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Mission Partner Environment Cuts Decision Making, Kill Chain

By C. Todd Lopez

SUFFOLK, Va. (Nov. 29, 2021) -- Earlier this month in Suffolk, Virginia, the Joint Staff's J-6 and members of the Defense Department's cyber community -- along with military representatives from the U.K., Australia, Canada, Sweden, Germany and other partner nations -- concluded an experiment to demonstrate the effectiveness of the department's mission-partner environment and SABRE software.

SABRE is short for secret and below releasable environment. It's a software tool to help DOD and it's partners more easily and efficiently share information between the computer networks of the U.S., partner nations, and military services during combined and joint operations.

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"SABRE is the material solution to the mission-partner environment that will enable our partners ... to share information, and for the U.S. to share information with them," Cliff Fagert, the director of the Mission-Partner Capabilities Office, said.

"That can be anything as simple as sharing a document, as complex as combined fires or combined medevac information, or any type of mission application."

Fagert said that while "partners" is typically understood to mean the militaries of foreign nations, it might also include other agencies of the U.S. federal government or even municipal law enforcement agencies, when needed.

Over the past 20 years of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. has partnered with a multitude of foreign militaries in countless operations. Command and control of those operations often involves an array of computer networks brought along by each participating nation. Facilitating the movement of information among those disparate networks as part of executing those combined and joint operations has been a challenge. Simplifying those operations is the goal of the MPE and SABRE.

"SABRE allows us to come together much quicker, much more flexibly," Maj. Gen. Thomas Copinger-Symes, the U.K. chief information officer and director for military digitization, said. "Critically, it takes the lessons from the last 20 years of campaigning where we were, frankly, too slow to be able to interoperate in fixed infrastructure. We've learned those lessons, and we're now embedding them into SABRE so that we can plug-and-play together in a much more rapid, much more agile fashion as crises emerge, to deal with those crises and get back to competition."

In past operations, the U.S. and partner nations brought their own computers and networks along with them -- though due to both incompatibility and security issues, these networks could not be connected.

For some operators, conducting operations in such an environment might have meant fielding a call for an airstrike using one computer attached to one nation's network, then manually typing information about that airstrike request into another nation's computer on a different network.

Frederick Stanley, the lead for the coalition's interoperability assurance and validation assessment within the Joint Staff's J-6, explained the pace of information sharing during Operation Inherent Resolve in 2017.

"We did some initial analysis, and we identified through deliberate processing maps and analysis that with the current environment they had, which was not data-centric, you would have to manually move products between partners in the same community of interest, which took four to six hours per manual move of that product," Stanley said. "It took approximately 10,000 hours to share those data products to execute ... 100 targets a day at the height of that mission."

The problem, he said, wasn't with how the targeting process worked. It was an information-sharing problem that needed to be fixed.

"When we identify targets ... all of our nations do intelligence collection on those targets. Because we had a poor ability to share information, we had multiple partners collecting the same intelligence information on top of one another, which means we weren't utilizing our collection resources in the most efficient manner possible," he said. "What that led to was target deconfliction challenges, it led to production of the air-tasking order that couldn't be shared at the same level with all the same organizations, and it led to an inefficient targeting process ... because network-centric security prevented us from being able to share those products quicker and faster."

The clumsiness of operating that way and the amount of time it might take to move information among decision makers from different nations created delays in carrying out airstrikes and also in arriving at other kinds of decisions.

The DOD's Mission Partner Environment will allow partner nations to use their own networks -- which might not otherwise be compatible with each other -- to connect to SABRE and seamlessly share information between them so that decisions can be made more quickly.

Ensuring that partner nations can communicate effectively is critical because future operations are not expected to be conducted by only one nation -- but by a team of nations.

"There's going to be no action in the future where we're operating alone," Maj. Gen. Robin Anderton-Brown, UK Strategic Command capability director, said. "We're going to be operating with our partners and our allies. And the importance of sharing information is only going to get more acute. Going forward, the importance of information and data -- and to be able to share that more seamlessly -- is going to require greater standardization of how we approach it. And SABRE is a great initiative to drive that coherence and standardization across the nations."

The DOD is now also focused on Joint All Domain Command and Control, or JADC2, which is, in part, an effort to connect together the sensors from all of the military services into one tactical network. JADC2 will play a big part in the MPE and SABRE.

"From a U.S. perspective, SABRE is really the linkage between our mission partners and our JADC2 environment," Brig. Gen. Robert Parker, the deputy director for command, control, communications, and computers with the J-6, said. "When we think of the JADC2 framework, it's not an either/or with MPE and SABRE, it's one."

Parker said adversary nations are moving quickly and are agile. Technology is changing quickly, as well; for the U.S. and its allies to remain competitive, they must also be agile and move more quickly.

