What's Brewin': Inside the world of defense information technology

Editor's Note: What's Brewin' is a new column written by Government Executive Editor-at-Large Bob Brewin. Every week, What's Brewin' will bring you an insider's look at the hot topics and tidbits of conversation that make up the IT culture inside the Pentagon, at military bases around the world and inside the boardrooms of Defense contractors.

MySpace and YouTube for Command and Control?

Though Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles Croom, director of the Defense Information Systems Agency, issued in May the order heard 'round the world banning access to MySpace and YouTube from military computers, folks at DISA think the technologies developed by the two companies might help with the next generation of the Defense Department's command and control system, called Net-Enabled Command Capability.

Hank Beebe, DISA technical director for Command and Control programs, told me that, from a technical perspective, MySpace and YouTube have developed new ways of sharing information from disparate sources that DISA might want to use as it develops NECC.

Air Force Brig. Gen. Dave Warner, DISA C2 director, said the agency intends to cast a wide net as it looks for capabilities and software modules to add to NECC. It plans to tap multiple sources for these capabilities, ranging from traditional sources such as the four services, federal laboratories, defense contractors and outfits such as consumer-focused companies like MySpace and YouTube.

Warner said that since DISA does not have a wide range of contacts in this nontraditional world, it is looking for a "capability broker" to help it find the next great thing that could be added to the NECC portfolio.

He said he is hopeful this approach will help the agency streamline the way it keeps Defense C2 up to date. The latest version of the current system, the Global Command and Control System-Joint, took more than two years from validating requirements in January 2005 to fielding this April, Warner said. During that time MySpace and YouTube grew from audacious start-ups into companies with millions of users so valuable that Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. bought MySpace and Google acquired YouTube.

The NECC capability broker's request for information issued by DISA last month makes it clear that the agency has a new vision to field software. Instead of rigid development guidelines, the RFI says it needs the help of the capability broker to find functionalities that can be "mashed" into the NECC to suit a particular mission.

Beebe, who joined DISA earlier this year after spearheading the successful AT&T bid for the General Services Administration's Networx contract, echoed this and said he is looking for technologies he can "mash up" to serve Defense users all the way to the tactical edge.

He does not know exactly where the broker will find these capabilities, but the broker should look everywhere including Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., where Warner's children attend college. "If we can help troops in Fallujah with something going on at Wheaton, we should do it," Beebe said.

Capabilities DISA needs for NECC, Beebe said, includes the ability to search hundreds of hours of streaming video and zero in on a key scene, person or object and improved version of Internet Relay Chat, "which is how we do business every day."

A Gesticulator? You Need an "Iconic Chat Glove"

The Navy relies heavily on chat for its C2 systems, with hundreds of chat rooms used to control the operations of an aircraft carrier strike group, according to a presentation given this year at the Chemical and Biological Information Systems Conference in Austin by LoRaine Duffy, a researcher at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center.

She said chat is the primary and often singular means of tactical communications used by the Navy, but it suffers from being solely text-based, which means it is too slow, very unstructured and often ambiguous.

Her solution is to develop a new form of chat which uses an icon-/symbol-based language that owes a lot to American Sign Language used by the deaf and the hand waving that accompanies most conversations in The Big Apple.

Gestural language can eliminate ambiguity when using a formal iconography and shared context, Duffy said, and she proposed the use of a wireless high-tech glove that can replace a keyboard or input device and is capable of recognizing static and dynamic gestures.

As someone who waves his hands during any conversation -- even when I am on the phone -- I can hardly wait until the consumer version of this hits Radio Shack.

SPAWAR on the Border

When not engaged in inventing cool stuff like Iconic Chat Gloves, SPAWAR engages in more prosaic engineering tasks for the Navy and other federal agencies, including the Homeland Security Department.

SPAWAR developed and installed a wireless network in the vicinity of Douglas, Ariz., based on 802.11a wi-fi technology that, among other things, includes a 14-mile shot that was able to maintain the maximum 54 megabits per second transmission rate.

Since I run an 802.11a network in the home office, I would like some help from SPAWAR's contactor, MeshDyamics, to boost the range of my wi-fi network. I'm not greedy. I don't need 14 miles. Just over a mile will do so I can work while enjoying breakfast enchiladas at Charlie's Spic and Span.

The Shrink Approach To Airport Checkpoints

The Defense Counterintelligence Field Activity -- described by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a few years back when he was a congressman as a military agency designed to spy on Americans -- seems to be living up to that description with a request for proposals to use psycho-physiological techniques to screen people going through high-volume checkpoints.

Since even a Brownie troop lined up for a Pentagon tour hardly qualifies as high volume, I have to imagine this psychological assault on civil liberties is aimed at airport checkpoints, or maybe to determine if any Redskin Hogette is stranger than usual before he is allowed into the stadium.

The Counterintelligence Field Activity put out the RFP on behalf of the the Defense Academy for Credibility Assessment (DACA), the new and relatively benign name for what used to be called, until this January, the Defense Department Polygraph Institute.

This RFP says the counterintelligence folks are looking for contractors to support the DACA mission to conduct scientific research into fundamental theoretical and applied credibility assessment issues.

DACA wants to optimize credibility assessment of humans passing through a security checkpoint in high-volume environments and specifically investigate physiological and behavioral assessment of individuals from multiple cultures with the goal of identifying and reducing variability.

Oh, well, at least it's multicultural (which is quite politically correct) and is only a test at this stage of development. I do hope they factor into this assessment that when people hop from one foot to another at the Dulles airport checkpoint in mid February, it's not a sign of nervousness, but rather a sign that the floor is very cold and none of us are wearing shoes.

Air Force Plays Estonia Cybercard

Lt. Gen. Bob Elder, head of the Air Force's cyber command, the 8th Air Force, never misses an opportunity to promote his command as the one-stop shop for cyberwar capabilities within the Defense Department.

Speaking at the Defense Technology Forum at the Netherlands embassy in Washington, D.C., last month, Elder said the recent cyberattack against Estonia showed that agents of a hostile power can paralyze business, the media and government and cut a country off from the world. He then plumped for an expanded Air Force mission in cyberspace.

In fact, he said he intends to "redefine airpower" and extend the Air Force's "global reach and power into cyberspace." That includes, he added, both defensive and offensive operations, indicating that U.S. interest in offensive cyberoperations continues to come in out of the cold.

Elder has been at this for about a year, and I think he sees cyberoperations as The Next Big Thing and is using every opportunity to grab the kind of attention that leads to expanded roles and budgets.

The Army and Navy need to get their own Elder if they want to win the cyberspace budget battles.

Who's On The Road?

I'll be at the Army IT Day sponsored by the AFCEA Northern Virginia chapter Thursday, July 12, and anyone looking to unburden themselves should keep an eye out for the graying, semi-cranky Irish reporter.

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