- By Dan Verton
- Apr 25, 1999
SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. - In 1899, Winston Churchill referred to victory as a "beautiful, bright-colored flower" and transport as "the stem without which it could never have blossomed." One hundred years later, no other military maxim rings as true.
As the principal agency responsible for transporting Defense Department personnel, supplies and equipment around the world, the U.S. Transportation Command (Transcom) has heeded Churchill's words and developed a network solution that for the first time provides DOD with global visibility of all assets as they move around globe.
Managed from the state-of-the-art Mobility Control Center here, the $184 million Global Transportation Network (GTN) consists of commercial off-the-shelf desktop computers outfitted with World Wide Web browsers that allow planners to track the whereabouts of all cargo carried by air, sea, truck and railroad as well as by more than 25 commercial carriers, such as Federal Express.
GTN has 6,000 users, according to Air Force Col. Richard Thompson, deputy chief information officer for Transcom. "All you need is a user ID and a password, and you can enter the network and locate your cargo in the pipeline," Thompson said. "GTN will tell you what plane it's on, where it is and when you should expect to receive it."
It is appropriate that GTN is seeing some of its first action in the Persian Gulf, because its roots there run deep. The importance of timely, accurate and complete information on logistics was brought to light during Operation Desert Storm. Without an integrated, global system to track orders for spare parts or to estimate arrival times, military planners were forced to request the same items over and over, flooding the logistics channels with duplicate requests. Consequently, when the war ended, as many as 20,000 containers remained unopened and unidentified, prompting Desert Storm to be labeled the birthplace of GTN.
The lessons of Desert Storm are not lost on Transcom. In fact, the Transcom commander in chief is briefed weekly on the status of GTN, including data accuracy and latency, Thompson said.
"In-transit visibility wasn't available during Desert Storm, but it's available with GTN," Thompson said. "Our goal is to have the data from the time an event occurs, such as [when an aircraft takes off], into the GTN database and in the hands of the users within 40 minutes."
Five major DOD systems feed data into the GTN database, including the Joint Operations and Planning Execution System (JOPES) and the Air Mobility Command's Deployment Analysis System and Global Decision Support System. GTN has 23 interfaces and tracks an average of more than 1,600 cargo flights, 9,900 truck or rail shipments and 22 vessels at sea each week.
GTN also includes the Joint Flow and Analysis System for Transportation, a planning tool that instantly displays any or all of the world's airports, seaports, highways and railroads and can simulate movements of cargo to determine when certain assets will be available at specific locations. "JFAST allows us to connect our most current common operational picture to our transportation models and plan shipments that are accurate to the minute," said Lt. Col. Henry Haisch, chief of the Joint Mobility Control Group Branch.
However, while Transcom and GTN users say the system improves DOD's ability to plan and carry out operations, GTN remains a work in progress, as Transcom wrestles with security, data quality and ways to improve overall capabilities.
Security, of course, is a prominent concern because the system carries information vital to DOD operations.
Access to GTN is granted through unclassified and classified versions that run over the Non-Classified Internet Protocol Router Network and the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network. The vast majority of GTN data is available over the nonsecure version because most GTN users are clerks and transportation administrators who do not have access to the classified network, Thompson said. However, the use of state-of-the-art encryption and commercial firewall products provide a strong security blanket for GTN, according to Thompson and other program officials.
"The fact that GTN is unclassified doesn't mean that everyone has access to it," Thompson said. "We have a multilevel security operation that is monitored 24 hours per day for any unusual patterns of activity, and we are very careful about who has access."
According to Jacques Sabrie, an information security engineer with Mitre Corp. who manages around-the-clock security for GTN, a three-tiered security umbrella consisting of 128-bit Secure Socket Layer technology, firewalls and encryption protects GTN from hackers. The GTN security office also has deployed intrusion-detection software and other government-developed systems that provide electronic fingerprints of known attack patterns, Sabrie said.
"GTN is as secure as we can make it," said Air Force Lt. Col. Carl Whicker, deputy program manager for GTN. "If we do our job, nobody will know the security is even there."
However, security managers for GTN on average deal with three to six cyberattacks per day, Sabrie said. During December's Operation Desert Fox in Iraq, Sabrie said there were at least two to three probes that GTN security suspected may have originated in the Middle East. Still, "it is usually a matter of minutes before somebody is working on an attack," Sabrie said.
The biggest problem facing GTN may be its large number of interfaces and the potential for data corruption, problems also seen during Desert Fox. When data being fed into GTN from the JOPES database failed to be converted properly, GTN gave planners false information about the status of cargo aircraft, Thompson said. "We thought we were losing transactions somewhere and didn't know why," Thompson said.
Although GTN never went down, the interoperability problem caused confusion when the Air Mobility Command and the U.S. Central Command were working with information that was different from what Transcom was using, Thompson said. The glitch delayed updates of critical logistics information by up to eight hours and ignited a two-week search for the source of the problem.
The future of GTN includes several upgrades and enhancements. Developers are revamping the GTN database, including the technical interfaces between GTN and the multitude of feeder systems, and plan to integrate additional modeling and simulation capabilities and electronic commerce interfaces.
Later versions of GTN will enable the commanders in chief and the military commands to use a push technology to customize logistics information channels. In fact, Transcom plans to take advantage of the Global Broadcast System to transmit GTN data across the world when GBS is fielded shortly after 2000, according to Thompson.
Transcom also has started an outreach training program for new users that includes periodic newsletters on GTN issues. And plans are in the works for distance- learning courses that will be available over the Internet to help users manage GTN data more efficiently.
According to Thompson, GTN is completing the transformation of Transcom from a logistics agency into an information agency.
"It takes individuals who are load masters and turns them into information masters," he said.