U.S. Central Command Leads Push to Connect Allies in Common Network (UPDATED)

By Sandra I. Erwin
It is written in the national security strategy that international coalitions are indispensible in U.S. efforts to combat terrorism, disease and other menaces. But nowhere are there instructions on how commanders are expected to coordinate, communicate and share information with a group of linguistically and culturally diverse military and civilian partners.

U.S. military leaders in regional commands have coped with limited interoperability with allies by setting up one-off communications systems. The most successful to date has been the “Afghanistan mission network,” launched in 2010 after persistent prodding by four-star generals who found that they could not properly command a 40-nation alliance with disjointed and incompatible information systems.

There is nothing comparable to the Afghan network in the Middle East for the coalition that is fighting the Islamic State. About 60 countries have been declared U.S. partners in the campaign known as Operation Inherent Resolve, but many of those countries’ militaries are out of the loop.

U.S. regional commanders — known in military-speak as combatant commanders — are asking the Pentagon for financial and technical support to build a common information network. Army Brig. Gen. Peter A. Gallagher, U.S. Central Command’s director of command and control, communications and computer systems, is leading the charge.

“After 14 years of doing this in Centcom, we still do not have an enduring capability to immediately connect the coalition,” Gallagher said in an interview from MacDill Air Force Base, in Tampa, Florida.

The United States is pouring tens of millions of dollars each month into operations to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Some money should be carved out to fund a modern command-and-control information network, said Gallagher. The investment would pay huge dividends, he said, because the network would be built with common standards so it could be adapted to any operation anywhere in the world.

“That is one area we have been driving hard at Centcom: Working with other combatant commands to establish an enduring mission partner environment, not one just focused on Centcom,” he said. “We are looking for an enterprise standard for the Department of Defense so no matter what theater you operate in, you’re in a mission partner environment.”

Central Command’s area of responsibility includes Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, U.A.E. and Yemen.

Today, each geographic command decides what it needs to connect to its partners in the region, but there has been no comprehensive Defense Department-wide plan to create information networks that are more standardized. As a result, the United States spends untold millions of dollars on customized single-purpose networks that are deployed during crises.

New technologies like software-based networking would allow systems to be reconfigured for different scenarios without having to build them from scratch. With a large coalition now emerging to fight ISIS, the Defense Department should invest in a common network that it could also reuse in other parts of the globe, Gallagher said. “Our commanders need uninterrupted mission command, wherever they go. … They must have the necessary tools to make the right decisions.”

U.S. officials have the means to share unclassified and top secret information. Their problem is with areas in between — data that is sensitive but less than top secret. There are protocols to share classified data among the closest U.S. allies known as the “Five Eyes alliance” that includes the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. NATO countries also have access to many of the Pentagon’s information and intelligence networks. Thirty-five countries including NATO members are able to join the U.S. intelligence network called BICES, for battlefield information, collection and exploitation system.

“Top secret is not the problem,” said Gallagher. “Where we identified a shortfall is at the ‘secret releasable’ level with non-Five Eyes mission partners that become members of coalitions. That’s what has driven us to push the issue.”

With no standard infrastructure in place to handle “secret releasable” coalition data, commanders have to rely on customized systems. At Central Command, “We’ve been able to create a network of networks. But it’s not as seamless. It’s more cumbersome than we would like.” Bilateral networks, for instance, were set up for each of the member nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as Jordan.

“We’ve created, as part of our Centcom partner network, episodic capability to have a mission partner environment,” Gallagher said. The next step, he said, is to deploy a modern network that can be resized and reconfigured for different partners. “That’s what we’ve been striving for,” Gallagher said. “It takes time to build out the infrastructure to establish a new network for a new coalition. We want to make sure the investments we make in Operation Inherent Resolve set the stage for the greater DoD to have an enduring mission partner environment.”

The formal request for a common network was communicated to the Pentagon’s chief information officer in a Feb. 10 memo signed by the deputy commanders of U.S. Central Command, Pacific Command, European Command, Africa Command and U.S. Special Operations Command. The so-called “15-star memo” explained why a common network is urgently needed, said Gallagher. “We all collectively came together.”

