Special Operations Has Special Networking Needs

July 2011
By Rita Boland, SIGNAL Magazine


U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command combat controllers practice firing movements on the range at a forward-deployed location supporting operation Enduring Freedom. These warfighters are trained to conduct and support special operations under clandestine, covert or low-visibility conditions.

A technology leader of the warfighting elite explains why his organization is different and what tools would enhance mission.

The J-6 and chief information officer of the U.S. Special Operations Command may not be an international man of mystery, but he does have multiple roles that aid sensitive operations. Unlike similar positions at other U.S. combatant commands, the leader in charge of communications for special forces manages his own network and a discretionary budget. The result is a unique situation that enables quick responses to warfighters’ needs.

John Wilcox currently fills those roles, which also include the title of designated approval authority for the Special Operations Forces (SOF) Information Environment (SIE). “SOCOM [Special Operations Command] is a functional command with service-like responsibilities,” he explains. “We try to put it into those terms sometimes because it creates a mix between the operational world and the Title 10 world.”

On a day-to-day basis, Wilcox and his team operate and maintain the SIE, an expeditionary network that provides communications to all deployed SOF elements as well as a number of garrison locations. He says he likes to term the SIE as “the SOF extension of the Global Information Grid.” As the accrediting and certification authority for the network, Wilcox also is concerned with defending it. Providing protection to tactical nodes is a greater challenge than protecting the garrison, and some large initiatives that work well in the static environment pose challenges in the field. “It’s nothing we’re not working through, but if I had a message for industry and the [Defense Department], it’s that we really want to optimize for the tactical environment, not the garrison environment,” he states.

Unlike other combatant command (COCOM) J-6s, Wilcox does not have to integrate four separate service networks into a single one; SOCOM employs a homogenous network across all its components. “What it does for me is it takes the integration friction out of the equation,” he explains. Wilcox also has oversight of the information technology budget. “So I’m the accrediting authority for anything that goes on the SIE as well as running it and then managing what we buy to put on it,” Wilcox says. “That’s where I’m really blessed” because in the services the program executive offices (PEOs) are far separated from the operational chain of command.

SOCOM also differs from other commands by combining all its networks under the J-6, including intelligence networks. That means Wilcox manages the classified and unclassified networks including the highly classified Special Operations Command Research, Analysis and Threat Evaluation System, or SOCRATES. “This allows us to consolidate where appropriate,” he explains, adding that with the process, he can better leverage the information technology work force and investment. Wilcox believes all J-6s would prefer to run all the networks, but military practices are not established that way.

Wilcox’s boss, SOCOM Commander Adm. Eric Olson, USN, shares his point of view: “In the traditional shoot, move and communicate construct, the quantum leap for SOF since 9/11 has been in networking our force. SOF commanders depend on reliable, secure, high-capacity networks extended to the smallest tactical SOF elements at the most remote sites for information sharing and time-sensitive decision making. Without this robust capability, we cannot meet the needs and expectations of the geographic combatant commanders.”

Wilcox works with the PEO Command, Control, Communications and Computers (C4) to build the strategic plan for his command along with the materiel solutions that allow the pieces to function. “I think the bottom line is [that] our ability to marry operational requirements and resourcing with our acquisition capability makes us very responsive to the warfighter,” he explains. “That is clearly the piece that makes us unique at least in the J-6/CIO [chief information officer] world. No other COCOM has that ability. [The U.S. Transportation Command] has a slight capability, but nothing like what we have with our separate funding line, with MFP-11.”

With that independent funding, Wilcox can set and enforce standards across SOF and immediately re-prioritize resources to meet operational requirements. His counterparts in other commands must request solutions for operational shortfalls through services or a centralized authority.

All the titles Wilcox wears have the same focus—to provide the right support to special operations troops. “Operationally, if you want to call it the 25-meter target, we’re really focused on Afghanistan and Iraq,” Wilcox says. “But SOF is deployed to over 70 countries on a daily basis, so I can’t be fixated on a set theater or we will put forces at risk. I think globally the majority of the time because that’s the capability I have to be prepared to project.”

Wilcox’s staff handles the routine technical aspects of C4 systems at SOCOM; he spends much of his time working with external partners such as the Defense Information Systems Agency, U.S. Cyber Command and other COCOMs and with internal partners such as the service SOF commands. Though the conversations he has can delve into technical detail, the focus is to build relationships and better understand how different groups can benefit each other. These meetings also help Wilcox build the right capabilities into acquisition cycles. “As the CIO, I have oversight of the C4 portfolio for all of SOCOM, so I’m very sensitive to the operational requirements of our commanders,” he says. “I need to know what they feel is important.” With that knowledge, he explains, he can ensure that requests for proposals and contracting structures support mission needs.

To meet his goals, Wilcox says he believes in people, not technology, even in his highly technical field. Because of that, he works to take care of his team members. He takes pride in requiring all military and government employees to attend a training event or other educational opportunity at least once a year to improve their skills or gain new ones. He encourages contractor personnel to do the same.

Over the past 18 to 24 months, Wilcox says his command has enjoyed several successes including the transition of major combat operations from Iraq to Afghanistan. “It’s a different fight with different requirements, and we were able to reposition the force as well as re-equip the force using some of our acquisition agility,” he explains. During the last year, SOCOM fielded more than 200 SOF Deployable Node terminals in various configurations. These satellite communications (SATCOM) tools provide voice, video, data and access to various networks down to the operational level.

In Afghanistan, SOF warriors have even more of a counterinsurgency mission than they did in Iraq. That forces troops to form even smaller teams, which the nodes help stay connected. The terminals also directly support efforts to build stability operations in Afghanistan by giving command and control ability to small groups. Though the most common idea of SOF may be kinetic fights of the most sensitive nature, Wilcox says these warfighters have a number of missions, including nonkinetic nation building, adding that their language and culture skills play well into that type of situation.

