U.S. Central Command battles for bandwidth

MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. - Faced with the challenge of protecting American interests in one of the most turbulent regions of the world, the U.S. Central Command is building a new warfighting strategy for the 21st century.

From its headquarters facility on Tampa Bay, the Centcom J-6 staff is rethinking some of the fundamental concepts that make up military command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I) doctrine. Spearheading this shift is the notion of using more information and fewer people in fighting battles. The management of both would be handled from stationary locations away from the fighting.

The concept, called split-based operations, uses cutting-edge information technologies to exercise command and control of military forces dispersed across great distances from the relative comfort and safety of a headquarters facility. Nowhere is this concept being put to a greater test than throughout Centcom's vast area of responsibility, including the Persian Gulf and Central and Southwest Asia.

"All of the services have gone through a change in the way they go about providing C3I support," said Marine Col. Timothy J. Himes, division chief for Centcom's J-6 Plans and Operations Division. "During Desert Storm, we virtually disconnected from everything in the U.S.," Himes said. "Now we are talking about having our core processes in the rear and leaving them in the rear."

To ensure that all U.S. and coalition forces operating in their areas of responsibility have access to the right information at the right time, the Centcom J-6 staff has concentrated on rebuilding and enhancing the command's information infrastructure through the use of commercial satellite systems and interconnected strategic hubs. The work has been ongoing since the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, when tactical bandwidth requirements were not encumbered by an insatiable desire for video and multimedia.

One of the biggest challenges facing Centcom in its effort to build a strategic communications foundation is information management and the lack of adequate bandwidth. Although the situation has improved since Operation Desert Storm, Himes said there is always a need for more bandwidth and integration, which are essential to the command's ability to manage information flow.

Unlike during Desert Storm, when Centcom had to move all of its critical support functions to Saudi Arabia, "when we deploy now we can replicate the same [multimedia] services we do in garrison in the tactical environment," Himes said. "However, the most difficult aspect of this is integrating a very diverse range of communications systems into one." Centcom provides C3I and other computer services to as many as 23,000 users throughout the theater using a mix of commercial and long-haul military satellite systems. The command currently relies on two satellites purchased through the Defense Information Systems Agency's Commercial Satellite Communications Initiative and plans to install two more by the end of this year.

The CSCI systems pull secure and nonsecure telephone services, videoconferencing and messaging services from the Defense Information Infrastructure and push them out to tactical units through a series of strategic communications hubs located throughout the Persian Gulf region. These five strategic nodes - three located in Saudi Arabia, one in Bahrain and one in Kuwait - consist of a mix of new commercial systems and older tactical communications equipment, which often pose a challenge to extending services out to forward-deployed tactical forces. With the exception of a T-3 link between Bahrain and Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, connectivity between strategic nodes is limited to fractional T-1 links.

Although Centcom continues to upgrade this network, the command still is heavily reliant on 1960s-vintage tactical systems, such as high-frequency satellite vans, to move information out to units in the field. However, Himes said the use of compression technology has boosted the amount of bandwidth available throughout the theater. In addition, Centcom is beginning to deploy "smart multiplexers" at the strategic hubs, which can reroute network traffic automatically if a node fails, according to Himes. The command also is beginning to use Asynchronous Transfer Mode technology for major backbone services.

Centcom also is exploring the use of DISA's Global Fiber Initiative, a program that would allow it to use the fiber-optic communications systems installed in the various host nations where Centcom currently operates. According to Himes, DISA is helping Centcom determine access arrangements. Although such fiber backbones would provide service at the OC-3 level (155 megabits/sec), Centcom's demand is not yet great enough to justify the cost of investing in that much capacity. Instead, the command is looking into ways to purchase fiber connectivity in smaller increments at a reduced rate, Himes said.

"There never seems to be enough [bandwidth]," Himes said. "No matter how much you give them, they ask for more. We don't know from one day to the next what the situation will be, so we do a significant amount of war planning and gaming. We actually think our way through stress-release points in our network" when planning for new requirements, Himes said.

However, split-based operations puts a premium on the use of bandwidth-intensive applications, such as videoconferencing, interactive databases, collaborative planning tools and various imagery intelligence systems. In fact, according to a recent Centcom study written in the aftermath of December 1998's Operation Desert Thunder in Iraq, the reliance on complex C3I systems since Desert Storm has led to a sevenfold increase in bandwidth consumption on a per-person basis.

In addition, the command increasingly must deal with the need to engineer dedicated circuits to handle gun-camera footage from aircraft flying bombing missions over Iraq, according to Air Force Maj. Joseph LaMarca Jr., a spokesman for the command. "Getting gun-camera footage and other images back to the U.S. in near real time is not just a requirement for the intelligence and plans personnel but for the upper echelons of our leadership as well," LaMarca said. "These files take an enormous amount of bandwidth and would bring our common user networks to a screeching halt. So providing a dedicated link makes good sense."

But Centcom officials worry that the cutting-edge concept of split-based operations is threatened by the sell-off of frequency spectrum to the highest bidder. "It's a dangerous precedent that the U.S. has set," said Air Force Lt. Col. Susan Aungst, chief of Centcom's Joint Frequency Management Office. "It has cost us twice as much [as what it is being sold for] to retrofit equipment."

Himes said, "We have to negotiate with the host nation every single piece of wireless communications equipment. It's a constant challenge to make sure we're not walking on some critical service in the host nation."

However, officials agree that things have changed, and the outlook for split-based operations is good. Still, the biggest change between Desert Storm and December 1998's Operation Desert Fox has been the amount and type of information flowing throughout the theater and the technology required to support it, Aungst said. "During Desert Storm, we had a bunch of old guys smoking cigars and writing backwards with grease pencils on grease boards," she said. "But their process was never connected," she said. "Today, what a great thing it is to be able to see one picture."

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