Defense Department communications

Defense Department communications

By Richard W. Walker

GCN Staff

Remember the classic battlefield scene from old war movies? Amid exploding bombs and flashes of gunfire and general chaos, a mud-splattered, war-weary soldier furiously works a field radio, desperate to establish communications with his command.

In those days, combat communications vehicles were'from today's high-tech perspective'primitive and unreliable. The problem for commanders and soldiers in the field was too little information.

Now, in an era when Defense Department communications technologies and systems infrastructures are becoming ever more sophisticated, the warfighter could have the opposite problem: too much information.

'Info glut' is what Anthony Valletta calls it.

Valletta is vice president for federal systems at SRA International Inc. of Fairfax, Va., and a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for command, control, communications and intelligence.

Can too much information be a bad thing on the battlefield? 'You could be giving commanders and folks out there so much information that they can't make heads or tails of what they need to do their job,' Valletta said.

'A commander, especially in an operation, needs to know exactly where the enemy is, where the next target is and who's targeting him and not have to go through reams of information to find out,' he said.

In digitizing battlefield communications and shifting from an analog to a digital world, the military needs to incorporate the management of information into its operations and doctrine, Valletta added.

Ready, aim, shoot

Adm. Robert Nutwell, assistant secretary of Defense for command, control, communications and information, surveillance, and reconnaissance, agreed.

'Information management is the process by which you get the right information to the right place at the right time'given that it's available somewhere,' he said. 'I think we're still learning how to do that.'

A Defense Information Systems Agency pilot that will test information dissemination management (IDM) for the Global Broadcast Service should help illuminate the technical challenges DOD faces, Nutwell said.

'We call it 'Little IDM' because it's really just focused on managing the information that will feed into the Global Broadcast System,' he said. 'But in a sense, the architecture and the concept that it's developing'to get information from the many providers that will be feeding GBS to the many users in an organized and efficient way'will be breaking some ground that we can apply in many other areas.'

Nutwell said that managing information also will be a critical piece of the Global Information Grid, DOD's newly announced plan for establishing an overarching information services approach.

GIG, Nutwell said, is 'the vision that we're marching toward. It's a vision of a departmentwide service that provides information on demand to all the users in DOD or folks that need information from DOD. We include the intelligence community in that group, too. It's a vision of a seamless, interoperable network that goes wherever it needs to go to get you the information you need to do your job.'

GIG will run over a variety of comm pipes, with the Defense Information Systems Network acting as the backbone, Nutwell said. Eventually, all Defense networks will be part of GIG, he said.

DOD has yet to set any milestones or timetables for GIG; it will take 'two to three years at the minimum to develop the system architecture and enough detail to really ensure interoperability,' Nutwell said.

Indeed, interoperability of systems is a fundamental challenge for DOD when it comes to communications, whether narrowly focused in a specific project or on a grand scale such as that of the Defense Message System [GCN, June 14, Page 53].

'Interoperability is absolutely crucial,' Valletta said. 'But interoperability also costs. To put in the interfaces required for everything is expensive. And sometimes the money is not there to do it all.'

The problem also extends to interoperability with allied forces' systems. 'We hardly ever go it alone anymore,' Valletta said. 'We have to ensure that we can talk to our mainstay players'the Brits, the Germans, the Canadians, the Australians and others'and share information because they are part of the allied team when we deploy.'

In recent remarks on the air campaign in Kosovo to an International Institute for Strategic Studies forum in Coronado, Calif., Defense Secretary William Cohen noted that because some NATO allies lacked interoperable communications equipment, target dispatches sometimes passed through unsecured channels'possibly compromising the strikes and endangering pilots.

One project tackling interoperability head-on is the Joint Tactical Radio System program, overseen by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Acquisitions, Logistics and Technology (SALT).

Defense brass envisions JTRS as a family of interoperable, affordable, scalable and software-programmable radios.

The need for a cross-service radio system such as JTRS became clear in the 1980s and 1990s, when experiences in Grenada and the Persian Gulf revealed weaknesses in interservice communications. In Grenada, for example, some Army troops seeking air support had to use personal calling cards to communicate with commanders.

A 1997 mission statement for JTRS cited 'the need for a software-programmable and hardware-configurable digital radio system that provides increased interoperability, flexibility and adaptability to support the varied mission requirements of the warfighters. The system must be capable of simultaneous networked voice, video and data operations with low probability of intercept over multiple frequency bands.'

SALT officials will migrate all legacy radio systems to the JTRS open systems architecture. The award of the JTRS contract, expected any day, will go to a consortium of companies to develop the architecture on which all DOD radio systems will be built.

Incompatibility among legacy radio systems is the subject of a joint project between JTRS and the Navy Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command in San Diego, which is developing a backbone for line-of-sight, wide-band radio communications using land, sea and satellite links.

300-GHz bands

The High-Data-Rate Line-of-Sight Wireless Communications project seeks to use a range of radio-frequency bands'from 3 MHz to 300 GHz'to provide secure voice, data and video communications among ships, submarines, aircraft and land vehicles.

Major communications projects are sprouting up elsewhere around DOD, too. Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii, for instance, is home to an online telemedicine system that will provide interactive consultations between doctors around the Pacific and specialists at Tripler.

What is true of almost all comm efforts within DOD is interdependence; the services aren't going it alone any longer. Remember that cinematic field officer struggling to establish communications with his command?

In Defense's vision for the future, the soldier will tap a vast network that winds its way from the foxhole to the Pentagon.

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