IT on the high seas
- By Bob Brewin
- Apr 25, 1999
ABOARD THE USS CARL VINSON - On deployed ships and in land-based outposts, men and machines become information-dependent. In the newly connected world - even the world in a war-like setting - information access and information exchange become essential tools in the missions of the warfighters.
Late last year Rear Adm. Alfred Harms, commander of Carrier Battle Group Three, received orders to deploy to the Persian Gulf to support the Desert Fox series of air strikes against Iraq. The ability to reach back to the U.S. Central Command (Centcom) and retrieve the information that the group needed enabled the ships to respond quickly to the new orders.
Operating off the coast of Asia when it received its orders, the battle group staff tapped into the Defense Department's Persian Gulf intelligence and information stream as it steamed through the Straits of Molucca at more than 30 knots. Accessing secure World Wide Web pages on DOD's global Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNET) through its high-powered Challenge Athena commercial satellite dish, the staff could access real-time intelligence data as though it already was in the theater.
Harms can tap into the same type of information from the relative luxury of his cabin aboard the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier. He simply flips a switch and suddenly his computer changes from running the unclassified e-mail program through which Harms communicates with his family almost daily to accessing the secure network that he uses to "pull" information from secure Web pages set up in the Persian Gulf and at Centcom headquarters in Tampa, Fla.
Harms uses secure, real-time video-teleconferencing systems and Microsoft Corp.'s NetMeeting software on SIPRNET to coordinate plans with his subordinate commanders in the battle group as well as with the Pentagon and Centcom headquarters. As the Vinson neared the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, this information flow grew into a torrent, including the receipt of real-time Tomahawk missile targeting data for use by the destroyer and cruiser "shooters" in the battle group.
"We were able to get all the information we needed - photos, video and data" - while on the high-speed dash from Asia to the Persian Gulf, Harms said. This electronic handoff allowed the Vinson to launch a 30-plane strike as soon as it entered the Persian Gulf. In the not-so-
distant past, Harms said, a battle group would have been in the Persian Gulf days or weeks gathering the information it required to conduct operations by "flying helos back and forth" among the Vinson, ships already in the Persian Gulf and the Navy Central Command/U.S. 5th Fleet, headquartered in Bahrain.
Harms takes pride in the fact that the Vinson and Carrier Battle Group Three managed to do this without an installation of the Navy-standard Information Technology for the 21st Century Asynchronous Transfer Mode-backbone network. "We were not IT-21-capable" as the Vinson set out on its deployment, "so our folks did it on their own. We pulled our own funds and with our own efforts built the network, which is the largest [local-area network] afloat, with our technical talent: the young enlisted sailors," he said.
Lt. George Haws, the Vinson's information systems officer, said the ship's LAN "was an IT-21 network without the ATM backbone. I think we need ATM, especially for things like [video teleconferencing]." While Haws declined to disclose - for security reasons - the number of users on SIPRNET on the Vinson, he did say the shipboard Non-Classified Internet Protocol Router Network (NIPRNET) serving the crew of more than 5,000 has more than 1,250 computers, including 250 designed to serve the embarked air wing.
This inventory included roughly 700 new PCs that Haws described as "Pentiums [with a clock speed] of at least 166 MHz and older computers we have upgraded ourselves to 266s or better." The new computers included PCs from Dell Computer Corp., Gateway Inc. and what Haws called "no names."
The LAN upgrade also involved a switch from a Novell Inc. networking system to Microsoft's Windows NT. The Vinson now runs seven Windows NT 4.0 servers to support the unclassified LAN alone. Among other tasks, this LAN provides e-mail accounts to any crewman who ask for one. "We have more than 4,000 e-mail accounts on the ship," Haws said.
Despite the lack of the IT-21 ATM backbone, Haws said, "we are doing everything the IT-21 carriers are doing, and we don't know where they are beating us."
The USS Belleau Wood Amphibious Ready Group also came "on station" in the Persian Gulf electronically as it began its deployment last November, long before any of its ships physically arrived there, according to Capt. Peter Hayes, commodore of Amphibious Squadron Eleven, who commands the ARG from the Belleau Wood.
Last November the Belleau Wood, whose home port is in Sasebo, Japan, picked up the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) from White Beach in Okinawa for deployment to the Persian Gulf and immediately started using its recently installed IT-21 network to update commanders and staff members on the situation in the Middle East.
The Belleau Wood ARG was to relieve the USS Essex ARG in the Persian Gulf, and Hayes said he conducted videoconferences with the Essex right from Okinawa. Steaming for the Persian Gulf, Hayes said the "Essex used technology to push all kinds of information toward us so by the time we got to the Gulf, we had all the information we needed...[and] connectivity under way was almost transparent."
