Battle-tested tech: communications

Integrated military strategy provides a lesson for enterprise IT

It was a decision that had to be made in a few tense hours: Should the U.S. launch the war on Iraq with an air attack aimed at Saddam Hussein and members of his inner circle? The U.S. military analyzed intelligence reports, programmed its munitions, and attacked on March 20. That first action demonstrated how critical well-integrated communications technology was to the process.

"There were a lot of new technologies out there, but in and of themselves, none of them was particularly dramatic," says John Hillen, senior vice president and director of the defense and intelligence group at American Management Systems (AMS), an IT consultancy in Fairfax, Va. "It was the stitching together of all of these things in real time and their integration into the operation … that allowed a very small force to essentially take down an entire country."

Communications technology leveraged by the military also brought individual members of today’s networked fighting force into close contact with the home front. "It's probably the first war where anyone on the front line could call home and say 'Mom, I'm all right,'" notes Pat Armstrong, director of satellite communication services at General Dynamics Decision Systems (GDDS) in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Putting the pieces together

Although the chief lesson of the war for corporate IT may be that a well-integrated communications system is greater than the sum of its parts, corporate buyers may find interest in a number of packaged systems and communications devices that played a role in Iraq in military, medical, and humanitarian efforts.

U.S.-led coalition forces were able to amass information from sources ranging from sensors on the battlefield, to unmanned aircraft in the sky, to satellites miles away in orbit. The military systems communicated digitized data in real time to systems on the front lines, the United States, and other locations where decisions were being made.

AMS's Hillen, a former officer who served in Desert Storm, says that in the first Gulf War, the computer systems used by the military and intelligence agencies were so incapable of talking to each other that air commanders had to print hundreds of pages of a document called the air tasking order each day. This script would be loaded on helicopters and flown to aircraft carriers, and officers had to thumb through the hard copy to figure out their roles in an operation.

In the connected, digitized warfare in the most recent war on Iraq, a Humvee became the military equivalent of a mobile datacenter. Consider the CGS (Common Ground Station) from GDDS, featuring communication equipment for secure radio, satellite, and land-line communications. More than 20 different communications interfaces feed into off-the-shelf, Unix-based workstations, mounted in the back of the vehicle to handle data from multiple real-time sensors and systems, including radar from JSTARS (Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System) reconnaissance aircraft and video images from UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), says Ralph Whitney, business unit manager of CGS at GDDS.

The CGS pulls together the data on one electronic map that gives commanders up-to-minute information and a clear picture of the whereabouts of both the enemy and friendly vehicles. The latest CGS uses a Web service architecture to provide the information in near real time to authorities in the United States and Europe as well as the Middle East via the military's restricted Internet, called SIPRNET (Secret Internet Protocol Router Network), Whitney says.

GPS: Star of the War

Another communications system developed for the military that testifies to the potency of commercial technology is a wearable computer/radio, called TM-7, built by Exponent in Menlo Park, Calif. Rick Kremer, director of the Exponent's technology development practice, used commercially available technologies to build the TM-7 with an 800 MHz Transmeta Crusoe processor and 256Mb of RAM. The device provides mapping, global positioning system (GPS), and communications in a 10-pound package. With the help of a USB joystick and helmet-mounted VGA display, soldiers used the TM-7s to control robots, dispatching these robo-soldiers into buildings and caves rather than risking human lives.

The communications technology star of the war, GPS guided everything from troops on dangerous missions to smart munitions. But interestingly, GPS has advanced because of civilian, not military use, says Richard Langley, professor of geodesy and precision navigation at University of New Brunswick, in Fredericton, New Brunswick. "Given the huge civil GPS user base, many if not most advances in GPS and its use can be credited to the civil sector," he said.

In a direct application of commercial technology for military purposes, both the U.S. military and the British took advantage of Iridium. The commercial voice and data system employs a phone manufactured by Motorola and promises mobile, pole-to-pole coverage through its constellation of 66 satellites. The American military added a level of security, including its own gateway, to transmit both voice and data for tactical purposes, says Armstrong of GDDS. The British military employed Iridium to help boost morale, letting soldiers talk to families via handsets, he said.

To tap securely into the commercial GSM (Global System for Mobile Communication) wireless network while in the Middle East, GDDS offered the military the Sectéra Secure Wireless Phone for GSM. The phone includes a clip-in security module that implements NSA-certified, US Government Type 1 cryptography, as well as the AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) algorithm approved by the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST). The commercial version, TalkSECURE, implements AES but isn't configured for environments requiring US Government Type 1 cryptography, according to the company.

Translation tools

Communications tools have also played a role in the post-war environment. Soldiers in Iraq have come closer to bridging a communications gap with local citizens courtesy of a WinCE handheld device dubbed the Phraselator.

Users, be they Army MPs or Britain's Royal Marine medics, speak English phrases into the battery-operated device. Based on phonetic recognition of the phrase, the one-way translator provides a translation, in the voice of a native speaker, into such languages as Kurdish, Arabic, and Pashto.

The translator, which was also used in Afghanistan, was co-developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and multiple contractors. As part of the three-year project Babylon, DARPA and its contractors aim to develop a two-way device that can translate responses as well as ask questions.

VoxTec, a marketing division for Annapolis, Md.-based Marine Acoustics, one of the contractors, plans to release commercial versions of the Phraselator later this year, priced at around $2,000. The devices should appeal to police and fire departments, emergency workers, customs inspectors, as well as medical professionals and travel industry workers, says Ace Sarich, vice president of VoxTec division at Marine Acoustics.

In the end, the most important lesson of the Iraq war for enterprise IT may not be about individual communications devices, but rather the way in which they worked together, concludes AMS’s Hillen. "The applications era is going to take a back seat to the era of enterprise architecture and system integration. That’s what the military found in this Gulf War."

(View other stories from our special report on Battle-tested Tech, including reports on communications, security and data mining, supply chain and logistics, and robotics and automation.)