Combined Endeavor spotlights opportunities

Integrators benefit from interoperability push

When armed forces from several countries gathered 11 years ago to test the interoperability of their equipment, the age of devices was wide.

The United States arrived with state-of-the-art digital equipment. Although it was 1995, and PC and Internet use were rising fast, other countries were still fielding World War II-era technology.

"The equipment coming in from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia was literally hand-cranked magneto," said Tom Cooper, a retired Navy captain who was integral in starting the multinational exercise called Combined Endeavor.

Hand-cranked magneto? Think of Radar on the TV show "MASH," cranking the phone board to call Sparky.

"We've taken Combined Endeavor from that kind of background ? all analog, very old equipment ? and we are now into all IP equipment," said Cooper, who joined Cisco Systems Inc. in 2003. "All of the nations are bringing the latest and greatest equipment that they field to the exercise."

The push for IP equipment that can function in a multinational setting is a huge opportunity for vendors and systems integrators in the United States and abroad. This year's exercise included 42 nations and about 1,350 participants, all focused on testing and documenting systems interoperability.

It takes a year to plan the two-week exercise, where the Joint Interoperability Test Command runs and documents 1,200 interoperability tests, said Army Lt. Col. Joseph Angyal, the Combined Endeavor exercise director. The Joint Interoperability Test Command certifies equipment as interoperable for the Defense Department.

"We add those to a database of already 12,000 interoperability tests," Angyal said. "So when the Secretary [of Defense] says, 'Deploy here,' and one of these other 40 countries shows up, we already know how to work with them."

A realistic tactical network is set up for the exercise, and nations choose who they want to work with and what equipment they want to test. Exercises range from testing limited to application interoperability to testing entire physical IT layers.

U.S. officials used Combined Endeavor to help prepare for a scheduled exercise with Russia, Angyal said. Single-channel radios as well as LANs were tested for interoperability.

The United States also ran tests with 20 other nations of its Blue Force Tracker system, which lets commanders see where their forces are on the battlefield and differentiate them from the enemy.

With most voice and data systems moving away from using proprietary protocols and adopting IP technology, any interoperability concerns are usually not because of the technology itself.

"Sharing information is governed not just by the technology, but also by our security policies," Angyal said. "Everybody's got their own version of that policy, and what we've found is that's almost a bigger challenge than the actual technology."

For example, a policy could direct the use of security equipment that classifies information that a country doesn't want released. That policy or equipment could get in the way if a country decides to share information with its allies.

Evolving mission

When Combined Endeavor started in 1995, about seven years after the Berlin Wall fell in Germany, 10 nations joined to determine how to bridge the technology gap between NATO and Warsaw Pact countries. Over the years, not only has the number of nations increased, but so has the complexity of the systems tested.

In the beginning, testing was simple: telephone to telephone or radio to radio. That changed quickly with the introduction in the late 1990s of structured networking and operational networks.

Since 2003, much of the work has focused on protecting networks and information assurance. Exercises in the past two years have focused on sharing information in a multinational environment.

Despite the increasing complexity, for the most part, contractors are not allowed to participate in the exercises unless they would be part of an actual deployment.

"Nobody deploys without contractors nowadays," Angyal said. If it's the primary contractor, "then that's OK by our charter, but otherwise it's got to be the people who own and operate the equipment. You can't have some engineer there pushing the buttons, because when you deploy, that engineer might not be there."

So far, technology from different nations appears to be delivering what is needed. The core network provided by Italy and Denmark, for example, proved reliable and interoperable with systems from the United States and other countries. And the single-channel radio network, which stretches halfway around the world, let 30 countries exchange e-mail and share data.

Interest in that kind of technology could be a boon for vendors. There's been a resurgence of interest in single-channel technology at the Defense Department, Angyal said.
"We shied away from it in the 1880s and 1990s because of the Cold War and because it gives off a big signature," he said. "I'm not so sure that threat is as big as it was, and the technology has advanced quite a bit."
Other, more mainstream areas also need attention from technology companies.
"There's still a ton of work that needs to be done in network management, information systems and information sharing," Angyal said. "I think there are 250 defense programs looking at information-sharing, and I don't think any of them really have been able to wrestle with the challenges of it."

Angyal said the future has to be like a user-defined picture, "where you decide what you want to share based on your relationship with that organization. As it is now, the technology we have is either on or off. I can either turn units on, and they show up on your screen, or we turn them off, and it affects everybody."

Staff Writer Doug Beizer can be reached at dbeizer@postnewsweektech.com.

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Washington Technology.

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