Next Exit: Joint Information Environment

By Commander John M. Dahm, U.S. Navy

According to the DOD’s September 2013 Strategy for Implementing the Joint Information Environment , the JIE seeks to remove barriers to trusted information sharing and collaboration, provide better access to information, and enhance the department’s ability to defend against cyber threats and vulnerabilities. The strategy markets the promise that through DOD-wide network consolidation, the JIE can achieve its goals while substantially reducing IT infrastructure costs. 1 In an era of shrinking military budgets, reforming multiple “cylinders of excellence” within the DOD into a single, dynamic IT architecture is long overdue.

The strategy carefully considers cyber threats. However, it does not appear to give similar attention to how the JIE will deal with more comprehensive information warfare (IW) threats, especially as it relates to information transmission throughout the environment.

When the DOD develops operational plans, the planning process begins by placing goals and objectives in the context of an adversary’s “most likely course of action” and “most dangerous course of action.” In evolving a DOD-wide IT enterprise that must be all things to all contingencies, it may be prudent to weight development of the JIE toward the most likely challenges. But in military endeavors where life and death hang in the balance and geopolitical stakes are extremely high, the inescapable reality is that the JIE must have inherent design features to deal with an adversary’s most dangerous course of action and the worst-case scenario.

Sun Tzu and the Art of Cyber War

When considering how the JIE might fare against a high-end IW threat, it is illustrative to envision the JIE in what could very well be the next war—a short, sharp conflict in the Pacific that pits the United States against a technologically sophisticated adversary.

Unsurprisingly, the fictitious East Asian Federation (in the scenario beginning on the next page) is representative of the type of threat posed by China. But this could have just as easily been about Russia in Eastern Europe or a Southwest or South Asian nation applying these new types of disruptive technologies and tactics.

The conflict outlined here demonstrates that the centralization and reach-back elements of the JIE could lead to unrecoverable failures in wars where information dominance and timely decision-making are at the epicenter of the conflict. DISA and the military services must expand the concept of the JIE to include its supporting infrastructure, especially the critical communication links that make up the physical transmission layer of the networks.

Still in its initial stages of implementation, the JIE appears to be designed to address present-day cyber challenges. The development of a Single Security Architecture (SSA) responds to the myriad cyber attacks and probes the DOD faces each day. SSA reduces the “cyber attack surface” of DOD networks and allows for a much-needed coherent defense of those networks. The SSA will also enable security managers to identify anomalous behavior within the network to combat “insider threats” bent on sabotage or theft of data from DOD networks. 2

Ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, in his discussion of “Attack by Stratagem,” observed that the worst course of action for any military is to besiege a walled city. The JIE creates such a stronghold—a cyber bastion with virtual battlements. Perhaps a better analogy would be to describe the JIE as a heavily defended island fortress that links to its deployed elements over causeways and bridges.

If an aggressor’s objective is simply to prevent or delay those within the fortress from reinforcing elements in the field, there is no need to lay siege to its unified security architecture and impenetrable encryption. Instead, to create disruptive effects within the JIE, an adversary would simply neutralize one of the principal design features by striking at one of its weakest links—the transmission layer—the physical connections between the network cloud and the forward elements. Destroying or denying access to the bridges and causeways would effectively bottle up the cyber capacities within the JIE island fortress.

Live by the Cloud, Die by the Cloud

The JIE promises to create efficiencies and increase effects by providing the DOD with scalable, cloud-based collaboration capabilities and data storage. The JIE will consolidate data centers, provide reach-back IT support, and deliver a broad set of data-sharing capabilities that will facilitate “unprecedented joint collaboration.” 3

The cloud innovations afforded by the JIE will likely serve the vast majority of the DOD’s day-to-day operational and administrative functions. However, the department’s fundamental responsibility is to secure the nation’s interests against threats and, when called upon, to fight and win wars. It is within this latter context that the JIE must consider that cloud computing and centralized enterprise services depend heavily on network connectivity.

