The 'ISIS effect' on DOD networks

soldiers using mobile device

In bombing the Islamic State beginning last August, the Pentagon turned to a familiar method with an unfamiliar underpinning. The United States military once again employed its vaunted air power, but effectively communicating across the services and with allied countries required an entirely new infrastructure.

It had been a few years since the U.S. military withdrew from Iraq and took with it the communications networks that supported fighting there. Enter Brig. Gen. Garrett Yee, who arrived at the Army’s 335th Signal Command post in Kuwait last May, to what he described as a “Sleepy Hollow” atmosphere in which the main focus was withdrawing equipment from Afghanistan. “We used to have in Iraq quite the network, and when we left in 2011, we took it all with us,” he told FCW.

The 2007 surge in Iraq, which ramped up the number of U.S. troops there to about 170,000, was accompanied by a surge in communications infrastructure. The U.S. military laid miles of fiber optic lines between bases in Iraq and used a variety of communications methods between bases and among troops, according to Bob Stasio, who was an Army signals intelligence platoon leader in Iraq at the time.

The priority that commanders placed on turning the war around empowered field officers to request a range of communications equipment that might help the cause, Stasio said. His unit, for example, was one of the first to use Forward Battle Communication Command and Control Systems, which he described as a “localized network that ran on terrestrial point-to-point radio communications.” Stasio’s platoon could track Stryker vehicles using GPS and send voice and digital dispatches to the vehicles.

But much of that equipment was stripped away when U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011. “When we left Iraq, we left hook, line and sinker,” said Stasio, who is now a fellow at the Truman National Security Project. “We didn’t keep those [forward operating bases]. We gave them to the Iraqis, so we pretty much took all that stuff with us or left it there. And [what we did leave,] probably ISIS owns most of it now.”

To get the military’s communications up and running again in Iraq over the last year, Yee and his team initially relied on the U.S. embassy’s communications infrastructure, but almost immediately outgrew that. The next step for Yee, who is the commanding general of the 335th Signal Command, was to set up satellite terminals in cities such as Baghdad, the Kurdish capital of Erbil, and Taji, where U.S. military advisers have trained Iraqis to fight ISIS.

Like adding an app

Though the satellite terminals connected U.S. military personnel to other bases throughout the world, they were but a stepping-stone for Yee. Another tool provided much more bandwidth and security, and allowed the military to make the jump from tactical to strategic communications, he said.

That tool is known as a Technical Control Facility in a Box (TCFB). The apparatus is a few dozen transit cases that each hold a router and a core switch, and takes about a day to assemble. The TCFB allows for secure emailing and file sharing amongst network users. Over the last year, Yee has made four trips to Iraq to get the communications network up and running. His goal is to get several U.S. allies using the system in the next few months.

The U.S. military is developing similar networks elsewhere in the world, according to Yee, but today's air strikes on ISIS, much like the 2007 surge, are making better communications in Mesopotamia a priority. The anti-ISIS coalition is providing an impetus “to move this effort along more aggressively,” he said. “As it matures, it will be easier to use, we’ll have more services available to it,” Yee said, comparing that incremental progress to adding applications to an iPhone.

This is the U.S. military’s third attempt to set up a coalition communication network in either Iraq or Afghanistan, according to Yee. In 2006, DOD used a system called Centrix that was supposed to enable communication with  allies in Iraq on a classified network, but “it just became another computer box” because it was ineffective, he said.

The TCFB could represent a turning point, though. “If we get this right, then hopefully this can help enable us to have a DOD-wide solution,” he said. The project has the backing of Brig. Gen. Pete Gallagher, the head of CIO/J6 at Central Command, with whom Yee said he has worked closely.

Stasio said one of the lessons he drew from Iraq was not prescribing a “one-size fits-all solution” to tactical communication needs on the battlefield. Yee seems to be applying that lesson through the TCFB.

The Asia IT pivot

While Yee was setting up telecoms-in-a-box capabilities in Iraq, his colleagues halfway around the world were working on a broader project. Their goal was to communicate quickly and discreetly across the vast Pacific Command, which stretches from the U.S. west coast to India.

Military communications in the Pacific are not as  structured as they are in, say, continental Europe, which is defined by NATO networks, according to Rear Adm. Nancy Norton, who until March was the Pacific Command’s director of command, control, communications and cyber. A humanitarian assistance operation in Southeast Asia, for example, might entail an ad hoc group of countries working together on a project for which there is no preexisting communications protocol, she said.

“Our networks don’t have the ability to flex that well and that quickly, and our approval processes aren’t currently set up to be able to support that very quickly,” Norton told FCW.  

Norton worried that the ad hoc nature of Pacific Command communications would hinder the way countries such as Australia took part in the fight against ISIS. “What we don’t want to do is create more of a burden on our allies and partners to have to stand up multiple networks and network infrastructure in order to be able to communicate with different segments of the U.S. Defense Department,” she said.

And so Norton turned to something called the Joint Capabilities Technical Demonstration to tackle the PACOM communications riddle. The JCTD is a common network divided into “virtual enclaves” that offer participants separate secure channels of communication. The network architecture can be assembled quickly and is well suited to the ad hoc coalitions Washington works with in the Asia Pacific theater, according to Norton.

Our networks don’t have the ability to flex that well and that quickly, and our approval processes aren’t currently set up to be able to support that very quickly.

As with Yee’s telecoms-in-a-box, Central Command has expressed strong interest in the communication tool Norton implemented.  The reason, she said, was that “the long-term Afghan mission network that we had in support of Afghanistan isn’t what we now need” for the fight against the Islamic State.

And Like Yee’s work, the JTCD could outlast a war against ISIS that U.S. commanders have said might take years. The network architecture, Norton said, is “becoming the foundation for the Joint Information Environment … that all of the combatant commands across the world are working toward because we all have similar requirements for this.”

Thus the war against ISIS is helping drive the JIE, a DOD-wide IT initiative that has heretofore been largely abstract. If the projects initiated by Yee and Norton are any guide, the future of military communications will be defined by nimble, ad hoc methods capable of being quickly packed up and sent to the next conflict, thousands of miles away.  And commanders will be able to see very quickly just how much these new unified communications systems can help troops in the field.


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