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  • In preparation for the NATO Trident Juncture 18 exercise, a British Army convoy enters Malmo, Sweden in October after crossing the Oresund Bridge that connects to Denmark. Shared classified “federated” networks used during such exercises are a key allied tool, says Col. Jenniffer Minks, USAF (Ret.), coalition interoperability division chief, Deputy Directorate for Cyber and C4 Integration, Joint Staff J-6. Photo courtesy of NATO
     In preparation for the NATO Trident Juncture 18 exercise, a British Army convoy enters Malmo, Sweden in October after crossing the Oresund Bridge that connects to Denmark. Shared classified “federated” networks used during such exercises are a key allied tool, says Col. Jenniffer Minks, USAF (Ret.), coalition interoperability division chief, Deputy Directorate for Cyber and C4 Integration, Joint Staff J-6. Photo courtesy of NATO

The Joint Staff's Pursuit of Improved Coalition Networks

The Cyber Edge
April 1, 2019
By Kimberly Underwood
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The demand to build secure partner networks is increasing in a complex global environment. The demand to build secure partner networks is increasing in a complex global environment.


The requirement to partner with allied nations and share a classified network will only grow in the coming years, leaders say. In combined exercises, engagements or missions, coalition partners need to be able to connect digitally to share communications, resources and information to strengthen defenses and partnerships. At the Pentagon, the Joint Staff is working to improve coalition systems and how the U.S. can connect securely to those networks outside of the national networks, one expert shares.

Coalition networks are used in exercises around the world—and would provide a secure digital platform in the event of war—to link militaries of various countries to email, video, voice and data resources, as well as to secret-level information, says Col. Jenniffer Minks, USAF (Ret.), coalition interoperability division chief, Deputy Directorate for Cyber and C4 Integration, Joint Staff J-6. And while network partnering in the past may have centered on NATO members, the U.S. military is partnering with an increasing number of allied nations these days, Col. Minks notes.

“Who don’t we connect with? It is growing and it continues to grow,” she says. “Some of our closest allies and partners, like South Korea and Japan, are certainly not part of NATO, but we do partner with them with on networks.”

Col. Minks confirms that the necessity for secure coalition networks comes from all sorts of drivers. “It is in the National Defense Strategy, the National Military Strategy. It is brought up in the Department of Defense cyber strategy,” she states. “It’s basically everywhere, and the thing is, we don’t do engagements by ourselves. It’s much more efficient if we have a federation or a connection with our coalition partner.”

The Joint Staff works to set up connections provided solely for specific allied missions, which could be a humanitarian mission or any other type of engagement, the colonel stipulates. The mission networks enable the United States to move off of its unclassified and secret national networks, avoiding cyber risks to crucial national infrastructure. “There are a plethora of networks the United States uses when connecting, federating or sharing information with our coalition partners, such as Pegasus, CENTRIX, APAN and more,” the colonel offers.

Creating a secure shared network for an engagement gets away from what she refers to as the “swivel chair” problem, where officers or soldiers from different militaries have separate networks, and the only way to share any information is by moving a desk chair and looking over someone’s shoulder. “You’d be on your network and we’re on our network and we can’t share anything other than by swivel chair,” she notes. “I’m going to swivel over to yours and put something in and then you swivel over to mine. That’s not a secure manner to do any type of information exchange. And the need to be able to pass and exchange information and data is just increasing more and more.”

A 23-year veteran of the Air Force specializing in communications, Col. Minks became a cyber officer after the service mandated that all communications officers become cyber officers. After deployment to Afghanistan as the chief of Afghan cyber defense, the colonel “really started exploring cyber defense a bit more, especially on the coalition forefront,” she says.

Col. Minks is parlaying her experiences into her current position, and with others on the Joint Staff is advising senior U.S. officials on the requirements for building digital networks with coalition partners and how to secure them. The staff makes recommendations to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff [currently Gen. Joe Dunford, USMC]; the secretary of defense [the acting secretary is presently Patrick Shanahan]; and to the U.S. president.

“And we do that based on our interactions with the Combatant Commands, the services and different agencies,” Col. Minks explains. “We’re really the voice for pulling in what the Combatant Commands’ needs are, the requirements and strategy. It is a lot of interfacing. I think the interesting part is that you could be working with somebody from INDOPACOM [U.S. Indo-Pacific Command] at 9 in the morning and SOUTHCOM [U.S. Southern Command] at 10 a.m. and maybe at 6 a.m. earlier that morning with EUCOM [U.S. European Command]. So you get all these different perspectives, and they’re all very unique.”

And with Gen. Dunford’s drive to make the U.S. military a more globally integrated and multicombatant command, the Joint Staff “really has a job to do to make sure that all the combatant commands are able to globally integrate, and that’s where coalition networks and how we federate with our partners is becoming more and more important,” she says.

To create the digital connections, the Joint Staff is building off of the work in Afghanistan in a process Col. Minks refers to as federating. “I’ll use the term federate because if you go back to the Afghan Mission Network, that is the baseline that we use,” she notes.

