Data Packets

Army validates network center’s performance

The recently concluded operational validation of the Army’s first Network Service Center (NSC) in Germany proved that a brigade can replicate its battle command applications when deployed overseas. However, the test also revealed elements that need more work.

One lesson the Army learned is the difficulty of maintaining seamless battle command during digital failovers — when a backup operation is automatically activated after the primary system fails or is shut down for servicing.

“The idea is to never be totally dependent on one system,” said Col. Joe Puett, exercise director of the NSC operational validation. “If it goes out, you can immediately switch to something else with the same capability.” Puett is also deputy director of enterprise plans and engineering at the Network Enterprise Technology Command/9th Signal Command.

The Army was able to accomplish digital failover during the operational validation, which was one of the exercise’s objectives. But the process wasn’t seamless.

“It took us five hours to execute the failover,” Puett said. “That’s too long if you have bullets flying at you. The technology we’re using is incredibly complex, plus it’s the first time we’re doing this.”

In addition to digital failover, the exercise was designed to validate three other objectives. The first was the ability to collaborate before deployment.

The operational validation consisted of the 18th Fires Brigade (attached to the 82nd Airborne Division) at Fort Bragg, N.C., simulating its deployment to participate in the European Command’s Austere Challenge exercise taking place at Army Garrison Grafenwoehr in Germany and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

“18th Fires simulated going to the [area of responsibility] and communicated via satellite over the Atlantic and through fixed regional hub nodes,” Puett said. “All the data and battle command applications in the area processing center at Fort Bragg were replicated to the German APC, which is the way the unit would fight.”

The second objective was to create a single digital identity for each soldier through all phases of the exercise. “The unit didn’t have to change its configuration in the garrison or pull the plug on its local stack,” he said. “All the time that the unit was deployed, it kept its e-mail addressing scheme and phone numbers.”

The third objective was to create the ability to fight on arrival. “I can shut off the unit’s server stack, and it still has access to data and the battle command applications coming out of the APC,” Puett said. “The unit can still participate with the other unit that it will fight with, even when it is on a ship.”

For the initial operational validation, Puett described NSC’s development as being at the crawl stage with a long way to go before it can walk or eventually run.

“We had to rely heavily on field service reps and contractors to help us through the technical challenges,” he said, adding that those challenges primarily involved managing the virtual machines at the APCs and replicating data between the APCs and the unit’s local battle command servers.

“What was unexpected was how long it took to accomplish things, which traces back to those two technologies,” Puett said.

Another unexpected development fell on the positive side of the equation and lets the Army make better use of its satellite bandwidth. Through the use of the Joint Network Node system and fixed regional hub nodes, the Army was able to decrease the number of hops to and from satellite transponders and thereby significantly reduce latency and bandwidth requirements.

“We’ve extended the range of JNN capability to regions of the globe that we hadn’t expected,” Puett said. “Without any cost to us, we have a new capability.”

About 10 percent of the battle command applications were tested during the operational validation, including Microsoft Exchange, Microsoft Office SharePoint and Command Post of the Future. By summer 2010, when the second major NSC exercise is scheduled to take place, Puett said he expects to demonstrate all the battle command applications.

— Barry Rosenberg

GAO finds silver lining in FCS failure

The Army’s Future Combat Systems failed to meet expectations, but it failed well rather than badly, according to a Government Accountability Office official.

The FCS experience has been productive, and the best aspects of its “vision, holistic context, and penchant for innovative managerial and experimentation techniques are worthy of emulation,” said Paul Francis, GAO's managing director of acquisition and sourcing management.

On the other hand, Francis told the Senate Armed Services Committee's Airland Subcommittee June 16 that the problems experienced in executing and overseeing the program were not because of discoveries made since the 2003 launch of the program but were apparent from the start.

FCS was designed to make the Army a lighter and more agile force by replacing combat systems with a family of manned and unmanned systems linked by an advanced communications network. It was to be the central component of the Army’s plans for a network-centric battlefield.

