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[infowar.de] BG 11.02.03 Private contractors a vital support link in the military's computer networks
February 11, 2003
Operation Help Desk
Private contractors a vital support link in the military's computer
By Ross Kerber, Globe Staff
LAUREL, Md. -- When cranky, flustered, and impatient computer users call
help desk, they often make it sound like a life-or-death situation. When
they call Steven Lee, that might really be the case: He's one of the
thousands of specialists who answers calls from soldiers in the field
hardware or software hiccups. On a recent day, Lee was taking a call
Air Force sergeant in Fort Dodge, Iowa, involved in a training event
Desert Pivot. The problem was potentially devastating. Computer screens
weren't identifying aircraft with the correct ''friend-or-foe'' code.
software, meant to monitor surveillance and combat operations, could
deployed in a US attack against Iraq.
''All right buddy, we'll be back to you in 30 minutes,'' said Lee, who
director of software engineering at Solipsys Corp., a defense contractor
that Raytheon Co. of Lexington has agreed to purchase.
>From the deserts of Kuwait to the air-defense bunkers of Wyoming,
soldiers rely on advanced computer networks to direct the vast firepower
available at their fingertips. And as every office worker knows, these
networks are only as powerful as their most sensitive link: the help
Standard PCs, servers, and storage devices are at the center of what the
Pentagon calls ''network-centric warfare,'' a broad vision of improving
communications to move tanks and ships faster, target missiles with more
precision, and keep better tabs on enemy forces. Progress in these areas
will do much to determine the outcome of any US military campaign
Iraq. In the Gulf War, balky microwave field links left Army tank
receiving orders via e-mail that was less reliable than a typical office
Military officials now are counting on a decade of technology upgrades.
Bush administration requested $28 billion in military
spending for fiscal 2004, up from $23 billion in fiscal 2002. Military
spending now accounts for about half of the federal IT budget. The
many new projects for private contractors such as the $7 billion
Corps Intranet, being created by Electronic Data Systems. Of the 1,199
employees on the project, 285 work on the help desk.
Perot Systems Government Services has about 1,500 employees helping the
and various spy agencies manage their hardware and software, including
100 people at a Navy facility in Dover, N.H. Ninety-four percent of
have security clearances, said the group's chief executive, Greg Bedner.
''When you call in, the guy at the other end of the phone will be able
some pretty heavy things for you,'' Bedner said.
In Bedford, Raytheon is setting up a round-the-clock support office for
units deployed with its Patriot air-defense missile system, just as it
during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. One of its overseers, Bill Smith,
commanded Patriot batteries in the Gulf War and said there were several
times when his troops needed instant answers to repair radar sets
against Scud missiles. ''I wanted all the help I could get, very fast,
get back on the air,'' Smith said.
Throughout the 1990s, the military relied more on private-sector
Officially, contractors such as Solipsys only advise the military units
support. Solipsys and other software companies typically charge
to 20 percent of the cost of their software licenses for an annual
maintenance contract, including help-desk support and product upgrades.
Solipsys won't say what it charges for the help-desk services but says
a profitable line of work. Many of its people are on call 24 hours a
Some contracts require that support engineers be reachable at any hour.
Solipsys's Lee spends 15 hours a week answering e-mails and often takes
late-night phone calls from soldiers operating command-and-control
or looking to install a new piece of software. Lee, 33, whose office
resonates with the singer Meat Loaf's ''Bat Out of Hell,'' wears the
garb of jeans and T-shirt. ''Sometimes we're just sanity checks --
will call us and ask if they're doing something OK,'' said Lee. ''Other
times you go `whoa,' maybe we should talk a little more before you do
Dynamics Research Corp. of Andover, another major contractor, sets up
supports networks like the one the Air Force uses to send video images
its unmanned Predator aircraft in Afghanistan. Though the stakes are
much of the work isn't so different from keeping an architectural firm
online. Tony Jacobs, another Solipsys software engineer, often helps
military personnel solve issues that can be as simple as Unix commands
garbled by text typed in upper-case when it should be lower-case. Some
the callers are running the nation's air defenses but Jacobs says they
sound panicked. ''Usually they're really good about not telling me why
need to call. That's a definite stress reducer right there,'' Jacobs
Phil Richards, a Dynamics Research engineer who recently returned from
days at an Air Force facility in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, said
had to make sure that the command center's young soldiers didn't load
unauthorized programs on their PCs that could complicate network
''Sometimes the young kids like to tweak things,'' Richards said. For
instance, a copy of the popular Norton antivirus program set to
automatically check for updates could slow an officer's PC.
Richards spent 20 years in the Air Force before jumping to Dynamics
in 2000. He says his private-sector pay is about 40 percent better, a
reason many service personnel leave for the private sector earlier in
careers. Richards, 42, stayed on later than most for challenges such as
chance to work on classified projects.
That's not to say help-desk specialists don't feel the pressure. ''When
entire business relies on the software, you want to make sure that it
work, but I guess nobody is going to die,'' said Jay Noble, a software
engineer at Analysis & Computer Systems Inc. in Burlington, recently
from helping install a helicopter communications system for the Turkish
Navy. ''Working with the military is somewhat intimidating.''
Contractors can also face danger. On Jan. 21 two employees of San
Diego-based Tapestry Solutions, which provides military mapping
were ambushed by gunmen in Kuwait. One was killed.
Solipsys, based in an office park halfway between Baltimore and
D.C., is best known for a command-and-control system it provides the US
known as the Tactical Component Network. It enables officers on
vessels and aircraft to observe the same radar display.
Raytheon's decision to acquire Solipsys means a big payoff for the
principals of Solipsys, who met when they were researchers at Johns
University's Applied Physics Laboratory. The company name is a
of Solutions for Information Processing Systems and also a play on the
solipsism, the philosophical theory that the self is the only reality.
early company slogan was ''It's all in our minds,'' but Eric Conn, chief
operating officer, said the company dropped the phrase because its
customers are extremely literal-minded. ''Not everybody got it,'' he
Another Solipsys software package is the Tactical Display Framework,
shows data gathered from various radar stations and creates images of
aircraft moving across entire continents. Customers include the North
American Aerospace Defense Command, which installed the system at
ground facilities shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11. Eventually the
system will be aboard the military's AWACS surveillance aircraft as
Different colors show whether a plane has been identified as a
''assumed friendly,'' or ''hostile.'' Like a video game, the settings
changed with a few mouse clicks. That was no surprise, since developers
one of their features, an on-screen timing icon, was inspired by the
medieval strategy game ''Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness.''
After getting the call last month from the Fort Dodge Air Force officer,
Solipsys's Lee began reviewing records from the Air National Guard's
Test Squadron in Iowa, which helped develop Solipsys's programs. Lee and
various officers eventually decided the problem lay with corrupted data
from an Air Force computer in Kirtland, N.M., that generates war-game
Bob Steffes, a sergeant at the Iowa unit, praised Lee's fast response,
especially compared to calls he makes to Gateway Inc. when his home PC
breaks down. Gateway's service is ''not as personalized,'' Steffes said.
''When I call there, I get a different person every time.''
HSFK Hessische Stiftung für Friedens- und Konfliktforschung
PRIF Peace Research Institute Frankfurt
Leimenrode 29 60322 Frankfurt a/M Germany
Tel +49 (0)69 9591 0422 Fax +49 (0)69 5584 81
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