The physical transmission layer represents those elements of the cyber domain that allow data to flow through the network and provides a warfighter access to the cloud. A small callout box in DISA’s publication, “Enabling the Joint Information Environment,” refers to “transport” and indicates that it includes fiber-optic lines, copper wire, satellite communications (SATCOM), and other wireless communications that use the electromagnetic spectrum. 4

This physical transmission layer should feature more prominently in DISA’s JIE strategy to the extent that these real-world elements are so vital to supporting the JIE’s cloud-computing capabilities. DISA has broad responsibilities for DOD communications and manages the worldwide enterprise-level telecommunications infrastructure that supports military operations. The military services, other government agencies, and commercial entities have ownership of many of the elements of the DOD physical transmission layer, but DISA has overarching responsibilities that include managing network standards, ensuring data flow across the networks, and leasing telecommunication services such as commercial SATCOM. 5

Information is Not Knowledge

The fictitious wartime scenario outlined here illustrates that some of the most vulnerable points in the information environment may be where the JIE must traverse the physical battlespace—where the physical transmission layer may be subject to direct attack, either kinetic or non-kinetic.

Figure 1 provides an illustration of an “information cycle”—a representation of information flow within the JIE. This two-dimensional rendering cannot possibly capture all of the complexities of integrated IW. Fundamentally, the diagram is meant to express the idea that, to support real-world operations, the JIE and its cloud architecture must necessarily gather information from the physical battlespace, process and store that information, and return requested information to that battlespace. The JIE’s data become vulnerable as they are transmitted over cables and radio frequencies in the physical battlespace. The “last tactical mile” may be even more vulnerable as transmission extends outside the confines of the JIE’s secure cyber environment to command-and-control (C2) fielded forces or draw data in from frontline intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets.

Despite the JIE’s dependence on the critical capabilities of the physical transmission layer in a contested battlespace, the JIE strategy does little to address significant concerns that have emerged about the viability of U.S. military communications in a time of war against a high-end threat.

Take the High Road, It’s Less Crowded

SATCOMs are critical capabilities that support the physical transmission layer of the JIE, especially for mobile and forward-deployed forces. Admiral Samuel Locklear, who recently stepped down as Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, has stated that resilient and reliable SATCOM is essential for C2 and ISR. However, as he testified before the House Appropriations Committee, congested environments and emerging threats are increasingly challenging SATCOM’s capabilities. 6

Other military leaders have also acknowledged the increased threat to U.S. space assets. For example, speaking in July 2014, General William Shelton, then-Commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command (AFSPC), stated, “Our satellites were not built with such threats in mind.” He continued, “[W]e have a clear and present danger to contend with that I believe must change our calculus on resiliency.” 7

Familiar threats, such as the Chinese antisatellite missile that was tested against a defunct weather satellite in 2007, have been joined by a new order of threats. According to reports, those include a significant increase in ground-based electronic jamming, cyber capabilities to interfere with satellite-control telemetry, high-powered lasers and even space-based antisatellite weapons. 8

In the face of these evolving challenges, U.S. military space budgets have been shrinking. The military is increasingly turning to the commercial sector in an attempt to realize cost savings. In AFSPC’s 2015 congressional budget testimony, General Shelton’s successor, General John Hyten, discussed the difficulties in maintaining—let alone improving—U.S. space capabilities, given the AFSPC’s $2 billion budget decrease over two years. 9 In another recent announcement, Air Force officials have said they intend to outsource day-to-day operations of the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) constellation—the backbone of the military SATCOM architecture—to a commercial provider by 2016. 10

The question becomes, then, how will a streamlined space force and commercial outsourcing fare in the face of increasing threats? These steps may be fiscally necessary, but DISA and the military services should carefully consider the potential vulnerabilities these critical elements of the physical transmission layer create in employing the JIE architecture in a future war.

The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Less frequently discussed than threats to SATCOM are the potential problems created by undersea fiber-optic cables that transmit the bulk of Internet data. SATCOM provides critical connections to mobile military forces, but it represents a small fraction of international bandwidth; 99 percent of all international data traffic is carried by submarine cables. 11 While not necessarily in the same proportions for the U.S. military, a majority of JIE data will also transit submarine cables to U.S. allies and military bases outside the continental United States.

The most common threats to those cables are from shipping activities. One of the worst communications disruptions occurred in December 2008, when three major cables were cut, presumably by ship anchors, near the Suez Canal. That resulted in disruption to 75 percent of the Internet service between Europe, the Middle East, and India. Rumors have circulated that this was an act of sabotage, but that has never been proved. In 2006, a magnitude-7 earthquake off the southwest coast of Taiwan resulted in 18 breaks in 8 underwater cables that caused communications disruptions throughout Asia for weeks. 12

Targeted attacks against critical elements of the submarine cable network, especially in choke points or at island cable landings, could have severe consequences. 13 One can only imagine the forces required to guard this critical infrastructure. Every ubiquitous fishing trawler, cursed by U.S. battle-group commanders during the Cold War as potential intelligence collectors, could now also be information strike platforms capable of eliminating terabytes of bandwidth with the drop of an anchor.