However, the program faced major delays and cost overruns, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates recommended canceling it earlier this year. FCS spinouts will be included in a new program named the Army Brigade Combat Team Modernization.

FCS broke from tradition in a number of ways. Historically, after the Army selected a lead systems integrator, that contractor would use its own chain of suppliers, and the Army would not be closely involved in the choice of subcontractors.

With FCS, however, the prime contractor was required to hold a competition for the next tier of contractors, with the Army having veto power over the selections. That kind of oversight was pushed down even further to lower levels of suppliers.

“Enhanced visibility into the selection and design decisions of subcontractors appears to have benefited the FCS program and warrants consideration in future efforts,” Francis said.

Likewise, GAO approved of the program’s goal of building a linked system of systems, rather than the traditional approach of building individual systems and then deciding how to integrate them. Even though the approach resulted in an overly broad scope for a single acquisition program, that vision should continue to guide the Army’s modernization efforts, Francis said.

FCS' biggest problem was that it was too ambitious and not executable with reasonable technical, engineering, time or financial resources, Francis said. It was also immature when it began and didn’t meet the Defense Department’s standards for technology and design.

Oversight of such an ambitious project was, not surprisingly, challenging. The Office of the Secretary of Defense did not play an active oversight role until the last two years of the program, and Congress eventually intervened to mandate that officials make a decision about the program’s fate by late 2009, Francis said.

The Army and DOD should continue to be innovative in future programs as far as concepts and approaches are concerned but should anchor them in knowledge-based strategies about specific systems development, he said.

“The key in going forward is to take the best from both kinds of lessons and apply them, in a tailored way, to the different modernization efforts that will succeed FCS,” he said.

— Brian Robinson

UAVs make Paris air show debut

If there was any greater indication that intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) is becoming one of the key driving factors in defense procurement, it was the fact that the organizers of the recent Paris Air Show, which has always been a monument to the glories of manned flight, for the first time permitted an unmanned aerial vehicle to participate in the daily flying display.

As befitting the nature of ISR aircraft, the Austrian Schiebel S-100 vertical takeoff and landing UAV that performed at the show every afternoon was not of interest to the crowd because of its aerobatic capability, but because of video images of the chalets that the UAV transmitted back to spectators watching on a big screen on the static line.

In many respects, ISR platforms dominated the air show. A number of other important ISR developments were unveiled at the Le Bourget Airport, where aviator Charles Lindbergh landed on his transatlantic flight in 1927. These were:

  • At the behest of France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden, the European Defense Agency will spend 50 million euro ($69 million) over the next two years to develop technology that will permit UAVs to fly in civil airspace. Under the MID-air Collision Avoidance System program, 14 European manufacturers and research centers will work in collaboration with European civil aviation authorities, as well as the FAA and Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics in the United States to develop “sense-and-avoid” technology for UAV navigation. Sweden is the lead country for the project, with Saab Aerosystems serving as the lead contractor.
  • Raytheon will develop a ground control system that can control up to three UAVs simultaneously. The program is being driven by a new Pentagon requirement that separates the air element from the ground element for future procurements of unmanned air systems. What this means is that the Pentagon is likely to split contracts between the air vehicle and the ground segment, whereas in the past it bought both from the same contractor. As such, future ground control systems will operate under open architectures rather than proprietary software.
  • The United Kingdom will send its Airborne Stand-off Radar surveillance system to Afghanistan later this year, it’s third deployment to the region as part of the system’s evaluation phase. During its last deployment in late 2008, the system, which consists of Bombardier Global Express business jets modified with Raytheon synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and ground moving target indicator (GMTI) sensors, flew 18 missions and collected 149 SAR images and 107 hours of GMTI information, according to Group Capt. Harry Kemsley, the Royal Air Force officer in charge of the operations.
  • Rockwell Collins launched an e-book that company officials say will keep industry and the military up to date on all new developments in the field of unmanned air system. Available to all, the company’s goal is to promulgate cultural acceptance of UAVs while highlighting technical advances in the field.
  • Europe’s EADS has completed critical design review of Qatar’s National Security Shield, a country wide system of land and naval radars, watch towers and secure communications systems to provide surveillance of the nation’s borders and coastal areas that contain petroleum facilities. EADS is the prime on the $333 million National Shield program, and will now issue tenders to industry to procure the network’s key components.

