DOD considers extending life of aging Autodin

The Defense Department has begun to develop contingency plans to keep portions of the Autodin messaging system operational past its scheduled shut-off date at the end of 1999. Although its planned replacement, the half-billion-dollar Defense Message System program, was originally intended to take over all the mission-critical traffic, a number of technical issues have raised concerns about the current ability of the DMS system to handle high-priority messages.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Defense Information Systems Agency, the latter of which manages DMS, are known to be concerned about using DMS to protect high-priority access to systems such as those used to control nuclear weapons.

Developed in the 1960s, Autodin passes message traffic through a global network of highly secure but antiquated mainframes that use tape reels for data storage. DISA planned to replace this system with a DMS client/server architecture of PC clients running commercial versions of products such as Microsoft Corp.'s Exchange and Lotus Development Corp.'s Notes. Problems have plagued the program since shortly after Lockheed Martin Federal Systems won the pact to serve up to 2 million users.

In a prepared statement issued April 10, Pentagon officials said, "Although we are on an aggressive schedule to close out Autodin and start up the Defense Message System, we believe closure of the Autodin backbone switches by Dec. 31, 1999, is still achievable. However, any function so vital should have contingency plans available, so in accordance with guidance of both the Major Automated Information Systems Review Council and the Military Communications Electronics Board, contingency planning is in progress in case that goal is not achievable.''

The statement added that the Pentagon will ensure that "all mission-critical systems will be operationally supported during DMS' transition. This requires a case-by-case evaluation and...alternatives to the systems involved.'' The statement did not identify specific systems. While not putting any date on a potential extension of Autodin, the Pentagon said in last week's statement that it is likely to maintain hubs "for several years" after Autodin is shut down. The Autodin hubs will support what the statement called "key legacy systems," which knowledgeable sources have told FCW include nuclear command and control systems that pass traffic known as Emergency Action Messages (EAMs).

These sources believe that eventually DOD will have to admit that DMS cannot meet the agency's schedule to carry other types of top-secret traffic, such as operational messages from the National Command Authority to forces engaged in peacekeeping operations or deployments of sizable combat forces to world trouble spots, such as the recent air and naval buildup near Iraq.

"They were supposed to start fielding the top-secret version of DMS this year, but in reality Lockheed Martin is about three levels behind that today,'' said one source intimately familiar with the program and its problems. This source said he doubted if Lockheed Martin would ever be able to deliver a top-secret DMS product line "in my lifetime since it requires multilevel security terminals, and it's real hard to find one of those anywhere.''

Defense analysts and former top military officials endorsed the cautious approach that DOD has taken toward the complete shutdown of Autodin, but some also expressed concern about how the Pentagon could fund Autodin and DMS. John Pike, a defense analyst with the Federation of American Scientists, said, "Nuclear EAMs are not the kind of message you really want to put into beta test...or run over Erols,'' a low-priced Washington, D.C., Internet service provider.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, who served as the DOD lead on Vice President Al Gore's National Performance Review team and who now serves as head of Business Executives for National Security, said "it made sense'' to keep Autodin in operation for nuclear weapons control because "we need a safe, secure system that cannot be manipulated.'' But, McInerney said, this decision could lead to funding problems "as they have already taken money for the operation of Autodin out of the budget'' past 1999.


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