Multiple cuts along the thousands of miles of submarine cables between the United States and forward military bases could take months to repair. The cascading effects in a coordinated strike on the cables would cause networks to commit self-inflicted “denial-of-service” attacks as routers struggle to shift data onto other terrestrial networks or move communications up to the relatively small bandwidth of the SATCOM network. DISA’s “Network Infrastructure Product Requirement” outlines an unrealistic standard for its commercial providers that requires that underwater cable cuts be repaired “within three days.” 14

The Roads Less Traveled

There may be tactical network solutions, such as datalinks, that could compensate for the vulnerabilities in the SATCOM and fiber-optic networks. However there are indications that potential adversaries are actively exploring how to undermine those workarounds as well. A 2012 study by Northrop Grumman indicates that Chinese research institutes are working on countermeasures against systems such as the Joint Tactical Information Distribution System (JTIDS) datalink. The report assesses: “Electronic warfare platforms and capabilities developed by these and similar research institutes will be coordinated with computer network attack tools against key command and control nodes and networks for comprehensive full spectrum attack.” 15

The 2013 DOD “Electromagnetic Spectrum Strategy” also acknowledges that “adversaries are aggressively developing and fielding electronic attack (EA) and cyberspace technologies that significantly reduce the ability of DOD to access the spectrum and conduct military operations.” 16 That same strategy announced the DOD would grudgingly find ways to share or allocate spectrum that had previously been reserved for military use with commercial communication providers. The first of these allocations occurred in February 2015. 17

We Need It More

A recent paper, titled “Chinese View on the Information ‘Center of Gravity’: Space, Cyber and Electronic Warfare,” outlines Chinese thinking on how these three types of warfare might be used together to subvert U.S. military capabilities. Author John Costello observes that there is every indication the Chinese are prepared to exercise what he calls a cyber “nuclear” option—disconnecting China from the global Internet as a defensive measure. 18 This is technologically possible, given the strict government controls on all international communications gateways in China. 19 The Chinese military’s internal computer network is already physically isolated from other networks. 20

But the U.S. military cannot “unplug” and relegate itself to an internally secured network. For the immediate future, DOD forces will forward-deploy to operate in a battlespace where the adversary has the “home-field” advantage. When operating in increasingly contested battlespaces, the U.S. military will remain heavily dependent on elements of the physical transmission layer such as undersea cables, SATCOM, and other electromagnetic communications.

DISA and the military services must establish, sustain, and operate a Joint Information Environment that can survive a worst-case scenario in what could be the next war. The communications necessary to support a cloud-based network architecture cannot simply be assumed. The JIE concept should be expanded to consider the network’s physical transmission layer. Even if the proposed architecture remains unchanged, incorporating high-end information-warfare threats will profoundly impact how DISA and the military services employ the JIE in simulated or actual combat.

1. Department of Defense, “The Department of Defense Strategy for Implementing the Joint Information Environment,” 18 September 2013, 1,

2. DISA, “Enabling the Joint Information Environment (JIE),” 5 May 2014, 9–11, .

3. Ibid., 14–16.

4. Ibid., 8.

5. DISA, “Enterprise Connections,” . See also: DISA, “Commercial Satellite Service,” .

6. ADM Samuel J. Locklear III, USN, “PACOM Before the House Appropriations Committee Remarks,” 18 March 2015, Article/581146/pacom-before-the-house-appropriations-committee-remarks.aspx.

7. Cheryl Pellerin, “Budget Cuts, Growing Threats Affect Space Operations,” DoD News , 23 July 2014, .

8. See, for example, Mike Guss, “Space Command Chief Weighs in on Chinese Anti-satellite Threat,” Space News , 24 February 2015, . See also John Grady, “U.S. Dependence on Space Assets Could be a Liability in a Conflict with China,” USNI News , 29 January 2014, , and Terrence McCoy, “A Mysterious Russian Space Object Could be the Return of the ‘Satellite Killer,’” The Washington Post , 18 November 2014, .

9. GEN John E. Hyten, USAF, “Fiscal Year 2016 National Defense Authorization Budget Request for National Security Space Activities,” 25 March 2015, AS29/20150325/103106/HHRG-114-AS29-Wstate-HytenUSAFJ-20150325.pdf.

