Navy faces IT training, support woes

(This is the fourth in a series of articles looking at DOD efforts to bring new technology into the battlefield.)

The Navy has hit a few bumps in translating the grand vision of network-centric warfare embodied in its Information Technology for the 21st Century project into gritty operational reality.

The Navy believes commercial networking technology and PCs will improve the ability of its personnel to carry out operations by giving them fast access to critical data and applications.

But Navy information technology professionals among carrier battle groups and amphibious ready groups operating "at the tip of spear" in the Persian Gulf and the Western Pacific have reported great frustration with early shipboard installations of IT-21 commercial off-the-shelf hardware and software. Lack of training and a compressed installation schedule further compounded these problems, according to the forward-deployed Navy and Marine IT professionals.

And once broken in, the shipboard networks have delivered such a torrent of information that operational commanders have been struggling with a steep information management learning curve.

Top Navy officials candidly acknowledged the sharp birth pangs of IT-21, which has moved from concept to reality in warships engaged in real-world operations in just three years, and vowed to improve the installation, training and knowledge management processes this year.

An IT Nightmare

Any improvement, however slight, would outdistance the "nightmare," as one sailor put it, that the command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I) and automated data proc-essing staff on the USS Kitty Hawk experienced during its IT-21 shakedown cruise last year. Interviewed in April 1999 during "Operation Tandem Thrust," Lt. Mark Bibeau vividly recalled the Kitty Hawk's initial experience with IT-21 a year earlier.

The Kitty Hawk, which is now deployed to the Persian Gulf, departed Bremerton, Wash., for its new home port in Japan on April 15, 1998, Bibeau said, and the IT-21 network was not up until July 17.

"It took us three months of tweaking to get it operating. The solutions were just not there prior to the ship being deployed," he said.

The ship left Bremerton with what Navy officials describe as one of the most advanced networks ever installed afloat, including an OC-12 622 megabits/sec fiber-optic backbone serving classified and unclassified networks. Switching was provided by three Xylan Corp. "backbone" Asynchronous Transfer Mode devices and 10 "edge" devices on the unclassified network. The classified network featured three Xylan backbone switches and eight edge devices.

The edge switches in turn relayed data at 155 megabits/sec to a vast network of PCs and servers, including 685 drops on the Non-Classified Internet Protocol Router Network, according to Bibeau. The ship's Secret

Internet Protocol Router Network served 450 drops, Bibeau said, including 150 ATM-to-the-desktop PCs for power users who needed the extra bandwidth to manipulate large files.

The switches were powerful, but the Kitty Hawk found keeping them up and operational a challenge because of a number of factors, including key environmental considerations that they believe were not understood by the installation team, which was managed by the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (Spawar).

Chief Radioman Darrell Miller wondered "if anyone who designed [the switch installation] had ever been on an aircraft carrier before." He had his doubts because "they installed one switch in the jet engine shop," which filled with jet blast during testing. Miller said the COTS Xylan switches also had to deal with power surges and vibrations from the movement of the ship through rough seas and the landing of aircraft. The installation planners put one switch directly below the flight deck.

The Kitty Hawk ADP shop also suffered break-in problems with the Spawar-modified Microsoft Corp. Windows NT operating system software, which Bibeau described as "leaving us with an off-the-shelf system that really is not COTS."

He said Spawar worked with a contractor to tailor a system for IT-21 but did not provide the Kitty Hawk with a list of the changes made. As a result "it took us six days" just to set the system clock, Bibeau said.

Lack of Training

Bibeau said most of the IT-21 problems have been worked out. His biggest concern is to get adequate technical assistance to do repairs locally, he said. IT staff aboard other ships have similar concerns.

Senior Chief Leon Slack, who runs the ADP section on the USS Belleau Wood, a Marine amphibious carrier, said he derived valuable "lessons learned" from the Kitty Hawk's problems. He had the contractors lay out and connect all the components of his ship's IT-21 local-area network on the pier before installation. Slack, interviewed on the Belleau Wood in the Persian Gulf in February, said this procedure helped isolate faults in network equipment, saving his crew from "trouble-shooting two miles of wire."

But while the Belleau Wood had a smoother experience with its IT-21 installation than the Kitty Hawk, Slack worries about the day-to-day maintenance and operation of the ship's complex networks because of a lack of training. The setup includes 10 classified networks and eight unclassified systems serving the Navy staff and the embarked Marines. "Dropping a $3 million project in my lap does not amount to a hill of beans without training," Slack said.

Despite the Navy's shift to Windows NT-powered networks, Slack said Navy schools had not, to his knowledge, added Windows NT to their curricula: The newly minted network sailors reporting on board had just completed training on Novell Inc. networks. Radioman 2nd Class Wayne Katz said he believed the training problems reflected a lack of commitment to build training costs into the IT-21 budget. "When it comes to training, there is very little funding available for IT-21 funding," Katz said.

