Army Maj.Gen. Mark Bowman, Joint Chiefs of Staff CIO.

The U.S. military operates many of the world’s largest and most complex computer and communications networks, giving the Defense Department extraordinary capability and flexibility to conduct a vast assortment of global operations, from direct combat to humanitarian missions.

But the very importance of those networks, their size and their complexity present unprecedented challenges for managing, maintaining and defending them from attack.

Those challenges are being exacerbated by a variety of physical, technical and social forces confronting top DOD technology officials who spoke at a military and industry forum in the Washington D.C. region this week.

In particular are the pressing limits of available spectrum, the push for greater mobility, the need to expand existing networks to better support multinational operations, and mounting issues surrounding cybersecurity.

Radio frequency spectrum is seen as a vital national resource that must be managed efficiently, said Air Force Major General Robert E. Wheeler, the DOD’s deputy chief information officer for command, control, communications and computers (C4) and information infrastructure capabilities (pictured at left), speaking at AFCEA’s 5th Annual Warfighter IT Support Day.

In 2010, President Obama issued an executive memorandum to free up 500 megahertz of government and commercial spectrum to try to head off a potential spectrum shortage. The process of identifying and shifting spectrum, however, has a direct impact on the DOD.

To meet its goals, the government is working with industry, especially commercial mobile carriers, to work out the details, Wheeler said. But the challenge lies in the details. Traditionally, spectrum was allocated to different users by having some users give up, or vacate, a band of spectrum. But this process can take years, he said.

In the near term, one possible solution is to share licensed and unlicensed spectrum. A DOD team is working out the regulatory issues associated with this process, Wheeler said. The goal of the process is to be able to share spectrum with commercial users in a flexible fashion, something the DOD now does with satellite communications resources, he added.

The DOD’s long term spectrum strategy, which is currently being developed, will map out how the military will manage its frequencies in a dynamic radio environment. “Spectrum is going to get increasingly scarce as things go on,” Wheeler said.

Mobile Expansion

The DOD’s spectrum planning is being impacted by the explosive growth of commercial wireless communications, which in turn, is creating new issues inside DOD.

The government and the DOD in particular have pursued a policy of issuing mobile devices to its personnel. The Defense Information Systems Agency is responsible for managing and maintaining the DOD’s communications and IT networks and is in the process of rolling out a mobile device plan for the entire military enterprise.

The agency plans to initially deploy commercial mobile devices on unclassified military networks, said Navy Rear Admiral David Simpson, DISA’s vice director (pictured at left). A key part of DISA’s mobility program is to deploy a mobile device management system – what he refers to as the “secret sauce” – to control access to the network and ensure secure access.

There are currently 300 users participating in the DISA mobility program. These personnel are using Android and Apple smart phones and tablets and will soon have access to BlackBerry devices and a virtual private network capability for secure communications, Simpson said.

The next phase of the program will bump the number of users up to 1,500 and roll in a mobile applications store.

Mobile access to classified data and networks will also begin in this phase. Classified users’ devices will be equipped with a SIM card running the National Security Agency developed Fishbowl mobile security program using Suite B encryption. At the end of the development process, Simpson said the goal is to scale up the mobility program to 250,000 to 300,000 devices.

Data Sharing

Sharing information with allied nations is another major consideration for the DOD. The Joint Information Environment (JIE) is an important mechanism for supporting coalition operations, explained Army Major General Mark Bowman, director for C4 and CIO of the DOD’s Joint Staff (pictured at top of story). Although it is not a formal program, the military’s leadership is interested in the JIE because it allows warfighters to securely and seamlessly share information through a variety of tools such as enterprise email and SharePoint.

A number of military networks will reside within the JIE, such as the Afghan Mission Network (AMN) which supports coalition troops operating in Central Asia. The AMN will evolve into the Mission Partner Environment, which will be the DOD’s future system for command and control in multinational operations, Bowman said.

The plan is to work out potential ideas for the new environment with coalition partners and to conduct a test, specifically with an allied nation in charge of the process. This is necessary to help establish a unified communications system where U.S. and allied forces can securely share information with each other, he said.

Once the Mission Partner Environment is up, it will help support a variety of missions, from combat to humanitarian operations. Working with allies, non-government organizations and civilian agencies is an important step for future DOD missions, Bowman said.

Cyber threats

Cybersecurity remains the major challenge facing U.S. government networks. Over the last 20 years, the DOD has withstood countless of cyber attacks, ranging from probes seeking vulnerabilities, attempts to steal data to attempts to disrupt military networks, said Marine Corps Major General George J. Allen, director of plans and policy at U.S. Cyber Command.

The current cyber environment is awash in threats, Allen (pictured at left) warned. These include literally thousands of hacker tools that are widely available on the Internet to everyone from lone basement hackers to organized crime and foreign intelligence operations.

Besides direct military and infrastructure threats to U.S. infrastructure, cyber crime also saps the economy. Allen said that cyber crime costs U.S. companies $250 billion a year.

Cyberspace is a complex domain, where the operational rules change constantly. For cyber operations to be truly effective, Allen said that the United States needs to strengthen its network architectures, reduce the number of DOD networks, establish a common architecture for DOD networks, and establish a cyber command and control and operations concept.

Industry can help the government by identifying attacks, helping to develop new forms of cryptography and to harden existing networks and systems, he said.