Software snafu slowed key data during Iraq raid

Concerns about the accuracy of data provided by critical Defense Department computer systems during the recent bombing of Iraq delayed updates of critical logistics information by up to eight hours and ignited a two-week search for the source of the problem.

The problem stemmed from one of the databases feeding information to DOD's $184 million Global Transportation Network (GTN), which allows commanders to track the flow of supplies and personnel across the globe.

Because of the glitch during December's Operation Desert Fox, GTN presented military planners at three commands with two different operational pictures and forced the U.S. Transportation Command to undertake timely upgrade procedures, according to Air Force Col. Richard Thompson, the deputy J-6 and deputy chief information officer for Transcom.

In addition to blurring the common operational picture, the problem forced military planners to conduct a two-week, end-to-end review of five systems.

According to Air Force Lt. Col. Connie Vandermarlier, a project officer for GTN, a GTN failure could be a serious problem to overcome, particularly with regard to data latency.

If GTN were to fail, users would be forced to resort to the use of fax machines, phones and other manual methods, and users would have to make do with old information, Vandermarlier said.

Although GTN was designed to automatically process updates within 30 seconds, a software problem such as the one experienced during Desert Fox could cause a significant drop in responsiveness and hinder the ability to make "on the spot" decisions, according to Vandermarlier.

By the time a spreadsheet is updated, the information is [at a minimum] three to four hours old," she said.

The problem occurred when a data field from the Joint Operations and Planning Execution System (JOPES) - a multiservice system that provides the military with a standard format and language for planning military operations - failed to be converted properly when it reached GTN. This failure presented planners with false information on the status of cargo aircraft, according to Thompson.

"We thought we were losing transactions somewhere and didn't know why," Thompson said.

Although GTN itself never went down, the interoperability problem caused some confusion when the Air Mobility Command (AMC) and the U.S. Central Command were working with different information than Transcom was using, according to Thompson.

To isolate the source of the problem, the Defense Information Systems Agency and Transcom formed a "Tiger Team" that looked at the interfaces of each of the five major systems that feed data to GTN, including JOPES, AMC's Deployment Analysis System and the Global Decision Support System as well as the classified and unclassified versions of GTN. In total, GTN has 23 interfaces. "We had to look at every system that touched that data," Thompson said.

Lockheed Martin Corp., which developed GTN, could not be reached for comment.

Transcom is "stress testing" the fix to the JOPES-GTN interface, Thompson said, but the results are not yet available.

Martin Libicki, a defense analyst with Rand Corp. specializing in information warfare and information operations, said he was surprised that a small glitch such as the one with the JOPES-GTN interface could happen, given the state of the art in technology. "We've been doing [database technology] for years," he said.

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