Army pursues vision of common architecture

Smarter technology integration essential to maintaining battlefield superiority

Maj. Gen. Nickolas Justice is the commanding general of the Army Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM) at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., the Army’s technology development lead. RDECOM does its work at eight major laboratories and centers, and the team includes 17,000 soldiers, civilian employees and contractors, 11,000 of whom are engineers and scientists. Before his assignment to RDECOM, Justice was program executive officer at the Program Executive Office for Command, Control and Communications-Tactical at Fort Monmouth, N.J. He spoke recently with Defense Systems Editor-in-Chief Barry Rosenberg about the Army’s efforts to build a common architecture into which everything connects.

DS: As we speak, you are heading to the airport to visit a company working with you on RDECOM’s Victory Architecture for vehicle communications and situational awareness. Tell us about those efforts.

Justice: I am heading to San Antonio to talk to some engineers about one of their system-of-systems engineering efforts to help us create an architecture for integrating electronics in vehicles. This is an effort that we’ve been working internally for a while. We’ve got a proposed architecture that we are about to present to industry, and we will be setting up some workshops for industry to help critique the plan so that we can come up with the right standards for integrating vehicles.

DS: What are some of the specifics of the Victory Architecture?

Justice: We want to be smart about how we integrate communications and technologies into the vehicles. We want electronics that do diagnostics on the health of the vehicle. We want our communications systems and our sensors to all work off the same data bus. Here is something that we want to leverage, for example.

A vehicle will have several systems installed that need access to GPS data, and what ends us happening is that I have multiple GPS products on the vehicle. Instead, it would be better if GPS was inherent on the vehicle and was able to feed data to multiple demand systems, such as Blue Force Tracker. I’ve got a source for GPS integrated into the vehicle, and other people can share it so that we don’t end up paying for multiple devices. We don’t have to create multiple installation kits and all the associated cable, and we can take advantage of the data bus in the vehicle to attach any kind of electronic device.

I’ll give you another example which relates to the sensors for vehicle diagnostics that we want to include on the vehicles for condition-based maintenance. Instead of installing another transmitter for vehicle diagnostics, those sensors could take advantage of the communications systems that are going to be installed in the vehicle for command and control.

DS: That level of coordination sounds like it will present an organizational challenge as much as it is a technological challenge.

Justice: Yes. Some of the challenge has to do with the way we allocate funding and how we mature requirements. You just have to look at how the vehicle defines your interface, so once you’ve created those interface control documents and they’re well defined and understood by industry, then industry and government will be more efficient in development of new technologies and capabilities.

DS: You lead an organization that specializes in technology, but the success or failure of that technology is often the result of organizational challenges instead of technical ones, right?

Justice: Absolutely. This job is the place where some of the organizational challenges come to bear. So we have folks in all the program offices in support of the programs and products that they are developing to help us design these architectures and to start integrating these things across the system. It is really a systems engineering approach to dealing with new capabilities on the battlefield. You will save a lot of money and buy more capability because you’re not wasting it on duplicate infrastructure. We can sustain our equipment on the battlefield a lot longer and can field things to a lot more of the force quicker.

DS: Keeping technology on the battlefield for longer periods of time is all about modular plug-and-play systems that can be upgraded remotely with software. Are you seeing enough modularity in systems?

Justice: The biggest challenge is first of all identifying the need to do it. I say that because the way funding structures go in government, you don’t necessarily see the infrastructure upon which to modernize as part of the capability itself. So you have to find efficient ways of setting the conditions to modernize the force. When you look at the Army, the two leading things that Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey wants us to do is get the force back in balance and modernize. And setting the condition for modernization is making certain we maximize the resources we have.

DS: If you're trying to get the force back in balance, that means something is out of balance. What is that?

Justice: The out-of-balance aspect is the rotation period in which the soldiers are deploying. We need to give them more stability back home before we send them back overseas again. I can help in some aspects of force rotation, but my aspect is modernization of the force. That means developing the technologies we need for the future and then finding the best way to engineer them into our combat formation.

DS: Injecting new technologies into the Army has for a long time been an area that has challenged others prior to you. The Future Combat Systems program is a good example of how injecting new technologies in the Army is harder than people think it is. Is it better to go for the 80 percent solution and get it into the field faster? Is that the key?

