Army tests battle command backup

Operational validation of Network Service Center generates valuable lessons

The recently concluded Operational Validation of the Army’s first Network Service Center in Germany accomplished its mission by proving that a brigade can replicate its battle-command applications when deploying overseas. However, it also revealed elements that need continued work.

A lesson learned was the difficulty in demonstrating 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; if it goes out you can immediately switch to something else with the same capability,” said Army Col. Joe Puett, exercise director for the NSC Operational Validation, describing the key points and lessons learned during the April 26 to May 3 event. Puett also is deputy director of enterprise plans and engineering for Network Enterprise Technology Command/9th Signal Command.

The Army was able to accomplish digital failover during the Operational Validation, but it 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.”

Multiple Objectives

The NSC Operational Validation was designed to validate four objectives, including digital failover, Puett said.

The first was the ability to collaborate before deployment.

The Operational Validation consisted of the simulated deployment of the 18th Fires Brigade (attached to the 82nd Airborne Division) from Ft. Bragg, N.C., to European Command’s Austere Challenge exercise taking place at U.S. 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,” said Puett. “All the data and battle-command applications in the area processing center (APC) at Ft. Bragg was 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 operational phases of the exercise. “The unit didn’t have to change its configuration in the garrison or pull the plug on its local stack. All the time that the unit was deployed it kept its e-mail addressing scheme and phone numbers.”

Objective three 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,” said Puett. “The unit can still participate with the other unit that it will fight with, even when it is on a ship.”

The fourth objective was the aforementioned seamless battle command during digital failover events.

Extended Range

For this initial NSC Operational Validation, Puett described NSC 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,” which Puett said were primarily management of the virtual machines in the APCs and data replication 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,” said Puett.

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 (JNN) and fixed regional hub nodes, the Army was able to reduce the number of hops to and from satellite transponders, significantly reducing latency and bandwidth requirements.

“We’ve extended the range of JNN capability to regions of the globe that we hadn’t expected,” said Puett. “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 the summer of 2010, when the second major NSC exercise is scheduled to take place, Puett said he expects to demonstrate all 100 percent of the battle-command applications.

About the Author

Barry Rosenberg is editor-in-chief of Defense Systems. Follow him on Twitter: @BarryDefense.

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