Wireless supply line

The Army is upgrading a wireless system designed to connect theater logisticians directly to their electronic ordering systems, which has been a Defense Department goal since Operation Desert Storm. The wireless system will replace the so-called sneakernet method of soldiers conveying requisition orders through hand-carried computer disks.

The Army’s Enterprise Information Systems Program Executive Office awarded a $43.5 million contract April 8 to Ashburn, Va.-based Telos to manufacture as many as 13,000 second-generation Combat Service Support Automated Information System Interface (CAISI) units. The Army has manufactured more than 8,900 units since 2002, deploying them in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Although the service is still testing its new Telos equipment, it expects that the second-generation devices will generate a Wi-Fi signal of seven miles. A CAISI unit in that Wi-Fi bubble will link to a satellite terminal that can be as far as 32 miles away, with the data throughput averaging more than 15 megabits/sec.

Improvements to the system also include automatic mesh networking between units in the Wi-Fi bubble, said Tom Badders, Telos director of wireless networking.

“It is still a point-to-point system,” he said. Because of the mesh network, units outside line of sight can still communicate with one another. The network is also self-healing, Badders said. “If one node has to be moved away from the environment, the other nodes will self-heal and connect to the closest node to get to the back haul location.”

The system’s wireless signals are encrypted, and that’s one reason why the Army probably decided to stay with Wi-Fi technology rather than ask for a WiMax system, Badders said. WiMax, officially known as IEEE 802.16, is a standard for microwave-based wireless signals that can create a high-speed bubble as large as 30 miles.

“It’s going to be a while before WiMax-compatible devices are certified” for security via a Defense Department-required National Institute of Standards and Technology process, he said. “It’s a little early for DOD to be adopting that right now.”

Each Telos device weighs about 50 pounds, Badders said. Getting logisticians who are in the field electronically hooked up has been a goal of military planners since the need became apparent during Operation Desert Storm. The first attempt, named the Near-Term Fix system, relied on Sun Microsystems workstations and used e-mail messages to forward requisition requests. However, despite the Near-Term Fix’s clunkiness, however, logisticians continued to push to deploy such systems.

As recently as the late 1990s, logisticians complained that field connectivity difficulties forced soldiers to carry computer disks with requisition orders back to garrison in weatherproof containers, usually Ziploc bags.

Logistician connectivity to the field is important, because a backlash builds up when requests for materiel are slow to be satisfied. Frustrated users clog the system with multiple orders, thinking their first request got lost.

Forward-deployed logisticians come under intense pressure to fulfill orders, and that leads to multiple requests, said Herman Washington, a Third Army chief warrant officer. Improvements in speed have increased confidence in the supply chain, he added. At first, it took the Army about 30 days to get repair parts to Iraq. Now, it takes 17 days on average, he added.

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