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Reliable military IT communications
16 April 2013
Computers and communications networks are a fundamental part of modern warfare and planning, but attaining a single point of truth remains a challenge, says Lawrence Poynter, product director at iOra
All global militaries acknowledge the requirement for embedded computer and network operations at the core of their campaigns. Computers and communications networks support essential command and control, the means by which military commands become spread to assigned forces, and are also employed to record and disseminate intelligence, as well as circulate and manage information on personnel and logistics.
In addition, the digital information generated is also used to forensically record the decision-making process, so that complex military actions can be reviewed at a later date in order to recreate the information available to the battlefield commander at the point of action execution. It is therefore essential for military commanders that any decision they make is based on the latest and most relevant operational data.
Ensuring that information is current and consistent across all deployed operational sites, irrespective of location – i.e. providing a ‘single point of truth’ – is a fundamental goal of information assurance. Providing the required level of assurance however, is exacerbated by a number of constraining factors that have developed over the years to create what many people have called ‘the perfect information access storm’.
War in the information age
Modern soldiers, sailors and airmen are now drawn largely from the web generation. In their civilian lives, they are used to having responsive web tools at their fingertips, such as social networking, e-mail, and the web. However, conventional applications built for the military by risk-averse system integrators take many years to reach operational service and, as a result, fail to deliver anywhere near the same level of usability that an individual may experience on their personal computing devices (e.g. laptops, smartphones, tablets etc.). Consequently, it is often the case that they fail to adopt these almost archaic applications, where costly training is required and at worst, information is updated on a patchy basis, leading to information inaccuracies.
It is essential for military commanders that any decision they make is based on the latest and most relevant operational data
iOra There has also been the emergence of web portals – i.e. computer environments used to manage and present a wide range of information to users via a standard interface. The collation and distribution of operational content has rapidly become the de facto method for militaries to share and collaborate on data.
Typically, portals were designed to operate over terrestrial Local Area Networks (LANs), which is why they can struggle to function properly when users attempt to access them over extended Wide Area Networks (WANs) or high latency networks delivered via satellite – as is standard for military deployments in remote sandy environments. Indeed, the simple process of linking computers together is often just not feasible in extreme and operationally-sensitive deployments, which can become isolated as a result.
Operational interoperability is critical for military users, especially in situations where nations join forces to address a specific strategic objective. Implementing interoperability however, is fraught with issues where security of access is essential. Ensuring that only your closest allies have access to key collateral is fundamental. In the days of paper documents, it was much easier to control and manage the availability and flow of paper within the group of permitted and interested parties.
The move to computer-based recording has created a security dilemma, where whole volumes of data can be accessed or re-directed on the click of a mouse. Additionally, as the use of computers by governments matures, interoperability between nations becomes more difficult as individual nations typically use different platforms, versions, and file formats.
This mixture of platforms causes havoc for those charged with the responsibility of allowing the computing environments of different nations to interoperate, and in particular where the platforms themselves have been built by design as single portal silos. This is illustrated by the use of portal platforms that can vary. Even within SharePoint, nations have standardised on different versions, making interoperability and sharing of data highly problematic.
Military deployments can take place anywhere around the world. More often than not, they are conducted in the most remote environments where the latest high-speed networks (e.g. fibre-optic cable) are not available. Where some form of network is available, it is a given that this will be disabled by one side or the other to diminish the opponents operational capability. Consequently mobile networking is employed as part of a deployment to provide the backbone of operations.
In the majority of cases, mobile communication is delivered via satellites, or high-powered radio-frequency networks such as UHF or VHF. Unfortunately, all of these technologies can suffer from high network latency, meaning that they are unsuitable for web-based applications, or are low in bandwidth, meaning that they are not capable of transmitting the level of information required between sites. In the worst instances, they can suffer from both low bandwidth and high latency.
The availability of network resources are also impacted by the sheer volume of data that needs to be transmitted up the chain of command. The major bandwidth hogs are intelligence feeds from covert cameras and UAV, the ever present requirement for video conference, down to the tools of collaboration that include planning by Microsoft PowerPoint, where single file sizes can reach 10 MB or more.
Likewise, a single web-based portal application can easily consume all of the available satellite bandwidth for its communication requirements alone. Operators therefore need to analyse in detail the data update profile for each of their deployed applications and architect networks that allow for the efficient distribution of information to all points of the network.
Mobile networks based on cellular technology provide a unique opportunity for linking globally distributed assets, but again, their limited bandwidth, high latency and, often for commercial reasons, intermittent availability make them a communication channel that can prove restrictive in military applications. The base stations that comprise a mobile network are also susceptible to being disabled or destroyed – as has been the case in a number of conflicts in recent years.
Winning the battle for consistency
Many forward deployed positions operate in an environment where they have long periods of network disconnection. In these instances, updates to operation plans and intelligence need to be synchronised up and down the command chain on a schedule that is dictated by the availability of satellite network connection time. This is a major risk factor in the maintenance of information consistency and requires active management in order to verify the accuracy of data.
Those responsible for information management must therefore fight their own daily battle to ensure that information is consistent across all deployed sites and command posts – and with guaranteed availability. This is complicated further where deployment-wide network governance is typically non-existent, meaning that users often have to speculate on the availability of a network to support their specific operational requirement.
Despite these challenges, rapid advances in commercial technology have made a number of effective solutions available to ease the difficult networking environments that military users encounter regularly include the following:
- Network accelerators – can be positioned at either end of a network to speed up network traffic by up to a factor of ten between the two points. In general, these devices ‘intelligently’ store repeated network calls made by a computing device that have experienced issues so that in effect, less data is required to be sent over the network. Most accelerator devices are installed as hardware appliances, although software-only options are available.
- Data compression – reducing the volume of data to be sent over the network has a direct impact on bandwidth usage (and therefore cost of delivery). Various compression tools are also available that provide mechanisms for reducing the data footprint of software updates.
- Content distribution – is used to proactively deploy key data closer to the user in the field so that they do not need to rely on an external network connection. In this way, for example, an operator would replicate updates to the mission plan on a schedule to the forward operating base, so that when required by the commander, they have a local store of information and do not have to reach back to access the necessary data.
- Least cost routing – actively switching between providers of bandwidth using least cost routing is often favoured by militaries as a smart way of reducing costs. It is often employed by naval fleets, whereby the typical scenario is for vessel communication to switch from satellite-based delivery when operating offshore to more cost-effective VHF delivery of the same data when in range of shore (typically 50 to 70 miles).
Typically most militaries use a hybrid of the options described above, where the content is automatically distributed over an accelerated network, so that end users are guaranteed LAN speed access to data that originated over the WAN. This way, they can improve operational effectiveness, interoperability, and information assurance while maintaining the required level of security and keeping bandwidth costs down.