International military operations in Libya began March 19, 2011, after the United Nations authorized action to protect Libyan civilians from attacks by government forces. NATO took over the mission March 31, but the United States continues to provide aircraft and warships off the coast.
In any operation, the rapid and accurate flow of information is critical to success. As soon as Naval Air Station Sigonella began preparing to support what would become Operation Odyssey Dawn, the U.S. part in the intervention, the staff of Naval Computer and Telecommunications Station (NCTS) Sicily immediately began planning to support the increased demands that would soon be placed on the information technology resources of the base. It quickly became clear that requirements for support would change rapidly, and that flexibility and adaptability were the key elements critical for success.
As first Operation Odyssey Dawn, and then, under NATO command, Operation Unified Protector, evolved, this flexibility would be needed time and again to ensure mission critical information was available to U.S. operational and support personnel, as well as coalition partners.
In the words of Capt. Scott Butler, commanding officer of NAS Sigonella, NCTS Sicily personnel demonstrated "complete and utter commitment to the mission" as they executed their support to U.S. and coalition partners alike.
One of the unique aspects to the operation as it unfolded was the rapid pace at which the overall situation changed. Very little about either operations Odyssey Dawn or Unified Protector was done using traditional planning vehicles such as operational orders or fragmentary orders. The primary method for receiving new requirements and changes to the existing plan was via email and text message. Knowing this, the staff at NCTS Sicily "leaned forward" and ensured that the infrastructure and resources needed to get the voice, video and data messages to the right people were ready at all times. According to Butler, without the support of the information professionals at NCTS Sicily, operations would simply have failed to meet the needs of the operational elements based at NAS Sigonella.
Because NCTS has several officer and enlisted information professionals that were veterans of multiple deployments, at sea and ashore, they were able to leverage lessons learned and apply them to what they guessed the "problem would be tomorrow."
Working with joint and coalition partners proved to be the same in Sigonella as it was in the Northern Arabian Sea or in Afghanistan. It was an environment that had the same information sharing challenges that could be overcome by coordinating, cooperating and communicating.
Keeping flexibility in mind, the team ensured that network infrastructure could be rapidly reconfigured as requirements changed. Additionally, with coalition partners occupying spaces, the team ensured that both U.S. and coalition networks were available for connection to the building and could be moved quickly as the spaces were reorganized. This infrastructure included the installation of new fiber throughout the building together with rapidly configurable switches that are capable of connecting to multiple coalition networks, such as the Combined Enterprise Regional Information Exchange System (CENTRIXS), Battlefield Information, Collection and Exploitation System (BICES), NATO Secret Wide Area Network (NSWAN), Crisis Response Operations in NATO Open Systems (CRONOS) and more.
Additionally, the team configured the building network to connect to commercially provided Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Lines (ADSL) to accommodate those coalition partners that could not have access to NATO networks. Finally, the team ensured that the network switches and routers were capable of being rapidly swapped out ensuring that the right services could be provided when tenant spaces were reconfigured or new tenants arrived.
This forward thinking approach proved pivotal as building 407 became the home for no fewer than six separate coalition partners from both NATO and non-NATO nations, including Denmark, Sweden, Turkey, Canada, France and the United Arab Emirates. Because the infrastructure had been designed for flexibility, NCTS was able to provide the full spectrum of information services including voice, data and video on NATO and non-NATO networks to all the tenants on demand, ensuring no gaps in mission capability.
Although operations Odyssey Dawn and Unified Protector presented a number of unanticipated challenges, for one command at NAS Sigonella that is supported by NCTS Sicily, operations proceeded exactly as expected. Commander, Task Force 67 coordinates and manages maritime patrol aircraft in support of Commander Naval Forces Europe and Africa.
Additionally, CTF-67 is the U.S. component for the overall maritime patrol aircraft mission for NATO. In this role, CTF-67 conducts annual exercises with NATO partners to ensure they practice all elements of potential coalition operations. One key element of the exercises is command and control, directly supported by the tactical support communications (TSCOMM) element of NCTS Sicily, embedded with CTF-67. As a result of the lessons learned from these exercises, TSCOMM personnel were prepared to support the rapid stand up of operational support to multiple NATO partners and did so without any interruption in services.
In the words of Cmdr. Jeff Mullen, chief staff officer for CTF-67, "We had zero issues with command, control or communications support as we ramped up for these operations. Everything worked exactly as we practiced, and that's a testament to the professional approach that these Sailors bring to their mission every day, not just when operational tempo increases."
Practicing for rapidly changing operational missions with multiple coalition partners was critical in ensuring seamless support when the real operation began.
Another example of how planning for change resulted in mission success was the support NCTS provided to one of the largest information consumers of the operation, the EC-130-J Commando Solo aircraft from the 193rd Special Operations Wing of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard supporting electronic warfare missions over Libya.
The EC-130-J is a specially-modified four-engine Hercules transport, conducting information operations, psychological operations and civil affairs broadcasts in AM, FM, high frequency, television and military communications bands.
The nature of the EC-130-J mission presents unique connectivity requirements for planners and support personnel, but NCTS Sailors were ready from the moment the unit arrived, providing connectivity to mission critical systems and ensuring that the unit had all the necessary resources to effectively execute its tasking, including access to U.S. SIPRNET, NIPRNET, BICES and NATO secret networks. Even as plans changed and the unit's support crews were moved from one building to another, the flexible approach NCTS used ensured that there was no loss of service or impact to mission operations. Technicians were on the ground connecting equipment and configuring workspaces so that the EC-130-J team could focus on its mission and not worry about connectivity. In the words of Lt. Col. Bill Harris, local commander for the EC-130-J detachment, "It all just worked; we didn't have to worry about a thing."
Perhaps the most unique solution created by the NCTS team dealt with providing services to non-NATO coalition partners. Since these units are not permitted access to coalition networks for security reasons, the team had to find a way to provide them with connectivity that was not dependent on U.S. or NATO networks. To solve this problem, the team created a connectivity suite using open source Linux operating systems coupled with ADSL connections from a local provider. This package provided units from the United Arab Emirates, and other non-NATO partners, with the connectivity they needed to stay in touch with their higher headquarters, as well as receive direct information from the coalition through approved channels. Without this "out-of-the-box" solution, non-NATO partners would have been isolated from their chain of command, resulting in long delays in mission planning and execution.
The best way to describe the environment at NAS Sigonella would be one that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Uncertainty and the change it causes are simply the norm, calling to mind the classic phrase "If you don't like how things are going, wait five minutes, it will change." The inclusion of coalition forces within these operations added to the complexity of the information environment, making it more critical than ever to be ready for every possible situation when it came to information management, command and control, and information security. By leaning forward and anticipating this situation, the staff at NCTS Sicily ensured that operational elements had the resources they needed, from crypto, Iridium satellite phones, BlackBerrys, computers and printers — to U.S. and coalition network access.
In 2008, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen said that he needed his Joint Staff to "respond at the speed my job requires, not at the speed a particular process allows."
During Operation Odyssey Dawn and continuing through Operation Unified Protector, the staff of NCTS Sicily continues to demonstrate this principle by "responding at the speed of change" and establishing a best practice for how to effectively execute information management, information security, and information technology service support for future coalition operations.
Cmdr. Bruce Black is an information professional officer and the commanding officer of NCTS Sicily.
Cmdr. M. Barry Tanner is a Navy Reserve information professional officer assigned to the Navy Reserve Navy Cyber Forces headquarters unit, currently supporting NCTS Sicily and multiple European regional naval communications units.