"When we think of this, this isn't about just one ally, one partner, one specific environment," Parker said. "The future has to be a persistent, connected, mission-partner environment, enabled by SABRE, that really allows us the flexibility necessary to respond to the knowns and unknowns that the future joint warfighting environment will present to us."

On the ground in Suffolk, a pair of tents set up on a parking lot there mimicked -- to a small scale -- the kind of command and control element that might be present in any combined operation around the globe.

Inside the tents, laptops were set up that could connect to SABRE. Military officers from multiple U.S. ally and partner nations were there to conduct simulated operations using SABRE and to provide feedback on how using it was different from how they've worked in the past as part of a coalition.

Swedish Navy Col. Olle Mobergh, a liaison officer from the Swedish armed forces to the Joint Staff's J-6, was one of the officers who worked with SABRE and the MPE. He said in using the system he saw value in it immediately.

"[It] gives us the benefit of each nation being able to use their national systems," Mobergh said. "You don't have to buy a specific gadget to interconnect. It's all done virtually in a computer system. We can plug in the Swedish system, having the right data format, and the right way of compiling information, and we can then share our information to whatever level we are entitled to [and] to whoever is supposed to receive it."

Mobergh also pointed to an important feature of the MPE and SABRE -- "data-centricity" versus network-centricity.

"We should invest in the continuation of implementing this technology and also look into policies because that's where I think we need to do the most work ... writing our policies so that information is eligible to be shared on different levels," he said. "Because today, we write policies for specific systems for specific tasks -- and that's not the future."

On today's military networks, users are authenticated into a system. Their access and clearance is first verified, and then they are given access to an entire network in which to roam -- and on which they can, with few exceptions, view all the data housed there. This is a network-centric approach. To let a visitor from another nation view a series of files that are housed on such a network, that user would need to be cleared for access to the entire network -- and that can't always happen.

SABRE and the MPE aim to do away with that and instead implement a data-centric environment. In such a system, all users are cleared for access to the same network -- but the data stored there has been tagged with information pertaining to those with permission to access it. Many users may browse such a network, but they will only be able to see or modify information that has been tagged in a way that makes it available to them, based on their individual access level.

Army Lt. Col. Eric Tapp, the Centcom data centricity lead and joint test director, said implementing data-centricity for SABRE within DOD's enterprise-level MPE and Centcom's own Centcom partner environment will be a challenge for users.

Those users will need to think differently about how they tag data when they're planning to share it with partners through SABRE and the MPE.

"We're going to be asking a lot of our users in the future," Tapp said. "They've got to think differently about how they create information and how they share information. This is a true paradigm shift from what they're used to today ... There's a lot you need to be aware of, but there are not going to be that many additional steps for you to effectively share and greatly increase the speed at which you can share amongst your partners."

While the DOD is developing the enterprise-level MPE with SABRE as the material solution, Centcom has developed its own compatible CPE -- or Centcom partner environment. The CPE is expected to roll out in January.

The DOD has been working on the MPE and SABRE for about two years now, Fegert said, and it's just about ready to be released. It's expected to be fielded to the first combatant command sometime in late fiscal year 2022.

Fegert said recommendations for which combatant command would receive the MPE first have been made. Once it is fielded to that command, they'll begin rolling it out to other combatant commands, as well.

"What we intend on doing is, as we progress with command one, do kind of a rolling rollout to the rest of the combatant commands," he said. "It's not get one command all up and running and then go to the next one. It's [that we'll] get one going, take the lessons learned, then go to the next one, go to the next one, go to the next one."

Army Lt. Col. Matthew Hicks, the Centcom engineering innovation branch chief and the technical lead for the Centcom's CPE, said the data-centric capability of the MPE and Centcom's own CPE will be a benefit for service members and for the sharing of information between partner nations and between military services.

"For a sailor who's on a ship in the future, as we move towards this data centricity concept, they're going to be able to function on a single network," Hicks said. "As they deploy as part of Centcom operations into the Gulf, they will stay on that network and continue to operate on it as they transition into the Pacific in support of Indo-Pacom [Indo-Pacific Command] operations. They won't need to pull hard drives; they won't need to be able to change networks. Globally, they will be able to stay on a single U.S. mission-partner environment regardless of where they deploy to, where they practice, where they train, where they execute the mission."

Most critically, implementation of the MPE and SABRE will mean that decisions, which are critical to service members, will come more quickly [and] with less delay. And that can save lives.

"This will do two things with respect to any type of operation, but particularly combat operations," said Fegert. "It will shorten the time zone. And as we go against near-peer, high-end enemies, time, nanoseconds are going to be critical. And it will make it much easier for not just our sailors, soldier, airman, Marine and guardians, but our partners' sailors, soldiers, airmen, Marines and guardians to engage in a meaningful manner to deter, defend, and, if we have to, defeat so that the U.S. can retain its national sovereignty along with our partners. This is one of the things in 36 or 37 years, I'm actually proud to deliver -- this is a game changer."

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