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Air Force looks to Web to connect multiple information systems

A new Web-based portal connecting thousands of separate information systems will be the foundation for the Air Force's future military operations, the Air Force's chief information officer said Monday.

"Information systems are really the backbone of where we're going in the future," John Gilligan said, adding that the military's transformation into the information age requires "very tight partnerships" with the high-tech industry. "We're bringing in industry consultants to help with the process changes and the cultural changes, which tend to be the biggest issues."

Gilligan said the Air Force is leveraging cutting-edge commercial technology to "fundamentally change" its overseas combat operations and home-based administrative functions. "All of a sudden, the Air Force, from an operational mission perspective, is now intolerant of separately designed systems ... that do not work across the broader Internet," Gilligan said during a conference sponsored by the organization E-Gov.

Roughly a year ago, the Air Force mandated that its departments link their information systems into "a common portal" that would serve as a "window" for all military and civilian personnel. So far, about 400 systems have been connected, and Gilligan said the migration of another 2,000 systems has been mapped.

"We've made a lot of progress, but this has not been easy," Gilligan said.

The new structure has helped support a military plan that requires real-time communication between many U.S. bases and overseas units. In the past, the Air Force would station many combat troops overseas for long periods. But in recent years, it has moved to a home-based structure in which all troops are permanently stationed in the United States and deployed overseas for combat in 90-day rotations.

"A unit that is going [overseas] will get off the airplane and pick up the jobs that had previously been done by the unit that is now getting on that same airplane to head home," Gilligan said, adding that the units typically link to their home bases for much of the information they need for executing combat operations.

"No longer can we have stovepipe, or separately managed, systems that are supporting our different bases because as we deploy the folks in these 90-day rotations ... there's no time to train on new systems," Gilligan said. "They've got to hit the ground running and be able to pick up that job because it's a continuous military operation."

Gilligan added that as the Air Force increases its ability to rapidly integrate information from sensor technology, intelligence assets and other globally positioned sources, it will be able to launch massive military operations in dramatically shorter periods.

"We took six months after the invasion of Iraq into Kuwait to build up our forces and start to engage," Gilligan said of Operation Desert Storm in 1991. "We want to do this in days."

But he cautioned that security and reliability will be crucial to the Air Force's new information-based strategies. "These systems, and this network, needs to be secure because this will become our Achilles' heel if it can be exploited," Gilligan said.