— Barry Rosenberg

Marines in Iraq put trust in optimization technology

While relocating a command headquarters in Iraq, the Marine Corps used wide-area network optimization technology to increase transfer speeds via a satellite link to back up data.

The Multi-National Force–West (MNF-W), the highest command in the Marine Air-Ground Task Force, completed its headquarters relocation from Camp Fallujah to Al Asad Air Base with the assistance of Expand Networks’ WAN optimization technology, Marines Corps and company officials said in June. The company’s appliances helped the task force improve data transfer performance via the satellite network that connects the bases.

To complete the move, MNF-W executed a disaster recovery plan to electronically back up the Camp Fallujah data to the new facility. The backup required a transfer of 17T of data between the camps, a massive data replication process that would have been difficult if not impossible via the satellite network. Indeed, the Marines noticed performance problems with the data replication software, NetApp’s SnapMirror, without the Expand appliances in place.

After deploying the Expand appliances, “the issue was immediately mitigated, and we saw a throughput increase from around 120 [kilobits/sec] to 6 [megabits/sec],” said Capt. Criston Cox, data systems officer at MNF-W.

The military often uses satellites to meet its remote and mobile communication requirements. Geosynchronous satellites orbiting 22,300 miles above the Earth induce a natural round-trip latency on data traffic of about a half-second. Data traffic transmitted between military units might go through a central hub, causing two round-trips or a double hop and resulting in a full second or more of latency. Additionally, satellite communications suffer from atmospheric and environmental interference, such as rain, which causes packet loss.

Latency and packet loss on an IP network dramatically reduce application performance and throughput, particularly for TCP-based applications that must reduce transmission speed to compensate for the impediments. WAN optimization technology mitigates the effects of latency and packet loss through techniques such as TCP acceleration and byte caching.

In TCP acceleration, the appliances at either end of the link provide local TCP acknowledgments for the systems involved in the transaction, eliminating their perception of latency. With byte caching, elements of the data are stored locally so that repeat transmissions can be referenced and eliminated from the WAN link, improving performance and reducing the amount of traffic that must be transmitted via the network.

After the relocation and data transfer, the Marines used the optimization technology to solve problems with database replication timeouts for a critical application called the Biometric Automated Toolset System. The military uses BATS to store sensitive biometric information, such as retina scans and fingerprints, and track and capture terrorists at military checkpoints. The application relies on synchronizing databases among military units to ensure that data is accurate and up-to-date. The replication process suffered because of satellite latency and packet loss.

“Our throughput averaged 8 to 9 [kilobits/sec] with multiple timeouts over the TDMA satcom links,” Cox said.

The situation was so bad that MNF-W was forced to manually update new servers and fly them to the remote locations via helicopter, a risky and costly venture filled with logistical hurdles, manpower issues and transport requirements.

The deployment of the Expand appliances improved the application’s performance so that “the BATS server interface indicated a constant transfer rate at 5.8 [megabits/sec], with no timeouts or data corruption,” Cox said.

The massive performance improvement was achieved via a physical 2 megabits/sec satellite link. The accelerators’ byte-caching and compression techniques reduce the amount of data that would otherwise need to be transferred via the satellite link, resulting in a perceived throughput greater than the actual link speed. The improved system also eliminated the need to manually configure replicated servers and fly them to the remote sites.

— Dan Campbell

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