multiple domains.
However, using a TNE is not without its challenges. A training program was implemented to teach users how to send emails through the TNE using proper classification markings and careful screening of attachments for words the TNE will flag and block. Despite the training program, many help desk trouble tickets come from users whose emails did not pass through the TNE.
The addition of BICES and CPN domains means that these networks must be tunneled through existing SIPRNet circuits at each base to enable these users to join their respective domain. This has been labor intensive for the network operations team—and network engineers in particular—and requires collaboration with stakeholders throughout CENTCOM. The CJFLCC-I has been fortunate to have the support of some very smart technicians and some very patient coalition users.
Despite the challenges, the command has achieved some distinct successes with its coalition partners. Coalition nations field their own end user hardware, which then is imaged for their appropriate network, and this has reduced the strain on the limited supply of U.S. hardware. Many coalition nations also have begun fielding their own network transport equipment, and there have not been any problems in connecting that equipment to the U.S. network infrastructure.
The war against ISIL may persist for several more years. When current U.S. forces end their deployment and rotate home, their replacements can build upon a robust, seamless network. But one day, the mission will end, and when it does, the network likely will have remained expeditionary enough that forces can perform a speedy, orderly collapse of the network. But there is still plenty of room for network evolution until then, and forces can look forward to future experimentation and success in Iraq.