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Hybrid Center Solves Iraq Tactical Network Needs

Setting up and maintaining a communications network in a war zone is difficult under any circumstances, but it is especially complicated in a battlespace without defined front lines. To meet this challenge, the U.S. Army is combining military systems and commercial solutions to establish a reliable network for commanders and warfighters in operation Iraqi Freedom.
By Capt. Erick Stenborg, USA

Line-of-sight antennas at Node Center 11, Victory Base in Baghdad, link assets in the mobile subscriber equipment network.

Signaleers meet growing demands for expanded connectivity, additional capabilities.

Setting up and maintaining a communications network in a war zone is difficult under any circumstances, but it is especially complicated in a battlespace without defined front lines. To meet this challenge, the U.S. Army is combining military systems and commercial solutions to establish a reliable network for commanders and warfighters in operation Iraqi Freedom.

In January 2004, the 3rd Signal Brigade assumed responsibility from the 22nd Signal Brigade for the largest tactical network in Army history. The work completed by the 22nd Signal Brigade yielded a robust mobile subscriber equipment (MSE) network that was instrumental to the success of coalition forces during the first rotation of troops in operation Iraqi Freedom. During the initial push into Baghdad and throughout its tour in Iraq, the 22nd Signal Brigade provided commanders at all levels with the critical communications they needed to execute the mission.

Upon transition of authority, the 3rd Signal Brigade was charged with satisfying the growing requirements for quality voice, data and video services for support and stability operations throughout Iraq. While this task required the same dispersed, large-scale tactical network, other aspects of the network, such as commercialization, were becoming just as significant for subscribers all over Iraq. To accomplish this task for what is now called operation Iraqi Freedom 2, the 3rd Signal Brigade created the Coalition Network Operations and Security Center (CNOSC).

Unlike smaller exercises that involved two or three battalions at Fort Hood in Texas, the operation Iraqi Freedom 2 network integrates four corps area signal battalions, two divisional signal battalions, two range extension companies, the Stryker Brigade, units of action signal companies, echelons-above-corps signal assets and a variety of commercial signal assets. In addition, the geographic area covered by the operation Iraqi Freedom 2 network stretches from Mosul in the north to Basrah in the south and from the Iranian border in the east to the Jordan-Syria border in the west.

The first step for the 3rd Signal Brigade was to put the right people in the right positions on the CNOSC staff. Because managing the equipment for more than six battalions was not feasible with the existing staff, the 3rd Signal Brigade utilized battalion liaison officers (LNOs), a method successfully employed during the initial phases of operation Iraqi Freedom. As representatives of their battalions at the CNOSC, liaison officers monitor and track their part of the network and forward other battalion issues to brigade staff for resolution. “Serving as an LNO for the 3rd Signal Brigade has been a learning experience for me,” says Staff Sgt. Stefan Rothwell, USA, CNOSC LNO for the 711th Signal Battalion. “Working in the CNOSC gave me the opportunity to see the big picture of the MSE network. It gives you a better understanding of the systems and your purpose in being here.”

Because the battalion LNOs act as controllers for their respective pieces of the network, the 3rd Signal Brigade staff officers for operations (S-3) serve in specialty positions that do not exist at the battalion level. Given that MSE uses line-of-sight radio as its transmission medium, frequency management is essential to the brigade mission. Every link in the MSE network requires a transmit and receive frequency that does not interfere with the rest of the frequency spectrum. Assigning frequencies is a challenge because spectrum must be shared among all the services as well as with U.S. Defense Department personnel and Iraq, the host nation.

Another important position in the CNOSC is the satellite communications (SATCOM) planner, whose responsibilities include tracking and managing any X-band or Ku-band satellite assets in use in the Iraqi theater of operations. Because of the enormous geographic footprint of the units in the Iraq MSE network, the SATCOM planners have had to manage a collection of more than 25 ground-mobile-forces satellite terminals, the most ever connected in one network. “SATCOM management is never boring here in Iraq,” explains Sgt. 1st Class Gregory Aiken, USA, SATCOM planner, CNOSC. “The network is constantly in transition due to combat operations across the theater. But satellite communications have consistently provided vital connectivity to allow commanders on the ground to bring the pain to the enemy.”

In addition to the X-band and commercial Ku-band satellite networks, the Iraq extremely high frequency (EHF) satellite network is providing easily deployable satellite links via the secure mobile antijam reliable tactical terminal (SMART-T), the military’s newest mobile satellite terminal. Responsibility for keeping more than 30 SMART-Ts talking falls on Staff Sgt. Antoine Ford, USA, EHF communications planner, CNOSC. As the subject matter expert in troubleshooting EHF communications and SMART-T networks, he describes his experience as challenging because he has had to manage one of the largest SMART-T networks ever with a variety of units across Iraq. The SMART-T network stretches from the I Marine Expeditionary Force in the west to the 121st Signal Battalion in the east and from the Stryker Brigade in the north to the 13th and 57th Signal Battalions in Baghdad in the south.

With more than 50 node centers and 200 small extension nodes, the operation Iraqi Freedom 2 network is larger than any that the 3rd Signal Brigade has previously managed. This fact has led the CNOSC to try several different approaches to tracking the MSE network, specifically with respect to network management software.

