US Navy floats IM with allies

"Can you send me 200 pounds of potatoes?"

As recently as a few months ago, that request would have been a complicated process on a Navy ship. Now, however, a requisitions clerk can send his request via instant messaging (IM). He can even send it to his allies during a war.

In the war on terrorism, IM has become a tactical weapon for the U.S. Navy and its allies. Supply clerks are chatting directly with other clerks, doctors with other doctors and lawyers with ships. And commanders are sharing battle plans in real-time meetings.

In the past six months, Canada, the U.K., Australia and Germany have installed Sametime software and servers on their ships and in ports that serve as network hubs. They chose the IM product from IBM Corp. subsidiary Lotus Software Group because two years ago, the U.S. Navy began a limited deployment of the application, said Richard Williamson, a Navy spokesman for the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command.

The Navy widened its Sametime deployment after Sept. 11, because there were enough personnel with expertise on that system to move it out quickly to the rest of the fleet, "rather than give the guys something they've never seen before and send them in harm's way," Williamson said. "We have more experience with Sametime. We were using Sametime in the Pacific Fleet." He added that if the entire Navy decides to adopt IM, there will be a multivendor competition.

The project, called Collaboration at Sea, has been rolled out to all U.S. carrier groups and all U.S. amphibious-ready groups.

Before the use of IM, sailors had to pass information up through the chain of command to the captain or another high-ranking official, who then passed that information to another high-ranking official and back down the chain.

Communication between allies was even worse.

"Let's say Country A's ship is sitting there, and Country B's ship is sitting there in sight. I could not send a message directly. It had to move circuitously," Williamson said. Information would have to be relayed through embassies, he said.

The use of IM has streamlined planning significantly, Williamson said, which was expected. But it has also completely changed the way sailors talk to one another and plan projects -- it has moved collaboration down the ranks.

"Some people have termed it a paradigm shift in the way we conduct operations," said Lt. Cmdr. Perry Dombowsky of the Royal Canadian Navy. Communities of practice have sprung up where before sailors operated in isolation while at sea.

The reason for the convoluted process was security and interoperability, or rather, the lack of it between disparate systems, Williamson said.

Now, since they are using the same software, ships can communicate through one hop to a server in a port with a network hub, he explained.

Information is transferred over a 64K bit/sec. connection on the International Maritime Satellite network, formerly run by the U.S. government but now managed by an international consortium.

From ship to ship and ship to shore, the data is routed through servers located at naval stations in key ports. For the U.S., the hub ports are located in Norfolk, Va.; Wahiawa, Hawaii; Naples, Italy; and on the island of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. For Canada, hub ports are Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Esquimalt, British Columbia.

There are two networks. One is classified and meets National Security Agency guidelines. Strategic information, which could be anything from legal advice on boarding a foreign vessel to position planning, moves on that network. Less sensitive information, such as doctors sharing treatment information and sailors communicating with family back home, moves over the unclassified network.

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