42 nations, one language

International teams develop IP communications, other info-sharing methods

RESULTS: Army Sgt. Rodney King with C Company, 44th Signal Battalion, fills out a communications action report during the 2006 Combined Endeavor exercise.

Courtesy of U.S. Air Force

When armed forces from several countries gathered 11 years ago to test the interoperability of their equipment, the range of devices they brought with them was wide.

The United States arrived with state-of-the-art digital equipment. Although it was 1995, and PC and Internet use was rising fast, other countries were still fielding World War II-era technology. 'The equipment coming in from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia was literally hand-cranked magneto,' said Tom Cooper, a retired Navy captain who was integral in starting the multinational exercise called Combined Endeavor.
Hand-cranked magneto? Think of Radar on the TV show 'M*A*S*H,' cranking the phone box to call Sparky.

'We've taken Combined Endeavor from that kind of background'all analog, very old equipment'and we are now into all IP equipment,' said Cooper, who joined Cisco Systems Inc. in 2003. 'All of the nations are bringing the latest and greatest equipment that they field to the exercise.'

This year's exercise included 42 nations and about 1,350 participants, all focused on testing and documenting systems interoperability.

Tested and certified

It takes a year to plan the two-week exercise, where the Joint Interoperability Test Command runs and documents 1,200 interoperability tests, said Army Lt. Col. Joseph Angyal, Combined Endeavor exercise director. The Joint Interoperability Test Command certifies equipment as interoperable for the Defense Department.

'We add those to a database of already 12,000 interoperability tests,' Angyal said. 'So when the secretary [of Defense] says, 'Deploy here,' and one of these other 40 countries shows up, we already know how to work with them.'

A realistic tactical network is set up for the exercise, and nations choose with whom they want to work and what equipment they want to test. Exercises range from testing limited application interoperability to testing entire physical IT layers.

U.S. officials used Combined Endeavor to help prepare for a scheduled exercise with Russia, Angyal said. Single-channel radios as well as LANs were tested for interoperability.

The United States also ran tests with 20 other nations of its Blue Force Tracker system, which lets commanders see where their forces are on the battlefield and differentiate them from the enemy.

With most voice and data systems moving away from proprietary protocols and adopting IP technology, any interoperability concerns usually are not because of the technology itself.

'Sharing information is governed not just by the technology, but also by our security policies,' Angyal said. 'Everybody's got their own version of that policy, and what we've found is that's almost a bigger challenge than the actual technology.'

For example, a policy could direct the use of security equipment that classifies information a country doesn't want released. That policy or equipment could get in the way if the country decides to share information with its allies.

Growing complexity

When Combined Endeavor started in 1995, testing was simple: telephone to telephone or radio to radio. That changed quickly with the introduction in the late 1990s of structured networking and operational networks.

Since 2003, much of the work has focused on protecting networks and on information assurance.

Exercises in the past two years have focused on sharing information in a multinational environment.

Despite the increasing complexity, for the most part, contractors are not allowed to participate in the exercises unless they would be part of an actual deployment.

'Nobody deploys without contractors nowadays,' Angyal said. If it's the primary contractor, 'then that's OK by our charter, but otherwise it's got to be the people who own and operate the equipment. You can't have some engineer there pushing the buttons, because when you deploy, that engineer might not be there.'

Despite the advances made with interoperability, several areas need attention. 'There's still a ton of work that needs to be done in network management, information systems and information sharing,' Angyal said. 'I think there are 250 defense programs looking at information sharing, and I don't think any of them really have been able to wrestle with the challenges of it.'

Angyal said the future has to be like a user-defined picture, 'where you decide what you want to share based on your relationship with that organization. As it is now, the technology we have is either on or off. I can either turn units on, and they show up on your screen, or we turn them off, and it affects everybody.'

Doug Beizer covers technology for GCN's sister publication Washington Technology.

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.

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