Centcom IT specialists are now in Washington discussing a “technical implementation plan” with Pentagon CIO Terry Halvorsen and officials from across the military services, he said. “The goal is to have a capability for any crisis by the end of calendar year 2016.”

Gallagher, an Army signal officer with vast knowledge of combat networks, believes there is technology today to make this happen — such as software-defined data centers, virtualization and secure cloud computing — and it is now a matter of working through the administrative and policy hoops. “With a little bit of investment and some smart decisions I believe we can set this up not as a Centcom network but as a Defense Department capability available to every command.”

The military has come a long way in multinational communications over the last several years, he said. “But every time we stood up a new coalition for a new crisis, it’s required establishment of additional hardware and additional points of presence, to create a new network depending on the makeup and composition of the coalition,” he said. In the future, “We need something more virtual, so we can virtually partition coalition enclaves in a network that is always on.”

With the funds that are being approved for the current war, he said, “There is an opportunity to provide the department with a solution that we need not only in Centcom but across the globe. We don’t have to spend months on network installation, or new hardware. We should do this through software,” he added. “We believe this is executable.”

Gallagher declined to discuss the estimated cost of a common network.

Software-based virtual environments would also allow the military to better protect systems from intruders, said Gallagher. “With physical network design and physical separation, we think we could control security risks much better. The virtualization technology we believe is at the level now where it will help us do this in a much more effective way.”

Gallagher mentioned the Afghanistan mission network as a success story in coalition communications. “But it took years to get it,” he said.

The Afghanistan network was a lesson in how essential it has become for international coalitions to be connected in a common virtual environment, concluded a 2014 RAND Corp. study funded by the Army chief information officer.

The network was created from a collection of national and NATO networks. It resulted from commanders’ realization that they needed to change how they managed information from a “need to know” to a “need to share” policy, the RAND report said. In early 2009, Army Gen. David McKiernan, then the commander of the international coalition, kicked off the project.

When Gen. Stanley McChrystal took over the operation, he mandated that each partner nation share data on the secret network. He saw that restrictions on passing information were making commanders’ jobs more difficult. “Accordingly, policies and procedures that reinforced a ‘need-to-know’ culture needed to be replaced with policies and procedures emphasizing a ‘need-to-share,’” the report said. The Afghan network began as a simple setup for chat, voice over Internet, telephone, email, web browsing and secure video teleconferencing. Over time, it became the primary command, control, communications and intelligence system in Afghanistan.

“How the Afghanistan mission network evolved and the challenges that were overcome in its establishment demonstrate that developing a coalition mission network is truly much more than a technical or materiel problem, and that doctrine, leadership, training and planning processes all have bearing on how a network should be constructed and on how it actually operates,” the RAND study said. One key decision was to relax some of the security constraints that slowed the transfer or accessibility of data.

This problem is not unique to Afghanistan, the report noted. Lack of proper connectivity has undermined humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations.

“A common mission network will likely be needed in every region where the United States conducts coalition operations,” the report said. “It is vital to successful collaboration and coordination. Establishing this kind of network can be challenging and time consuming. Therefore, planning for future mission networks within each combatant command should begin as soon as possible, in advance of any future contingency or conflict.”

A single collaborative network will not only reduce costs, it will also alleviate many of the technical and operational data-sharing problems that initially plagued operations in Afghanistan, RAND analysts said. “A challenge for a future mission network will be to design a one-size-fits-all system for all theaters [as each command] may present its own unique partners and information exchange requirements.”

For Gallagher, the question is not whether the military needs a common network but how soon. “This has to go beyond briefing charts. It’s not just an idea,” he said.

“In order for this to be a reality, we have to capitalize on the money we are applying to this crisis. and provide the solutions for the rest of the department,” he added. “We have a real fight on our hands. We are learning a lot of lessons as we go. We think the lessons are applicable outside Centcom. We want to force the department to make sound, good decisions that are not just in Centcom’s best interest.” 
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story reported that the 15-star memo was signed by U.S. Southern Command. That is incorrect. The memo was signed by the U.S. Special Operations Command.

Topics: C4ISR, Tactical Communications, Infotech

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