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U.S. 2nd Fleet Breaks Communication Barriers, Seeks to Establish a System Agnostic Approach at Sea

04 June 2021

From Joint Force Command Norfolk Public Affairs

ATLANTIC OCEAN - Commander, U.S. Second Fleet (C2F) and Joint Force Command Norfolk (JFCNF) communications staff broke barriers between North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies and partners and U.S. Naval forces by establishing a system agnostic approach that allowed users to communicate in a common virtual environment during Exercise Steadfast Defender 21 (STDE 21).

Sailors work on a computer system during NATO exercise Steadfast Defender 21.
210530-M-BY673-0023 ATLANTIC OCEAN (May 30, 2021) From left to right, Petty Officer 2nd Class Charles Fisher, Petty Officer 1st Class Nathan Lazaro, Petty Officer 1st Class Brandon Tuggle, Master Sgt. Christopher Love, Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Murphy, Capt. Christopher Fron, and Chief Petty Officer Zachary Smith take a group photo aboard the Blue Ridge-class command and control ship USS Mount Whitney (LCC 20), in the Atlantic Ocean, May 31, 2021, in support of the NATO-led joint multilateral exercise Steadfast Defender 2021 (STDE 21). Commander, U.S. Second Fleet (C2F) and Joint Force Command Norfolk (JFCNF) communications staff broke barriers between North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies and partners and U.S. Naval forces by establishing a system agnostic approach that allowed users to communicate in a common virtual environment during STDE 21. The team created a virtual office in the operational environment using a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) to establish remote access to the NATO domain, essentially teleworking while at sea. This exercise was the first to pioneer the U.S. use of a VDI solution into a NATO environment. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Eric Ramirez/released)
Sailors work on a computer system during NATO exercise Steadfast Defender 21.
Steadfast Defender 21 Communications
210530-M-BY673-0023 ATLANTIC OCEAN (May 30, 2021) From left to right, Petty Officer 2nd Class Charles Fisher, Petty Officer 1st Class Nathan Lazaro, Petty Officer 1st Class Brandon Tuggle, Master Sgt. Christopher Love, Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Murphy, Capt. Christopher Fron, and Chief Petty Officer Zachary Smith take a group photo aboard the Blue Ridge-class command and control ship USS Mount Whitney (LCC 20), in the Atlantic Ocean, May 31, 2021, in support of the NATO-led joint multilateral exercise Steadfast Defender 2021 (STDE 21). Commander, U.S. Second Fleet (C2F) and Joint Force Command Norfolk (JFCNF) communications staff broke barriers between North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies and partners and U.S. Naval forces by establishing a system agnostic approach that allowed users to communicate in a common virtual environment during STDE 21. The team created a virtual office in the operational environment using a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) to establish remote access to the NATO domain, essentially teleworking while at sea. This exercise was the first to pioneer the U.S. use of a VDI solution into a NATO environment. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Eric Ramirez/released)
Photo By: Lance Cpl. Eric Ramirez
VIRIN: 210530-M-BY673-0023

During the first part of STDE 21, military service members and assets from 11 NATO member countries onboard 16 ships engaged in a multi-domain, multilateral, joint military exercise which involved extensive sea and air control events. U.S. Second Fleet served as the Maritime Component Command (MCC) in tactical control of assigned units during the exercise, employing maritime forces, ready to fight, across multiple domains in the Atlantic to ensure access, deter aggression, and defend U.S., allied and partner interests. Canadian Rear Adm. Steven Waddell, vice commander of C2F, led the team embarked aboard the command and control ship USS Mount Whitney (LCC 20).

"The team's innovative approach to establishing a NATO secret baseline, by leveraging existing architecture, allowed for rapid implementation of effective command and control across an allied task force without the need for costly and lengthy prior installations,” said Waddell.

It was vital that embarked staff members were able to effectively command, control, and communicate with fellow NATO partners on a common network, specifically, the NATO Secret Wide Area Network (NSWAN).

“One of the main goals of this exercise, from a communications perspective, was to enhance interoperability with our NATO allies and partners and demonstrate our dedication to the alliance,” said Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Murphy, C2F communications officer. “This meant that we needed to overcome communication barriers and establish access to NSWAN, while reducing the amount of national system use during a multinational mission.”

U.S. Navy computer systems are typically limited to a U.S.-based computer domain and rarely integrate with other domains except by email or limited web services. However, when other domains are needed onboard, the typical solution is to procure new domain specific hardware solutions. This usually means that a separate network is installed and that the new domain is now isolated from the existing infrastructure. Murphy says this is both disjointed and costly, so he and his team decided to use cloud based principles to ensure staff had full access to the NSWAN domain during the exercise.

“We implemented a Commercial- Off-The- Shelf (COTS) based solution that gave us access to the NSWAN domain. We were able to access many NSWAN resources by using the ship’s current infrastructure without the need for unique operational accounts, expensive hardware, additional technical support, or long timelines and install costs,” said Murphy. “We did this by creating a virtual office in the operational environment, which not only allowed us to have communication interoperability but it also allowed us to use a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) to establish remote access to the NATO domain, this essentially allowed us to telework while out at sea.”

This exercise was the first to pioneer the U.S. use of a VDI solution into a NATO environment. Another cross domain highlight was that exercise leaders could communicate with multiple enclaves from a single console without ever changing seats to do so. This was accomplished by bridging three separate communication systems: Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPR), Battlefield Information Collection and Exploitation Systems (BICES), and NATO Initial Data Transfer Services (NIDTS) with NSWAN. Murphy believes leveraging proven COTS solutions is the 21st century way forward to sustainable communication systems in the Navy.

“We should continue to develop our system agnostic approach as much as possible for efficient communications. By continuing to commit more resources into connection agreements, access policies, and application interoperability, while reducing hardware procurement and stovepipe solutions, we can expand our capabilities to quickly deploy into multi-domain operations,” said Murphy.

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