Secure Network Access Vital to Northcom’s Mission
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo., Feb. 13, 2013 Who doesn’t hate when their computer crashes, gets infected with a virus or, worst of all, flashes them the dreaded “blue screen of death”?
Assured access to secure networks is vital to the homeland defense mission of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, and to Northcom’s key role in providing military support to civil authorities as requested. Here, Army Master Sgt. Dale Lee and James Skidmore from U.S. Army North, Northcom’s Army component, rely on networks at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., to plan military support to Hurricane Irene relief efforts, Aug. 27, 2011. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Samuel Goodman
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Navy Rear Adm. Thomas “Hank” Bond Jr. worries about that problem more than most. That’s because, as director of command-and-control systems at U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, he’s responsible for the networks vital to the dual commands’ homeland defense mission.
Operating in a “no-fail” environment where a mistake can cost American lives, Bond and his staff in the commands’ “J-6” directorate run the architectures and networks that deliver critical sensor data -- some that would need to be acted on immediately to prevent an attack on the United States.
“We provide the connective tissue across the command to get the job done,” Bond told American Forces Press Service at the Northcom/NORAD headquarters here.
Information is critical across the organization, he said, but particularly at the NORAD and Northcom Current Operations Center that maintains an around-the-clock watch, seven days a week, 365 days a year. “That data needs to get to people who can make decisions about it,” and ultimately to Army Gen. Charles H. Jacoby Jr., the NORAD and Northcom commander, who would make the call for action, Bond explained.
“This is a mission that requires that you be able to talk, to get the message out and to assign the forces to do what you need them to do,” he said. “You can’t say ‘I’m sorry’ because you are rebooting the system.”
To ensure that never happens, Bond and his team are exploring more efficient and whenever possible, less costly ways to assure secure network access across the commands.
Rather than coming up with expensive new “gee-whiz” technologies, they are tapping some of the best concepts emerging in the commercial marketplace. “We’re looking for new and better solutions that are also lower cost, still providing all the services, but still reliable and redundant,” Bond said. “That is our big trend.”
For example, the team is exploring better ways to present data to decision-makers. One idea is to make the two-dimensional display screens that dominate the command center 3-D to better reflect the real world. Another is to identify improved ways to portray activities in the air, space, land, maritime and cyber domains to help operators “connect the dots” and develop better situational awareness.
“It all boils down to that age-old problem of knowing what is going on in your operating area and knowing what is going on in the enemy’s operating area and being able to use that to your advantage,” Bond said. Information technology alone can’t deliver that, he said, but it can go a long way in empowering well-trained operators with finely tuned processes.
“We are thinking about how to visualize data differently, and present it in a way that can be more useful for our commander and for the operators to understand,” Bond said. “I want to be able to provide them the framework that might save them 30 seconds thinking about one particular part of the problem, which will give them more time to think about that harder thing over there.”
In another major, but less apparent effort, the J-6 directorate is studying ways to take advantage of Internet protocol. Migrating to “everything over IP,” a popular trend in the commercial world, would enable the commands to share and store a full range of data over one infrastructure in lieu of myriad independent systems, Bond explained.
It would eliminate the cost of running multiple services, he said. But by eliminating redundancy, it also creates some inherent risk.
“That’s something we can’t accept with our no-fail communications missions,” Bond said. “So we continue to watch this, to see if there is a way to embrace it in our effort to identify new solutions.”
One solution already in the works involves improvements to the NORAD Enterprise Network used to share secret-level information between the United States and Canada. The network runs parallel to the U.S. Secure Internet Protocol Router Network, or SIPRNET, and its Canadian equivalent.
Particularly during tough budget times, maintaining these separate networks is simply too costly, Bond said. “So we are looking for a new way to employ an old system, and working through all the policy issues to figure out how we can more economically operate with our partners north of the border in a way that can be sustained into the future,” he said.
Looking to the future, Bond said, he expects increasing challenge in protecting against cyber attacks that threaten the command’s networks and, by extension, its ability to accomplish its mission.
Toward that end, his directorate is involved heavily in the new NORAD/Northcom Joint Cyber Center that stood up in May. Operating under the command’s operations directorates, the new center has a threefold mission: extend situational awareness across the cyber domain; improve defense of the commands’ networks; and stay postured to provide cyber consequence response and recovery support to civil authorities, when requested.
As the Joint Cyber Center matures and begins to form a network with other combatant commands’ JCCs, Bond said he sees tremendous potential in the power of information technology in promoting situational awareness across the board.
“It is coming,” he said. “We are growing in our ability to do this.”