One solution is a network management tool set called Integrated System Control (ISYSCON). The centerpiece of the General Dynamics’ ISYSCON network management suite is HP OpenView, a full-featured simple network management protocol-based tool that has special features to manage MSE node centers. In addition to tracking a tactical data network, the ISYSCON allows real-time tracking of the tactical Army voice network through connectivity to the node center workstations.

Distances of more than 50 miles between locations in the 711th Signal Battalion network in Babylon require the use of troposcatter systems and tropospheric scatter radio antennas to provide beyond-line-of-sight transmission capability.
Another useful network management tool has been WhatsUp Gold (WUG), which each of the six battalions in the brigade uses to track its piece of the network. Ease of use is one of the major advantages of WUG, states Sgt. 1st Class Felix Rodriguez, USA, 13th Signal Battalion LNO to the CNOSC. “WhatsUp Gold is very user friendly, and it is taught as part of the basic noncommissioned officers’ course and the advanced noncommissioned officers’ course.” Based on the brigade’s experience in managing the operation Iraqi Freedom 2 network, WUG has been invaluable for quickly identifying and assessing outages and problem spots in the network as soon as they develop, the sergeant says. With all of the battalions running Web-enabled WUG, it has been easy for all levels of network management in Iraq to have the same picture of the current network status, he adds.

In addition to troubleshooting network outages, the 3rd Signal Brigade began using Solar Winds, another simple network management protocol management tool, to track specific trends in the tactical MSE network. After assuming responsibility for the network, one major challenge was managing the data bandwidth on the MSE links throughout Iraq. Once the network analysis team had entered information from more than 300 routers into the operation Iraqi Freedom 2 network, their status was tracked automatically with the Solar Winds server at the CNOSC. Almost overnight, Solar Winds produced charts and graphs that made it easy to track trends in the data network such as daily average bandwidth utilization and packet loss.

Staff Sgt. Steven DuBose, USA, brigade Solar Winds noncommissioned officer in charge, is responsible for supervising four soldiers who manage and update the server with him as well as for identifying problems to the battle captain and network management cell at the CNOSC. “Solar Winds is a great tool for analyzing bandwidth usage within the network,” he says. “This helps us to find and ease the heavy usage areas and make the changes necessary to increase bandwidth or add links as needed to reduce usage on high-traffic routes.”

Since the server was installed and populated with information, it has yielded tremendous results. The charts of bandwidth utilization have been presented to commanders on a nightly basis to highlight data usage within each battalion’s network, and the graphs have been customized to show acceptable levels of bandwidth usage as required by Defense Information Systems Agency standards, which state that a link above 60 percent usage justifies more bandwidth or additional links to alleviate the traffic load.

In addition, Solar Winds helped identify a saturated gateway link at or near 100 percent usage almost daily from the Multinational Coalition-Iraq area at Victory Base to the 1st Infantry Division in Tikrit. This led to the successful installation of a new satellite link to decrease usage on that link and provide more bandwidth for mission-essential communications.

Automation has played a major role in CNOSC operations. The staff has used a variety of tools to simplify workflow and to improve knowledge management. A prime example of this initiative is the CNOSC SharePoint Server, which was first implemented when the 3rd Signal Brigade arrived in Iraq. Implementing a SharePoint Server was a first for the brigade and the automation staff. The most important aspect of the SharePoint server for the CNOSC is to provide a common document library that can be searched and archived easily. It has been an exciting challenge for the automators at the CNOSC to learn and implement the SharePoint server into daily operations.

As in all network operations centers, the shift-change briefing is important to maintaining continuity throughout 24-hour operations. Since the shift-change briefing was first implemented by the 22nd Signal Brigade, the CNOSC has continued to rely on a hypertext markup language-based brief that loads PowerPoint slides based on hyperlinks in a Web document. Staff members can load their slides into the appropriate directory, and their slides are opened with the click of a hyperlink when it is their turn. Compared to compiling one unwieldy brief, this method puts responsibility for slide preparation on the person presenting the brief, freeing the battle captain to focus on the network. This approach also allows important information from the battalions’ PowerPoint briefings to be accessed via the secret Internet protocol router network.

Over the course of the yearlong deployment to Iraq, the 3rd Signal Brigade’s work at the CNOSC has been critical to the success of coalition operations. As its primary mission, the CNOSC ensures that commanders have reliable and capable communications for every mission throughout the deployment. Maj. William Lee, USA, brigade S-3 and CNOSC director, previously served in Afghanistan during operation Enduring Freedom and understands the importance of signal support. “Just like Afghanistan, our mission is and always has been supporting the warfighter,” he says with respect to the brigade’s deployment in Iraq. “But soldiers in the 3rd Signal Brigade also have played the role of combat soldiers. In this theater of operations, signal soldiers have shown the ability to successfully engage the enemy in combat operations.”

In Baghdad, the 57th Signal Battalion has conducted daily convoys and used its own “home-made” gun trucks to deal with threats encountered en route. The 711th Signal Battalion, while providing communications to the central-south region of Iraq, not only drove hundreds of miles daily on some of the most dangerous routes in Iraq but also provided firepower and forces to coalition partners during intense combat in April 2004, battling in close-quarters firefights and even escorting other coalition convoys with its gun truck teams. The mission for the 3rd Signal Brigade in Iraq has been equally focused on communications and combat/security operations, allowing the brigade to demonstrate its excellence in both supporting and being warfighters.

Capt. Erick Stenborg, USA, is a network operations officer at the Coalition Network Operations and Security Center.