New group seeks communications links among military, space, and intelligence agencies

Federal officials are pushing for a compatible communications system across the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the intelligence community.

by J.R. Wilson

WASHINGTON — Federal officials are pushing for a compatible communications system across the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the intelligence community. To do this, they have created a new Transformational Communications Office.

"The Transformational Communications Office is going to develop the detailed architecture and the acquisition strategy to make this communications goal a reality," says Peter Teets, undersecretary of the U.S. Air Force. "The office will coordinate the acquisition implementation of the various system elements of the architecture under the existing program offices, using established authorities and budgets."

Heading the new office will be U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Rand Fisher, who will retain his previous roles as director of communications at the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and commander of the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command's Space Field Activity.

Christine Anderson, director of the military satellite communications program office at the Air Force Space and Missile Center in Los Angeles, will be deputy director.

In making the announcement last month, Teets predicted the change will "provide the flexibility we need to meet evolving demands on our communication systems" and could increase U.S. intelligence capabilities tenfold.

"I think everyone here understands the critical importance that communications provide to the warfighter, as well as to our national security leadership," Teets says. "For example, with the advent of unmanned aerial vehicles, we have seen dramatic increases in communications requirements during Operation Enduring Freedom, compared to what we experienced during Operation Desert Storm."

Teets says the various agencies involved have and will retain their own unique cultures while synchronizing their respective strengths

Fisher and Anderson will lead an office of 20 to 25 people, Teets says. They will try to ensure that military, commercial space, and intelligence communications networks connect to each other and to battlefield commanders.

One goal is for warfighters to "get on-demand service from the communication system; when he needs something in the cockpit of an airplane, it will be there. He can request it and it will be downloaded to it. Similarly, as we collect information from various sources, that will also be able to be communicated back to home base," Teets says.

A key challenge, Teets acknowledges, will be evaluating and integrating billions of dollars in existing systems scattered across DOD and the rest of government. "All of these existing legacy systems need to be brought along in a way that they're phased into the new transformational architecture in a smooth, compatible way, and that none of the warfighters are left behind in the process.

"This Transformational Communications Office will be responsible for putting out the requirements to make that happen," Teets says. "How do we make sure we have compatible interfaces? How do we connect these pipes, not only in terms of the size of the pipes but also in terms of the timing, so that we get it all at the right time and with the right protocols? Today's communications systems are all channelized; we'll be going to packet-switched communications systems in the transformational system."

Fisher says the first task will be a close evaluation of what is in place now. Numerous large but rarely connected pieces, such as the global information grid being overseen by the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), already contain some elements of the transformation that officials in his new office say they hope to complete.

"Left to its own, there would be other improvements made to spacecraft and ground systems," Fisher says. "What this office is going to do is take a kind of a comprehensive look at all of the pieces, which includes the legacy, and then work an architecture. Out of that architecture will fall, in time, systems that will be phased out and those that aren't."

Teets says a central component of his strategy is the ultimate elimination of bandwidth as a constraint and providing full access for all who need it — from warfighters overseas to those involved in homeland security.

"Anybody that wants to have access that's cleared and part of the national security community should be able to get access — and that access should be to high-bandwidth communications," he says. "If you want to have a streaming video from a Predator available here in Washington, D.C., you ought to be able to get that.

"We clearly have demonstrated that we have much, much better connectivity, we have much, much better communications capability today than we did 10 years ago," Teets says. "But as we look out and we see the changing face of this warfighting capability, we see enormous demands on bandwidth and on access requirements. And we see this demand 'exponentiating'. If we continue down our current path of simply pushing out the systems that are currently on the drawing board, we're not going to meet that demand."

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