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Viewpoint: The Network of the Future Is Needed Now

The Defense Department must move from a network- to a data-centered approach to optimize capabilities.
by Lt. Col. Dave Waller, USAF, Maj. Ernest Jenkins, USA, and Lt. Cmdr. Christina Hicks, USN

Think back to a recent deployment—of having to use multiple email accounts for each and every classified network and what a chore it was to move even unclassified information between these networks. This process is frustrating and inefficient, but it is exponentially more vexing for network and system managers.

U.S. personnel and coalition partners alike feel the brunt of an information bottleneck caused by an antiquated system that impedes combat operations and has prompted calls to U.S. Defense Department leaders to improve information-sharing capabilities for successful collaboration among coalition partners.

In February, the deputy commanders from the U.S. Special Operations Command and four of the geographic combatant commands signed a memorandum calling for accelerated development of an enduring joint mission network. The network also is a salient point highlighted in the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), whose authors said, “Timely, accurate information about operational and tactical situations is essential to the effective accomplishment of any military mission.”

The challenges of developing a streamlined system are many, ranging from risk and change management to increased network cyber vulnerabilities, sustainment issues, variable information-sharing policies and the lack of a clearly articulated, agreed-upon way forward. The Defense Department should define the information-sharing scope, designate a lead service provider and identify funding sources to field an enduring joint mission network by 2016.

The department’s current design governing the sharing of information, including sharing between multiple networks with different classifications and releasability rules, proves challenging, costly and inconsistent. This is especially true when networks must be connected to a cross-domain solution based on agreements between the United States and coalition partners for each contingency.

The U.S. military uses a net-centric approach to create networks as new missions arise, meaning each network is physically separate. This is similar to reinventing the wheel and requires significant time and resources to operationalize the networks. Furthermore, tailored network synchronizations get delayed every time the United States establishes a mission partner. New hardware and software must be purchased, delivered and installed. For each community, multiple capabilities must be set up, including full-motion video, chat, file sharing, email allowing attachments and access to the common operational picture (COP). Many times, administrators must go through a lengthy and complicated foreign military sales process to complete the network so forces can successfully use it when in theater.

Over the past few years in the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility, the military has deployed several bilateral and multilateral coalition networks to share information with critical partners. Often, commanders have multiple email addresses on multiple accounts that change from their home station to the deployed environment. Meeting mission requirements would be so much simpler if they had an enduring, flexible, single network. Just imagine if deployed troops could log in to one network to receive and process all the data they are cleared to see.

Requirements to ensure compatibility and security between multiservice and multinational users are many, but the basic structure of this future network is clear. The military needs to move from a net-centric to a data-centric model that provides a Mission Partner Environment (MPE) infrastructure with global reach, maximum flexibility and constant availability. A central server must receive and process all data elements, regardless of classification, and distribute them to users based on individual security clearances.

The transition to data-centered operations will be made easier by capabilities such as software-defined data centers that offer information technology services from virtualized environments. They can be partitioned to create communities of interest as needed. By using virtualized environments and guards, coalition partners can draw on common services, quickly create warfighting networks and leverage information technology services from an enduring MPE capability. Basic MPE requirements should include secure text chat, voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), email allowing attachments, COP, video teleconferencing (VTC) and releasable intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance applications, to name a few. Enduring MPE capabilities rely heavily on the infrastructure and security provided by the Joint Information Environment, or JIE. Until the JIE matures, however, U.S. Battlefield Information Collection and Exploitation Systems Extended (BICES-X), a key capability within the Defense Intelligence Information Enterprise, can support the MPE with some required federated information technology services, such as email, text chat and Web-based file sharing.

CENTCOM already connects accounts from the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network to bilateral and multilateral partners at the secret releasable level, says Brig. Gen. Peter Gallagher, USA, director of the Command and Control, Communications and
Computer Systems Directorate at CENTCOM. “This [MPE] initiative needs to be converged with the enterprise cross-domain efforts from [the Defense Information Systems Agency] and be part of the enterprise,” Gen. Gallagher says. “The enduring MPE has to be part of the [Defense Department] enterprise, providing our combatant commanders and deployed forces with the ability to expand and contract coalition communities of interest rapidly to ensure we are responsive to any contingency with little or no notice. The department cannot afford to build a new coalition network every time we stand up a new coalition. We need a capability that is always on and ready to respond.”

This undertaking requires one lead agency to spearhead the combining of disparate networks into an enduring MPE capability. The U.S. Defense Department should develop technical, procedural and certification plans for this new system, and mission partners should access the MPE through standardized joining, membership and exit instructions and contribute their own resources to the federation.

Even though the QDR lists the consolidation of information technology operations as a key Defense Department reform, the MPE remains a requirement without resources. Ironically, funding is based on the services’ willingness to meet directives set by the Defense Department’s chief information officer, Terry Halvorsen. Further complicating the issue, solutions fielded by the individual services are incompatible with each other—not to mention coalition solutions.

Combatant commands suffer from the friction caused when systems are integrated hastily and proved via trial and error. As such, combatant commanders’ voices are the loudest calling for a common solution. Already, CENTCOM relies on diminishing funds from overseas contingency operations to provision coalition networks, and the other commands that do not benefit from contingency funds rely on the services for troops, equipment and resources to conduct operations. Multiple combatant commanders submitted issue papers during the budget review process calling for MPE funding for life-cycle support and sustainment.

The Defense Department must assign and align MPE capabilities to a program of record, and each service must incorporate common, compatible and secure solutions into its information technology programs. These solutions must be available to coalition partners through common standards, technology sharing and foreign military sales. Combatant commanders need this capability within the next two years to maintain relationships with partner nations and improve operational effectiveness of U.S. and multinational forces working to bring peace and stability to the world. An enduring network capable of enabling partner nations to share information quickly and easily while maintaining necessary security will be vital to overcoming future conflicts.

Lt. Col. Dave Waller, USAF, is a special operations electronic warfare officer serving in the Information Operations Office at Headquarters, U.S. Special Operations Command. Maj. Ernest Jenkins, USA, is an information systems management officer serving as an exercise planner in the J-6 exercise branch at CENTCOM. Lt. Cmdr. Christina Hicks, USN, is an information professional officer serving as the executive officer to the C4 systems director at CENTCOM. The views expressed here are theirs alone and do not represent the views or opinions of the Defense Department or the services.