Networking in the field

A major military communications exercise under way in Baum-holder, Germany,

since last week may hold the key to curtailing the record number of people

leaving military service because of increasing deployments that keep them

away from their families.

Military officials taking part in Combined Endeavor 2000, a communications

exercise involving soldiers and equipment from 35 nations, said results

from tests conducted here may enable the United States and other NATO nations

to reduce the personnel and equipment needed to maintain military communications

networks during crises.

The problem, officials said, is that too often the communications equipment

purchased by different militaries around the world does not conform to the

same standards, requiring nations to deploy extra personnel and equipment

to ensure network support. Combined Endeavor is designed to fix those problems.

"The simple answer is interoperability," said Army Lt. Col. Ronald Stimeare,

exercise director for CE 2000, referring to the process of making sure the

communications systems from NATO nations are able to work together. "People

are getting out [of the military]. When asked why, the answer they give

is, "I'm always in the field; I'm always deployed. My wife is ready to leave

me, and my kids don't know who I am.'"

In particular, Stimeare is referring to the cadre of high-tech communications

specialists who are in high demand in the military and "very marketable"

in the private sector.

Stimeare, who last year served as Combined Endeavor's technical director,

said it costs far less to develop an interface card to a communications

system than it does to send troops and equipment to set up and maintain

a network. "To me, that's the blinding flash of the obvious," he said.

Now in its fifth year, Combined Endeavor is an annual two-week exercise

sponsored by the U.S. European Command to iron out communications and network

interoperability issues between the United States, other NATO nations and

Partnership for Peace countries.

Officials document every technical glitch encountered and solution discovered

during the exercise's more than 3,000 tests. Then they distribute an "interoperability

guide" for the nations to use for future reference.

"Right now, you have a situation where one nation must put the whole

network in place" when a multinational force deploys to a place like Kosovo,

said Army Lt. Col. Michael Holly, technical director for CE 2000. However,

results from the tests may soon allow U.S. units, for example, to communicate

by "going through somebody else's network," he said.

Although the militaries taking part in CE 2000 have unique budget circumstances

and different political battles to fight back home, "they all have the same

problems," said Canadian Army Capt. Mark Gibbs, the Canadian delegation

chief to CE 2000.

The British were also responsible for providing network access to the

Canadians during the Bosnia peacekeeping mission because the two countries'

network switches did not work together. "What's happened in the past is

that whatever country is in charge of the international division has provided

the communications for everybody else," Gibbs said.

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