U.S. military takes cloud computing to Afghanistan

The U.S. military is taking cloud computing into rugged terrain in Afghanistan, where the basic hardware and software technology is to play a key role in networking for soldiers in the sky and on the ground.

TAMPA -- The U.S. military is taking cloud computing into rugged terrain in Afghanistan, where according to Lt. Gen. Richard Zahner, the basic hardware and software technology is being packed into mobile boxes that later this year will start to play a key role in networking for soldiers in the sky and on the ground.

"We now have a government-owned cloud set," said Lt. Gen. Zahner during his keynote address at the Biometric Consortium Conference here. "We're leveraging cloud technology where it's needed."

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The Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) makes use of private cloud computing in the United States for the benefit of the military, for instance in a data center run by HP. But this is the first time that military-run cloud computing has gone to Afghanistan, where warfighters in the field may depend on it for critical surveillance and decision-making information via secure networks. "The goal is to get precise and relevant information to the warfighter," Zahner said.

The military's mobile cloud computing nodes will be assembled from specially designed hardware (measuring about 2 by 2 by 2 feet) into a terrestrial IP-based network that will include 3G wireless and security (including biometrics) and will cover rugged areas of Afghanistan. Various edge nodes for brigades and battalions are expected to be deployed, including with airships that will remain airborne for extended numbers of days as nodes to support signals intelligence and video.

The new network capability, Zahner said, is designed with help from partners that include the National Security Agency  and based on open source components and commercial hardware. The cloud-computing deployment is expected to begin later this fall, though Zahner said there's a need to develop many applications to have it optimized.

Tom Dee, director of Defense Biometrics in the Department of Defense, said, "All of the components are in place [but] they're not woven together yet." He said the goal is to provide decision-support tools that are needed "to understand the identity of the person approaching you."

Biometrics abroad

The U.S. military has stretched to try many new types of technologies in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, especially fingerprint-based biometrics, as part of its mission to weed out insurgents and terrorists.

For instance, the military, spearheaded by the U.S. Special Operations Command, aggressively went about capturing fingerprints of Afghan and Iraqi residents suspected of building and setting off explosive devices and other activities.

The Biometrics Identity Management Agency (BIMA), a newly established Defense Department agency formed out of many years of task-force efforts, now keeps about 3 million fingerprints and other biometrics on file that are remotely searchable for a match.

The fingerprint-collecting work by the U.S. military -- though not yet supported with enthusiasm by NATO partners with privacy and other legal concerns -- has helped pin down terrorists who operate in Iraq and Afghanistan and possibly abroad as well. Fingerprints are sometimes taken from fragments of exploded devices and a search is made to find gangs creating them. Biometric fingerprint enrollment is supported by the Afghan government, however.This week at the Biometric Consortium Conference, Col. Jose Smith spoke on the topic of how the fingerprint-enrollment process he has helped lead in Afghanistan is now shifting to training Afghans to enroll Afghans. He noted that fingerprint biometrics collection in Afghanistan has also gotten help from the FBI and Dept. of Justice in prison settings with 15,000 prisoners.

But as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, the U.S. military is pondering how to take what it learned about biometrics in the fires of war and retain it for future use, given what are expected to be shrinking budgets.

Lt. Gen. John Allen, deputy commander of the U.S. Central Command, on Thursday delivered strong support for biometrics, saying the use of the technology "had saved the lives of thousands of troops."

"It's become a weapon on the battlefield against an implacable enemy," Allen said in his keynote address at the conference. He said he has personally seen in Afghanistan how speed in identifying the enemy through biometrics has made it possible to capture Al-Quada militants but that it's still taking far too long to get fingerprints into the Defense Department's database.

Biometrics collection in Iraq and Afghanistan has "helped us separate the enemy from the population," Allen said. He believes there is authority to share the valuable information in the Defense Department's biometric database with other agencies such as the Department of Justice to help combat terrorism.

Sharing biometric data

The task of linking the databases of fingerprint biometrics maintained by the FBI and the military, as well as fingerprints collected in efforts such as the US-VISIT program that requires international visitors to submit to fingerprint collection, is still a challenge.

Interoperability is still an issue, said Myra Gray, director of BIMA. Policy and legal challenges related to how much access can be permitted across federal agencies and how that will be controlled is still under discussion before critical federal biometrics databases will all have better sharing. "There are a lot of issues we face to get to that nirvana," Gray said. Policies have to be established so it's "not a free for all" and in conformance with law.

But there is one area where the U.S. military does have a new idea for fingerprint collection in this country that will soon begin. It's in the area of recruitment of new military trainees. Individuals who want to join up have to disclose any obstacles, such as a criminal record, that might hinder their acceptance in the military.

The problem today is that individuals with bad records who show up at centers too frequently don't willingly disclose those details. And when they find out what needs to be disclosed, they run to other recruitment offices to lie about it to join the military, pointed out Charles Dossett, U.S. Army officer in Development and Fielding, USAREC.

"They forget they were arrested and thrown in the back of a police car and spent time in jail," Dossett humorously noted in his presentation. The military has to do manual background checks and wastes a lot of money in training and planning before it figures out these lies, which disqualify a recruit, he said.

So the Army is starting to collect the new recruit's 10-fingerprint sample right at the point when he or she agrees to join in order to immediately check for disqualifying criminal records. A pilot test of this new recruit fingerprint process has shown the minute the fingerprint machine comes out, "they remember things they forgot," Dossett said. A pilot project has yielded about $1 million in savings already.

Read more about data center in Network World's Data Center section.

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Ellen Messmer

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