Another success in the SOCOM technical world is cloud computing. Industry and the military have discussed this concept at length recently, but Wilcox explains that SOCOM has been in the cloud computing business with its network for some time. The system has its hub within the United States, but many users sit in remote areas, dialing in for and drawing out services. “We’re already there, but we are making some efforts to move even farther into the cloud environment,” Wilcox says. The reason is twofold: SOCOM wants to move in that direction, and the Office of Management and Budget has a mandate for federal data center consolidation.

Though many people look at the cloud as a tool to enhance efficiency, Wilcox says SOCOM is interested more in its effectiveness. The command is focused mainly on a private or a hybrid private cloud that it hosts, consolidating all services at a couple of key locations. Wilcox believes this will provide the reliability and redundancies that commanders require when they use the network for operations. “They need to have information they can get to, and they need to be able to pass their decisions rapidly whenever needed,” he states.

The cloud helps accommodate the expeditionary nature of the SIE. “We don’t know where the next crisis is going to occur so we have to make sure that there’s some level of infrastructure available wherever we might go,” Wilcox explains. “We use reach-back to do that.” This includes accessing the cloud network. It also touches on the multiple roles of SOF. In addition to being the first warriors into Afghanistan and dealing with limited infrastructure there, the warfighters also were first into Japan and Haiti when those countries, and their communications capabilities, were devastated by earthquakes.


U.S. Army Special Forces conduct a convoy reconnaissance mission at Badamak in the Uruzgan Province of Afghanistan. The mission objective is to assist local Afghan citizens with security and development. Special operations forces are helping with nation building in Afghanistan, but they also have a counterinsurgency mission. This tasking has warfighters dividing into smaller teams and
network personnel working to make sure everyone has the communications support they need.

On the opposite end of the achievement spectrum are several challenges that Wilcox is addressing. “First of all, it frustrates me, just like it frustrates everybody, that we don’t have a single sign-on capability where I can go anywhere in the world and sign in and have access to my data,” he says. One of SOCOM’s goals, especially in Wilcox’s department, is to create an environment that will enable all SOF members to have a single log-in and password to each domain when they sit on a SOF-provided terminal. “With that, they’ll have global access to their information,” Wilcox explains.

As with many issues, the main hindrance to implementation is culture, not technology. Wilcox believes that defeating cultural restrictions requires trust building and that the cloud computing environment and data center environment will help create the assurance necessary to move the project forward. SOCOM is taking its time with the endeavor and hopes to have the capabilities in place in approximately a year.

Another issue for SOCOM and others is the never-ending requirement for increased bandwidth, a problem compounded by the migration toward more high-definition video. “The amount of traffic that we’re now passing from node to node is just unbelievable,” Wilcox says. This is an area where industry can step forward and help, providing additional resources to compress video and data as well as perform quality-of-service functions. “I don’t think any of us see the video requirement going away,” he states. High-definition video offers more capabilities, from providing clearer information via unmanned systems to allowing leaders to read body language in a videoconference. Though not all video needs to be of the higher quality, Wilcox says there are definitely appropriate applications. However, the military has to be prudent about when it is employed.

U.S. Special Operations Command: www.socom.mil
Defense Information Systems Agency: www.disa.mil

Special Forces Have Recognizable Technology Requirements

John Wilcox, J-6 and chief information officer of the U.S. Special Opertions Command, has several items on his wish list to help special operations forces (SOF) overcome some of the limitations they face. “I think the time has pretty well arrived for a smartphone capability for the deployed force,” he states. He would like to see such a phone or a small tablet that can support Type 1 encryption or secret and below that all operators can have. Because the military no longer drives consumer electronics, he envisions buying the devices from commercial providers, then performing a software load to enable the encryption. His idea calls for minor investment in ruggedizing because if one breaks, new ones would be readily available. The inexpensive tools will eliminate concerns warfighters have about using them because of fears they might be damaged.

These smartphones or tablets would be multitransport capable with 3G or 4G connections and some type of military radio frequency. They also would be intelligent enough to recognize the best access points.

Wilcox explains that he pictures platforms with baseline capabilities that could access SOF or other relevant app stores. His team is working with the U.S. Army to determine the best way for operators and others on the ground to develop their own solutions. “We have 60,000 SOF users around the globe,” Wilcox says. “They know what they need. They know what they want. If we give them the right tools, they can build their own apps and they can be added to the SOF app store or [Defense Department] app stores and everyone else can download them.” Though he acknowledges the existence of tools such as the weight control and the physical training test preparation apps, he believes that time has come for operational ones. “There’s no person better to write that than the guy who’s going to use it in Baghdad or Kabul,” he says.

Wilcox also would like to see better capabilities for beyond-line-of-sight communications on the move. Because of cost and access, the military still is selective about who can use the high-bandwidth technology. Similar to his smartphone idea, Wilcox wants a capability in this area intelligent enough to access the best communications point, whether that is a satellite, a local relay tower or another tool. He believes that this work, unlike the smartphone/tablet plan, will be driven largely by federal laboratories and cooperative agreements.

Another solution Wilcox places on his wish list is a meshed global satellite network with routing between satellites and modularity to allow hardware and software changes. He also wants them to have some sort of refueling capability so they can remain in service. He knows such a project would be a major endeavor and similar projects in the past have failed for various reasons. However, the want is not limited to SOCOM; Wilcox believes many COCOMs would request the same capability. “SATCOM requirements are continuing to grow, and we need to acknowledge those and figure out a way to meet them,” he says.



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