Katz believes the Navy needs to set up dedicated "IT-21 training teams. Meanwhile, to keep up with the technology until he can receive Navy training, Katz has funded his technical education himself. "I've probably spent about $1,000 out of my own pocket on [technical training] CD-ROMs," Katz said.

Adm. Archie Clemins, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet and the originator of IT-21, acknowledged that the IT-21 installation process has not been smooth, but said, "We've had successful growing pains with each installation."

Rear Adm. John Gauss, commenting on the problems detailed by the ADP crew on the Kitty Hawk, said that "we got ahead of our headlights" on that IT-21 installation due to the short time Spawar and its contractors, primarily Electronic Data Systems Corp., were given to outfit the ship before it deployed to the Far East. "The Kitty Hawk was problematic. It was a late install, and the Xylan switches did not [at that time] perform as advertised."

Spawar, Gauss said, put the Kitty Hawk "through pain we should have never put the ship through."

Gauss added that Spawar is establishing procedures to ensure that future IT-21 network installations will be completed well before a ship deploys. He also expressed confidence in the work Xylan had done to correct switch problems, adding that Spawar would work to ensure that switches were not installed in areas where poor environmental factors stressed them.

New Solutions, New Problems

The Navy expects it will be able to address installation and training problems and that IT-21 will have a dramatic impact on operations by providing Navy operational staff with quick access to valuable information. But even that information itself is a problem, some Navy personnel said.

Operational staffs, which use networks and computers, do not have to worry about the IT-21 network plumbing, but once the networks are up and running, operators face their own series of challenges, starting with "Web information overload," according to Capt. Michael Felmly, the assistant chief of staff for the U.S. 7th Fleet, interviewed aboard the USS Blue Ridge, the 7th Fleet flagship.

While describing the growth of specialized World Wide Web pages on SIPRNET as an interoperable and innovative way to manage information, Felmly said this proliferation of information stymies users who do not know how to locate the information they need.

This has led to Web one-upmanship, Felmly said, when one staff member asks another for information, only to "have him to say to your boss, 'It's on the home page,' then it becomes your problem.... My five least favorite words have become 'it's on the Web page.' "

Cmdr. Larry "Dobie" Gillis, assistant chief of staff for command, control, communications and computers on the Kitty Hawk, said that to manage the IT-21 information glut, the Navy needs to establish protocols to keep information under control.

"My biggest peeve is people who push gigantic data files" onto a network serving multiple ships in a task force and then expect smaller ships with less powerful satellite connections to easily grab the information, Gillis said. Bandwidth constraints mean small ships can take three hours to download the gigabyte-size files that pass over Navy networks, he said.

Gillis believes bandwidth has emerged as a vital combat resource that needs to be managed in the same way as ammunition or fuel. He said the Navy needs to institute strict information management procedures to ensure that staffers transfer the minimum amount of data needed to get the job done and not "the War and Peace version of it."

Vice Adm. Walt Doran, the 7th Fleet's commander, agreed, saying the Navy needs a "central discipline" to manage information. "We've made the investment [in the technology]," Doran said, "now we have to take a look at the process of how we manage information.... If we are going to do business this way, Web pages have to be standardized, and we're not quite there yet."

Rear Adm. (select) Charles Munns, the chief financial officer and chief information officer for the commander in chief of the Navy's Pacific Fleet, said that information management policies need to be established by commanders.

"Battle group commanders can define what is important," Munns said in an interview at the Pacific Fleet headquarters in Hawaii. By doing that, commanders can help the various functional areas within their commands focus on the most important information needed to be distributed at any given time and situation.

Despite the growing pains associated with IT-21, the network already has started to reach out and grab commanders, with e-mail and Web pages replacing phone calls and face-to-face meetings, the 7th Fleet's Doran said.

He said that on a recent deployment, "I'd been out for two months and I could count on one hand the number of phone calls I'd received."


  • Management
    shutterstock image By enzozo; photo ID: 319763930

    Where does the TMF Board go from here?

    With a $1 billion cash infusion, relaxed repayment guidelines and a surge in proposals from federal agencies, questions have been raised about whether the board overseeing the Technology Modernization Fund has been scaled to cope with its newfound popularity.

  • IT Modernization
    shutterstock image By enzozo; photo ID: 319763930

    OMB provides key guidance for TMF proposals amid surge in submissions

    Deputy Federal CIO Maria Roat details what makes for a winning Technology Modernization Fund proposal as agencies continue to submit major IT projects for potential funding.

Stay Connected