Justice: I would phrase that a bit differently, but you’re on the right track. You always start with a baseline of the combat formation of where it is and then develop a road map to get you to your objective. And that means taking an incremental approach and putting things in place that enable the modernization. So, with the Victory Architecture, for example, I might not be able to tell you what great new technology we’re going to put in future combat vehicles. But if I can define for you how you will integrate it in that combat vehicle and how you will get a geospatial location of that combat vehicle and how you will communicate whatever that information is out and share it with other combat platforms in that formation, I’ve already solved most of your problem. All you have to do is help me with the new technology. So that is a strategy that allows you to innovate very quickly.

I can compare it to commercial industry. Electronics come out at an amazing pace in our world today. But all the manufacturers know that if they want to charge that battery up or they want to run on electricity, then they have got to work on 120 volts at 60 Hz, and the plug at the end of the device better look like the three-prong plug on your wall or you would have to spend money to rewire your house to accommodate a new device. That is the kind of savings you have by setting in place the infrastructure upon which you modernize.

DS: Can you provide an example within the Army?

Justice: We’re going to put infrastructure in place that will allow us to modernize very quickly the end-state. One of the things would be cellular technology instead of military-only satellite communications. Maybe I could take advantage of the iPhone or Android phones as communication devices. To accommodate those cellular devices, I could integrate a cellular structure into our backbone communications. With that, I could very quickly modernize a soldier’s handheld device that is geared to support rapid software development.

I may want to put those cellular modules into tactical communications equipment. I may want to create something within the Army that looks like the iPhone apps store or the Droid apps store so that I have an infrastructure to distribute software. Those kinds of capabilities are very enabling. We’ve done some of that during the past couple years, and I think we’re on the verge of taking advantage of some of the lessons learned during the wars. We’ve started to centralize how we distribute software using the network as opposed to actually going out and hand-installing it in on the devices.

DS: Handheld devices and 4G networks are two ways to hurdle the interim technologies to get to the end-state. What else gets you there faster?

Justice: Integrating that capability into the combat vehicles is probably the richest end-state for now, as well as also integrating them into the command post. A third one would be [the Global Network Enterprise Construct]. The Victory Architecture is a similar construct to GNEC in that it is the strategic network by which tactical applications integrate into that vehicle architecture. There is the opportunity to do that across vehicles or aircraft. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a family of vehicles that had different carrying capacities and different mobility capabilities but used a lot of common parts?

DS: You mean like electronic systems?

Justice: They could use that. But I’m talking about the armor kits. Wouldn’t it be nice to get to a force protection level on every vehicle using a common way of armoring so that you didn’t have to teach people to protect their vehicle? Wouldn’t it be nice for all the vehicles to have the same kind of engine diagnostics so that you could check the motor on a tank just the same as a motor on a pickup truck because they could be plugged into the same diagnostic system? Could I use the same pilot training to teach people the basic operations of an aircraft regardless of whether it was a 757, 767 or 777? They all had the same kind of controls, so I just had to train you the delta (that is, train for what is different than the norm). 

DS: Like common controller units for unmanned ground vehicles or unmanned aerial vehicles?

Justice: Exactly. Think of how that empowers industry and speeds up what they do. I can have a company with a new technology and which no longer has to figure out the whole end-to-end system. All they have to do is figure out how to plug that in, and that will be defined for them. Integrating with the system saves me cost. Can I integrate into the vehicle power generation so I don’t need to fuel a separate motor to create a generator because my vehicle provides power? Can I go to an electrical hybrid motor that stores energy and then take advantage of that stored energy to power a command post? There are so many opportunities for us to exercise good system-of-systems engineering principles. There are boundless opportunities for what we can do to improve our capabilities, downsize the footprint we have to take into combat and create an effective solution for our warfighters.

DS: We have talked about integrating these things to platforms. What about integrating these things to soldiers themselves — the batteries they have to carry, the sensors that are on their body? Is that another aspect of what you do?

Justice: Yes, I consider the soldier a platform. I’ve got vehicles where we integrate things, and we integrate things with the soldier himself. And then we integrate things across the greater strategic structure, like GNEC. There are multiple tiers where you have the limitless opportunity to do things more effectively. What you want to do is free the soldier from the burden of having to maintain and keep that equipment operational so he is free to do his job on the field.

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