The Belleau Wood ARG also used its SIPRNET connections to tap into secure Web pages hosted by the 5th Fleet in Bahrain, Hayes said. Instead of exchanging "a big bundle of paper [operations] orders" with the Essex, Hayes said his staff just surfed to the requisite 5th Fleet Web page. "All that information is right there," he said.
The networked information available at the terminal in his cabin, Hayes said, marks a "significant change" in how he and his staff do business. He has so much information available at his desktop - a command and control PC version of the Global Command and Control System that provides him with a common operational picture (COP) of all friendly and potential enemy forces in the Persian Gulf - that "you could sit by the box all day long."
The Belleau Wood runs 10 separate classified networks and eight unclassified networks over the 155 megabits/sec ATM LAN, according to Senior Chief Petty Officer Leon Slack, who supervised its installation and continues to monitor its operation. The network supports more than 240 terminals running on the unclassified networks and another 105 operating on the classified systems, Slack said.
Slack said he took a cautious approach to the installation of the IT-21 backbone LAN on the Belleau Wood after learning of problems that the USS Blue Ridge and the USS Kitty Hawk experienced with their IT-21 installations at their home port in Yokosuka, Japan.
To avoid nettlesome trouble-shooting after installation - when a fault on board could result as much from a short in the wiring as from the gear itself - Slack said, "I had a team set everything up in a warehouse on the pier in Sasebo. We set up all the switches and PCs with pre-loaded software and tested the LAN before taking it on board. This eliminated the problem of going through a couple of miles of wire looking for a broken cable."
IT-21 has allowed the 31st MEU to beat time and distance issues. Lt. Col. James Connolly, the 31st MEU's operations chief, believes that "we have just skimmed the surface of what we can do. This thing will just jump exponentially when we get enough bandwidth to get this to all the ships [in the ARG]."
Connolly has a SIPRNET terminal in his cabin on the Belleau Wood, and he uses it to display the COP as well as to "keep track of the intell side of the house in both Centcom and [the Pacific Command]." Connolly described the IT-21 LAN as a "quantum leap from two years ago," when he deployed on the Belleau Wood and the Marine staff exchanged information mostly on paper.
"We can put together a detailed plan here [for an operation] for crisis action teams and get it disseminated to the force. Prior to IT-21, that was real hard. Now all we have to do is put it in a file and send it out electronically," Connolly said. "A dumb grunt like me now talks about how bandwidth technology has changed us all, changed our doctrine and the way we fight," he said.
Marine and Navy doctrine calls for an MEU such as the 31st to deploy its forces ashore and then control them from a ship such as the Belleau Wood. As Col. D.D. Felton, the Marine aviator who serves as commander of the 31st MEU, explained, "We're inextricably linked to the ship, and it's easier to exercise command and control from here." But, as Connolly pointed out, the 31st MEU lacks the necessary mobile satellite gear - called by the Marines a Joint Task Force Enabler - to share the rich flow of data available on ship with the forces ashore.
Once the 31st MEU goes ashore, it must rely on VHF-FM or high-frequency radios and a satellite terminal capable of transmitting only low-rate data, according to Capt. Jeff Dixon, the MEU's communications officer. "When we go ashore, we leave digital connectivity behind," Dixon said.
On ship, even infantry companies can hook into the IT-21 LAN, according to Maj. Troy Bates, the 31st MEU's intelligence officer. "The best thing about IT-21 is connectivity down [the chain of command]," Bates said. "It allows us to send all our products down to company level, including terrain data, imagery and intelligence.... Then people can pick and choose what they need. We put all our products up in Microsoft Outlook folders."
Dixon called the IT-21 LAN "our bread and butter because it allows us to plug and play." Although the Navy installed the LAN, Dixon said the 31st MEU "embarked our own servers, and we bring our own desktops and laptops aboard. You just plug into a spare jack tagged as a Marine drop."
Cpl. Daniel Szabo, the 31st MEU's information system chief, said the Marines run three servers on board, including two Dell servers and an aging but upgraded Zenith Data Systems box. Dixon said the Marines run 40 PCs on SIPRNET and another 86 on NIPRNET. Dixon said he spent roughly $230,000 on computers before the MEU deployed, primarily for 30 laptops, mixed roughly between Dell and Toshiba America Information Systems Inc. PCs.
In February, as the Belleau Wood prepared to leave the Persian Gulf for a return to Sasebo, the ship's crew and the MEU applied lessons they had learned in their electronic handoff to their incoming relief aboard the USS Boxer. The 31st MEU's Bates, said his crew had started to put together a package of all the relevant intelligence information they had gathered during their Gulf deployment - including vital data on a pending noncombatant evacuation operation of U.S. nationals from a Persian Gulf country that the Marines still do not want identified - for an electronic change of command with the Boxer ARG via File Transfer Protocol. "Everything we had, we FTP'd over to the Boxer," Bates said.