Magazine article National Defense

U.S. Central Command Leads Push to Connect Allies in Common Network

Magazine article National Defense

U.S. Central Command Leads Push to Connect Allies in Common Network

Article excerpt

* It is written in the national security strategy that international coalitions are indispensible in U.S. efforts to combat terrorism, disease and other menaces. But nowhere are there instructions on how commanders are expected to coordinate, communicate and share information with a group of linguistically and culturally diverse military and civilian partners.

U.S. military leaders in regional commands have coped with limited interoperability with allies by setting up one-off communications systems. The most successful to date has been the "Afghanistan mission network," launched in 2010 after persistent prodding by four-star generals who found that they could not properly command a 40-nation alliance with disjointed and incompatible information systems.

There is nothing comparable to the Afghan network in the Middle East for the coalition that is fighting the Islamic State. About 60 countries have been declared U.S. partners in the campaign known as Operation Inherent Resolve, but many of those countries' militaries are out of the loop.

U.S. regional commanders--known in military-speak as combatant commanders--are asking the Pentagon for financial and technical support to build a common information network. Army Brig. Gen. Peter A. Gallagher, U.S. Central Command's director of command and control, communications and computer systems, is leading the charge.

"After 14 years of doing this in Centcorn, we still do not have an enduring capability to immediately connect the coalition," Gallagher said in an interview from MacDill Air Force Base, in Tampa, Florida.

The United States is pouring tens of millions of dollars each month into operations to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Some money should be carved out to fund a modern command-and-control information network, said Gallagher. The investment would pay huge dividends, he said, because the network would be built with common standards so it could be adapted to any operation anywhere in the world.

"That is one area we have been driving hard at Centcom: Working with other combatant commands to establish an enduring mission partner environment, not one just focused on Centcom," he said. "We are looking for an enterprise standard for the Department of Defense so no matter what theater you operate in, you're in a mission partner environment."

Central Command's area of responsibility includes Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, U.A.E. and Yemen.

Today, each geographic command decides what it needs to connect to its partners in the region, but there has been no comprehensive Defense Department-wide plan to create information networks that are more standardized. As a result, the United States spends untold millions of dollars on customized single-purpose networks that are deployed during crises.

New technologies like software-based networking would allow systems to be reconfigured for different scenarios without having to build them from scratch. With a large coalition now emerging to fight ISIS, the Defense Department should invest in a common network that it could also reuse in other parts of the globe, Gallagher said. "Our commanders need uninterrupted mission command, wherever they go.... They must have the necessary tools to make the right decisions."

U.S. officials have the means to share unclassified and top secret information. Their problem is with areas in between --data that is sensitive but less than top secret. There are protocols to share classified data among the closest U.S. allies known as the "Five Eyes alliance" that includes the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. NATO countries also have access to many of the Pentagon's information and intelligence networks. Thirty-five countries including NATO members are able to join the U.S. intelligence network called BICES, for battlefield information, collection and exploitation system. …

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