Nerve center for the Iraq War, U.S. Central Command headquarters, at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, FL, is more wired than ever. Five classified networks link commanders, intelligence agencies, and coalition partners in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other sites across the Middle East and East Africa, the “central” region under CentCom’s jurisdiction. And the demand for ultra-secure bandwidth keeps surging.
Commanders fill CentCom’s main conference room for a classified video teleconference meeting with Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Special Operations officials in the field. (The left-hand screen shows Navy commanders in Manama, Bahrain.) Eager to see faces and body language of far-flung subordinates, U.S. generals are enthusiastic adopters of these video links. “We’ll put it anywhere in the world they want it,” says Maj. Damon Stern, who helps maintain the networks. “You’ll see systems like this out in the middle of nowhere.”
Raw information from the field arrives here, the Joint Information Operations Center. Workstations are manned by 46 “watch officers” responsible for everything from drone aircraft pictures to weather reports. (Dummy images were displayed during the photo session.) Journalists sometimes report things first, so CentCom monitors news programs, too. Internet connections and military satellites form the networks’ secure backbone, but much equipment and operating software is commercial, on the belief this ensures easier adoption.
Engineers monitor the health of classified networks from the Theater Communications Command Cell. With 250,000 U.S. service members in the Middle East theater—and because demand for data links keeps swelling—this facility is triple the size of the one it replaced last year.
A nimbler fight against an insurgency is possible when networks “multiply ways of moving information up and down the chain of command,” says Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Foley, the “CIO” of CentCom, who directs the network operations. But keeping those networks humming “is about people.”