Article Published in the Federal Times
The House Armed Services Committee recently put a shot across the Navy’s bow regarding service plans to build its own version of the Internet, and the warning has the service looking for ways to respond.
Congress blanched at the price tag of what is dubbed the “Navy/Marine Corps Intranet,” a cybernetwork that will link sailors and Marines around the world with units and headquarters back home, up to and including the office of the Chief of Naval Operations. Moreover, most of the cost has simply been reprogrammed from existing, less efficient ways of communicating.
The network will provide secure voice, video and data networking, desktop computers, hardware and software, support services and training, according to officials from General Dynamics, one of four companies competing for the contract to build the network. When completed, it will connect more than 450,000 Marines and sailors across the continental United States and Hawaii. The network will presumably transfer data across the myriad wide-area and metropolitan area networks already in place, both military and commercial. Satellites and other commercial sources would subsequently push information out to users or to wireless networks.
That the Navy and Marine Corps would desire such a network shouldn’t come as a surprise. Already, both services have embraced the digital age, experimenting with a wide variety of computers, networks, wireless phones and other means of communications for both tactical and non-tactical purposes. The Marine Corps, for example, has experimented with wireless communications in over-the-horizon operations with the Navy. In 1999, the Office of Naval Research led an experiment that tested a wireless network called “WARNET” during Exercise Kernal Blitz on the West Coast. The exercise was designed to connect an individual rifleman in a fighting hole to a three-star admiral aboard a command ship 100 miles away.
During the exercise, a team of Marines went ashore near a simulated Third World town to locate and neutralize weapons of mass destruction. Neither the team nor commanders had any idea in which building the weapons were located. However, using an image of the town from a simulated unmanned aerial vehicle — an overhead helicopter — the unit commander, aboard a ship miles off the coast, drew a rough map of the town on a “white board” in front of a camera. The assault team leader, aboard a CH-46 helicopter over the town, watched via a laptop computer. As the real-time images were transformed into directions from the commander, the team leader was able direct his Marines — who saw the same picture on their “palm top” computers. The Marines were literally moving toward the target as the arrows were being drawn on a board hundreds of miles away.
Theoretically, the Navy-Marine Corps Intranet could further link this kind of videoteleconferencing — and tactical planning — all the way back to mission planners in the United States, reducing the time needed to process information and get it into the hands of commanders on the scene by putting all tactical — and non-tactical — applications on a single network. That would greatly aid the Navy’s efforts in “network-centric warfare,” the fusion of communications, satellite and computer networks into a seamless battlespace-management system.
Not all the network’s advantages are in tactical uses, though. For example, a ship’s administrative shop would be able to conduct nearly all its business via e-mail and network with Navy headquarters in Washington, D.C., and the personnel bureau in Millington, Tenn., to provide personnel support, message traffic, record keeping and the like. In practical terms, that means sailors will have better access to headquarters to solve pay or family problems, check on promotions or correspondence courses, or even talk to detailers — all while deployed across the globe.
Already, sailors exchange e-mails, both personal and professional, while deployed. Some have access to the Internet. The Navy/Marine Corps Intranet seems like a logical next step to tie all the pieces together. It’s a good idea, but the Navy must make sure Congress is ready to log on to the information revolution.
The good news is that it’s probably going to be a lot cheaper than doing business the old-fashioned way.
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