Battlefield network connects allied forces in Afghanistan

Commanders can access dozens of critical warfighting applications

For the first time, the United States and its NATO allies in Afghanistan have subsumed their own internal secret communications networks in favor of a common network for managing command and control and sharing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information. However, to implement the Afghanistan Mission Network, which creates a common operating picture for all U.S. and NATO commanders in Afghanistan, the U.S. military had to undergo a shift in the way it manages its Secret IP Router Network.

“The only way to do this was to change the previous coalition network norm, which said that, first, U.S. formations are only commanded by U.S. commanders and, second, the U.S. military fights on SIPRNet,” said Brig. Gen. Brian Donahue, director of command, control, computers and communications systems at the Army’s Central Command. “There are many other transports that contribute, but the fight and the critical mission functions occur on SIPRNet. What that led to was a U.S-unique or U.S.-discrete battlespace, while coalition members fought on their own secret networks," such as the United Kingdom’s Overtask and Canada's Land Command Support System.

The various networks only converged for communications via e-mail messages or teleconferencing. There was no common operating picture among the allies for critical warfighting functions such as battlespace management, joint fires, joint ISR, counter-improvised explosive device efforts and force protection.

“They had their battlespace; the U.S. had its battlespace,” Donahue said. “It was not a means to prosecute the fight. The norm that we had to change was to move the fight to the coalition network.”

Critical warfighting functions are dependent on the network, which meant the applications that supported those functions and the data that populated those applications had to be moved to a network accessible by U.S. and coalition forces.

To generate a common operating picture in the Afghanistan Mission Network (AMN), 165 applications were moved to the shared network, including 13 NATO-unique applications, Donahue said. Of those, 55 are considered critical because they’re tied to mission functions and mission threats.

The U.S. contribution to AMN is the Combined Enterprise Regional Information Exchange System-International Security Assistance Force. As capabilities mature and expand on AMN, the Army expects that it will lure an increasing number of users away from systems such as SIPRNet, though it is not meant to replace the U.S. secret network in Afghanistan.

“What we are not saying is that SIPRNet is going away,” Donahue said. “The number of users on SIPRNet will decrease, and the echelons that SIPRNet is extended to will also roll back. Right now, the requirement for the network in Afghanistan is extended down to the company level, and it is goes down to the platoon level in 16 different places in Regional Command-East."

“There was also a stated requirement to extend the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System down to the maneuver battalion level,” he said. “I think that requirement will also be consumed or taken up" by AMN.

The ultimate metrics of success for AMN will be how well mission functions are executed in that environment and how close the common operational picture on SIPRNet is to the one on AMN.

“Success in the end will be largely defined by how successful we are in information sharing,” Donahue said. “We can do all the network mechanics, we can get the applications populated, we can start to move the mission functions in there. But if the common operating picture that exists in the Afghanistan Mission Network is not close or identical to the common operating picture that exists on SIPRNet, then we failed."

“If we have commanders toggling between two environments to pull a common operating picture out, we are going to get people killed, and the commanders will not toggle for long and will go back to SIRPNet,” he said. “So the ultimate success of the AMN is to create a COP that still maximizes the benefit of U.S. intelligence and U.S. systems.”

About the Author

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

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