Frustrated that the different communications networks deployed by its four branches aren’t always able to speak to one another, the Defense Department is moving forward with a major overhaul of its global information grid.
The grid is the network of computer systems and intranets used to securely store, process and move electronic data among Defense Department personnel around the world.
The major problem with the grid, though, is that many of the servers and applications powering it were built to address the specific needs of the different military services, which means they don’t always link up. These are known as “stovepiped” systems. It has been a longtime goal of the military to rid itself of these systems and become network-centric, where information is immediately and seamlessly available to everyone in all services.
“We need a flatter, faster and more collaborative information environment,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Michael Basla, vice director of command, control, communications and computer systems at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a recent IT industry conference in Vienna, Va.
More so than ever, he added, U.S. troops who are accustomed to communications technology demand reliable ways to share data. “Some soldiers would rather leave without their weapon than leave their PDA behind,” he said.
He was addressing defense contractors and members of the northern Virginia chapter of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association. He was there, in part, to drum up help from information technology companies in developing the military’s next version of its grid — GIG 2.0.
“We don’t need another box,” Basla told the crowd, adding that he currently has about 40 different communications networks at his disposal. “We have enough boxes. Help us make those boxes talk to each other.”
He said the goal of the GIG 2.0 program is to create a single network that the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and allied forces can all plug into. Software, servers and applications for GIG 2.0 will be unified and overseen and maintained by a single command.
These changes, Basla said, will make for a more “versatile” and secure grid.
He also said GIG 2.0 will incorporate technology from Web 2.0, or the second generation of the Internet characterized by social-networking sites, data sharing and sites that allow more interaction by Web users.
Officials at the Defense Information Systems Agency, which manages the grid, say they envision a scenario where military personnel could use social-networking sites on GIG 2.0 to chat with other personnel about services, family programs and medical care facilities offered at their next duty station.
Development of the next grid has already been set in motion. Guam, with its joint military environment and extensive build up to accommodate thousands of more personnel in the next few years, will be among the first locations outfitted with GIG 2.0 technology. This test-bed is called the Joint Information Environment Marianas.
Linda Newton, who oversees information systems at Guam as the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s deputy chief of staff for command, control, communications, computers and intelligence, told Federal News Radio in April that many of the aging communication devices and applications the military now relies on will be replaced under the GIG 2.0 project, while others will be kept “and transitioned” into the new network. Newton did not say how much this is projected to cost. Nor did officials at DISA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff J6 office, who did not response to requests for more details on GIG 2.0.
Newton did note that the military is looking at a “five to seven year” timeline to have GIG 2.0 up and running.
The new grid couldn’t arrive soon enough, according to Basla. To fight today’s enemies, he stressed, reliable, quick and secure communications are essential. He gave the example of the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, where a small and fast-moving group of terrorists were able to communicate via cell phones as they maneuvered through the city.
“This is the kind of threat we are facing today,” he said. “We need to break down the stovepipes … We need to be able to mash up information quickly.”