Road to interoperable DoD network starts with less-than-perfect solutions

Wednesday - 8/29/2012, 11:46am EDT

Jared Serbu, DoD reporter, Federal News Radio

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The Pentagon's path to a single, standards-based networking environment that can serve the entire military will be a long one. But it'll start with the idea that the Defense Department can't achieve perfection.

Before the Defense Department started the process of collapsing and consolidating the military's networks, there were an estimated 15,000 of them each run as separate fiefdoms by bits and pieces of DoD's sprawling organizational chart. The dream of DoD IT leaders is to one day have an information enterprise that's fully interoperable, so that military services can seamlessly share information with each other and U.S. Cyber Command can better defend the military's networks (right now CYBERCOM can't even see them all).

The concept is a services-oriented architecture called the Joint Information Environment (JIE), and it's the top priority for Maj. Gen. Mark Bowman, who just took over as the director of command control, communications and computers (J6) on the Pentagon's Joint Staff. For the first time, that position also serves as the Joint Staff's chief information officer.

Maj. Gen. Mark Bowman

Bowman said JIE isn't a program, and the Pentagon won't manage it as one. For starters, it won't try to achieve 100 percent perfection based on a predefined set of requirements.

"We're not looking for a perfect solution," he told an AFCEA audience Wednesday. "We're looking for 60, 70, 80 percent solutions. Provide us capability we don't have today, and we'll move on."

Bowman said DoD wants to move on quickly, taking advantage of technology as it becomes available in the marketplace rather than specifying systems that end up taking years to develop and locking the Pentagon into a single vendor's technology.

"We're not looking for proprietary solutions. We're looking for COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) as much as we can find it," he said. "The enemy's using COTS, and we can't have them ahead of us. We need to adapt as we go. We need to understand the risks. We need a trust between industry and DoD, so that when industry says, ‘Hey, I've got this thing, it's ready to go,' it is in fact ready to go, it's not a black box with some knobs on it with nothing inside it. We have perfect examples of things that went out to the battlefield that weren't perfect, but because of the blood, sweat and tears of the people out there, they wound up being game changers."

Bowman said integrating 60 percent solutions into DoD's information enterprise is going to take some adjusting by boots-on-the-ground servicemembers themselves, not just the military's IT and acquisition communities. He said there have been cases in the last ten years of war in which the military introduced "game-changers" onto the battlefield only to have users complain they weren't perfect. He offered the example of a push-to-talk radio that closed a 100- mile communications gap in Iraq.

"All we were getting back was, ‘Hey, it would be nice if this was type-one encrypted, it ought to have a bigger screen.' So we called back and told them to turn them all back in. They said, ‘no, no, you can't do that.' Here's the deal, you have to tell us both the good and bad and we'll make the decision on what to do. We don't need expert problem identifiers. We need people who help us get stuff to where it needs to be. And if we can do 60, 70 or 80 percent now and evolve over time based on an understood set of standards that people can build to, there will be a whole lot more players in the game, a lot more competition, and in the end a much better country for it."

The Joint Information Environment concept is a vastly complicated undertaking, making the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter look simplistic by comparison, Bowman said. He said the concept has the attention of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the chiefs of each of the military services and defense agencies. Those senior DoD leaders have just become users of a technology system that Bowman and other IT leaders in the Pentagon hope will lay the foundation for joint networking — the enterprise email system led by the Army and the Defense Information Systems Agency. The entire Joint Staff is now on enterprise email.

Bowman said other foundational elements for JIE are the department's data center consolidation effort and the push toward an enterprise information sharing platform based on Microsoft's Sharepoint.

"It's all about the enterprise, and it's not an enterprise within a particular service. This is DoD-wide enterprises," he said. "Once we start that approach, we shouldn't look back. There are folks who have done thin client. There are folks who went to [voice-over Internet protocol communications]. There were naysayers on both. Neither was perfect when they started, but they're so much better than what we've got today.

Bowman said the JIE will be tightly intertwined with DoD's plans for a ready-to- use network for contingency operations that can go anywhere and interoperate with other nations. NATO runs such a network tailored to the Afghanistan battlespace now, the Afghan Mission Network, but it took years after the start of the Afghan war to get up and running.

"It was the great idea of a couple lieutenant colonels from [U.S. Central Command]. It was amazing to me that these two lieutenant colonels were able to work this concept through NATO and get NATO funding for it before we could even get total buy-in from some of the senior leaders here in D.C." The next step for IT in coalition operations is the Future Mission Network, which will eventually be renamed the Mission Partner Environment.

"It's not a network of its own, it's a set of tactics, techniques and procedures that will closely match, wherever we can, what we have in JIE," he said. "The most important part of JIE is the foundation, the security and technical architecture on which it's built. What we want to do is test drive some of these ideas with some of our coalition partners, and we want to do it with one of our partner nations being in charge, not the U.S. We're going to do that within the next year. It's absolutely critical that we do that. It's absolutely critical that we tie what Future Mission Network becomes to JIE so we have interoperability and comms on day one. We ought to be able to go and communicate as we need to and to share that information."

Bowman said the JIE and the Mission Partner Environment are based on similar ideas: even though the wartime environment is winding down, no U.S. military service will ever again go to war on its own, and it's highly unlikely that the U.S. will ever go into conflict without the help of other nations.

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