10. Aaron Mehta, “USAF Looks to Outsource Wideband Satcom Ops,” Defense News , 12 March 2015, .

11. Douglas Main, “Undersea Cables Transport 99 Percent of International Data,” Newsweek , 2 April 2015, .

12. Valerie C. Coffey, “Sea Change: The Challenges Facing Submarine Optical Communications,” Optics and Photonics News , 1 March 2014, volume_25/march_2014/features/sea_change_the_challenges_facing_submarine_optical.

13. See an interactive on-line visualization of submarine cable network topology at: Telegeography, “Submarine Cable Map,” . See also Frank W. Lacroix, et. al., RAND Corporation, “A Concept of Operations for a New Deep-Diving Submarine, Appendix I, Submarine Cable Infrastructure,” (2002), .

14. Department of Defense, “DoD UCR 2008, Change 2, Section 5.5, Network Infrastructure Product Requirements,” (2008): 1672, UCCO/UCR2008-Change-2/09UCR08Chg2Section55.pdf.

15. Northrop Grumman: Bryan Krekel, et. al., “Occupying the Information High Ground: Chinese Capabilities for Computer Network Operations and Cyber Espionage,” 7 March 2012, .

16. Department of Defense, “Electromagnetic Spectrum Strategy” (2013): 1. ,

17. “Statement of FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler,” .

18. John Costello, “Chinese Views on the Information “Center of Gravity”: Space, Cyber and Electronic Warfare,” China Brief , vol. 15, no. 8 (17 April 2015), 11. China_Brief_Vol_15_Issue_8_4.pdf.

19. See “Administration of International Communication Gateway Exchanges, People’s Republic of China Ministry of Information Industry Order No. 22,” 26 June 2002 (in Chinese), last modified 5 March 2009, .

20. “Chinese Official Defense Website Still Under Intense Attack,” 17 March 2010, news-channels/china-military-news/2010-03/17/content_4154983.htm.

Commander Dahm is a career naval intelligence officer who has recently completed a tour as assistant naval attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, China.

Gateway Timeout Error, or How We Lost the War in the Pacific

26 June 2021, 10:46 am, EST

WASHINGTON—In the wake of last month’s conflict against the East Asian Federation (EAF), pundits and analysts continue to debate whether there has been a fundamental security shift in Asia away from the U.S. alliance structure. Meanwhile, congressional hearings this week will address how and why the U.S. military was seemingly unable to intervene to prevent the EAF from achieving its objectives.

“It was decision-making paralysis.” said one Air Force general. “It was less like a cyber “Pearl Harbor” and more like a cyber “D-Day,” except we couldn’t make it to the beach. We couldn’t access the information we needed and we certainly couldn’t push the information forward, let alone communicate with our forces under threat. . . . So we did nothing.”

Some analysts have placed blame on the Joint Information Environment (JIE). A U.S. Naval War College expert commented that the superior performance of the JIE in the years leading up to the crisis had created expectations among U.S. commanders that they would have instantaneous access to critical capabilities, data, and applications held in the network’s “cloud.” Details have now begun to emerge about the EAF strikes that crippled U.S. military’s access to its own networks.

According to industry insiders, early in the conflict contact was lost with two commercial satellites and possibly a military communications satellite when they were moved out of their orbital slots. It is not known whether this was caused by a cyber-attack on the satellites’ control telemetry or whether they were physically attacked. Other accounts suggest that overwhelming electronic jamming by EAF forces also caused significant disruptions to U.S. satellite communications.

Problems with network connectivity were further exacerbated on Day 4 of the conflict, when terrestrial communication links with U.S. bases on Guam and Okinawa suddenly disappeared. Statements by Japanese officials support a U.S. Coast Guard press release that suggests six undersea cables connecting the islands to the Pacific fiber-optic network had been intentionally cut. Internet disruptions in Asia caused by the breaks were quickly rerouted, but the connections to the islands have yet to be restored.

One defense official said, “We successfully beat back the EAF cyber-attacks on our networks. The JIE did what it was supposed to do. Clearly we weren’t prepared for the communication disruptions. We couldn’t connect to the forward deployed forces. No information was getting into the battlespace; no information was getting out. We just didn’t have the bandwidth to support the JIE’s cloud architecture.”

One carrier strike group commander became visibly upset during a recent interview: “We never trained for this! Nothing failed completely, but every single piece of gear was affected. The problems just compounded. SATCOM! Datalink! Radar! VHF! GPS! The closer we got to the coast, the worse it got. We were struggling just to communicate with our own ships and aircraft. You think I had bandwidth to connect to the CLOUD!?!”



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