The most formal of arrangements, the Mission Partner Environment (MPE), involves federating with a coalition partner using joining or membership requirements as well as exiting instructions. The MPE requirements outline how partners will connect securely and how they will operate within that shared digital environment. “This is the United States’ contribution to the Federated Mission Networking environment—the son of the Afghan Mission Network.”

The Joint Staff spent last year identifying risks and remediations to partner connections, the colonel states. “Part of the remediation is reducing the number of connections and that means implementing the MPE,” she says.

The United States uses the framework each time it builds a coalition network. “It’s fairly structured,” the colonel shares. The construct defines the specifications for key communication capabilities: email, voice, chat and file exchange. It even dictates which version of software will be used.

“It’s everything from what version of Windows we will use, the basics, all the way up to spiral specifications, as we continue to evolve and mature in our federations,” she says. “We go from the core services, can we chat, can we talk to each other, can we email, and can we have file transfer, all the way up, with spiral developments, to how we share information on the COP [common operating picture], including targeting sharing, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, those sort of things. And it is getting more and more refined over time.”

One of the biggest challenges for the U.S. military, however, is the limited opportunity to train to build a coalition network. “There just aren’t that many events out there right now where we can practice doing this,” she observes.

In 2016, the U.S. Army implemented an executive order (EXORD), which directs that whenever the service participates in a training event with a coalition partner, it will use the mission partner environment. That policy is “fantastic,” she says. “That’s pretty much the only way you’re going to make it happen.”

In this area, the Army is leading. For Col. Minks, requiring coalition networks is a natural extension of the Army’s responsibility with allies on the ground. “How you spell joint is A-R-M-Y,” she jokes. However, the other services do not have such a policy in place—although the Joint Staff is in talks with the Marine Corps, she adds.

“We [do] try and level the field by sharing with the different services what their sister services are doing to implement MPE,” she states. “We also work closely with DISA and the executive agent to again share information with the combatant commands, services and agencies.”

Another difficulty that the United States faces in creating partner networks relates to how sensitive information will be shared. And while initial discussions in the intelligence community have considered changing the way information is classified to promote more sharing amongst coalition partners, this remains a roadblock, Col. Minks notes.

“It absolutely is a consideration,” she says. “One of the hardest things to change is our way of thinking when moving things onto a mission network. Because whoever is on that network is agreeing to a certain level of releaseability. You’ve come to an agreement that you’re not going to allow them on that network unless you agree to release your information to them and vice versa. The stumbling blocks that we’re running into now come from their definition of secret. When we say classified secret, releasable, they may have a different definition.”

Often, because of the varying ways of defining classifications, the nations end up not being able to transfer information, Col. Minks laments. “And sometimes they do call it by the same name, but then when you go to the actual operational definition of it, it’s not the same thing.”

Another challenge applies to how the U.S. military is moving to the cloud, which leaves coalition partners a bit reticent about the process and related security.

“As with most things, the technical aspect is easier than policy,” she states. “It is one of the biggest challenges that we’re finding right now as the United States migrates to cloud configuration. This [cloud] is new. It’s new to federation, and how we are going to do this with our mission partners is new. And not all mission partners agree with our security accreditation with that. There are several nations that say we have not figured out how to do that yet, such as when using virtual data centers to build enclaves to do a federation and connection.”

The Joint Staff will continue to work through how to implement cloud configuration when federating a coalition network, iron out any differences with the allies and provide assurances as to how they will secure the network, the colonel stated.

In the meantime, the Joint Staff is preparing for its next major exercise, called Bold Quest, to be held in Finland this spring. The demonstration—the planning of which has taken the last 18 to 24 months—will offer a dozen nations the opportunity to federate and connect to an MPE, Col. Minks says. The majority of the infrastructure for Bold Quest is Joint Staff-funded.

“We invite nations and operational units from all the services to participate, and it’s a super opportunity for the joint fires community and also for the federated mission networking community to really get a chance to say, ‘Let’s build a mission network, and now can we do joint fires events,’” Col. Minks states. “There are very few events out there like this.”

Last fall, Norway hosted Trident Juncture, one of the largest NATO exercises in recent history, which involved 50,000 military participants from 31 nations conducting live defensive exercises in the North Atlantic and Baltic Sea (see page 30). During the exercise, the Army and the Marine Corps connected to mission partner networks, the colonel notes. “We were pleased to see that it was more than one service participating with federating,” she acknowledges. “It’s good to see them dipping their toe in the water.”

Going forward, the colonel says she is quite motivated to continue efforts to federate coalition networks because of the difference it makes operationally. “When I was stationed in Germany, we had Operation Odyssey Dawn, and it really drove home the need to be able to federate and share information when we’re in a contingency operation,” she shares. “People having to spend just ridiculous amounts of time, trying to hand jam in an air tasking order and then seeing grown men crying. I saw how we’ve got to figure out a way where we can federate and we can exchange information on a mission network. It is much safer for our warfighters. They can actually get the real picture since we are all on the same network, and not just one country’s interpretation or another’s.”

“We don’t engage by ourselves,” she adds. “Whether it’s in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or during a humanitarian event—it’s a coalition.”

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