Army puts new battlefield network strategy in place

Lessons learned from past programs will benefit units slated for reset

Building a fully network-centric force has proved to be a moving target for the Army. Programs such as the Future Combat Systems and its successor, the Early Infantry Brigade Combat Team, sought to weave units together into a single communications and data architecture that extended across all echelons, from commanding generals to noncommissioned soldiers at the tip of the spear.

The very scope and challenge of the initiative led to program changes, modifications, cost overruns and cancellations over the years. But the core networking components survived and evolved through this process. Army officials contend that this infrastructure, built through successive research and development cycles, is now poised to serve as the base on which the service will rest its new acquisition policies for testing and integrating new technologies into the service’s battlefield networks.

The goal of the Army’s new network acquisition strategy is to support the service’s tactical network development, Paul Mehney, public communications director for PEO Integration, told Defense Systems. Mehney’s office supported the EIBCT program which is now being phased out. PEO Integration is now shifting its efforts to back the Army Evaluation Task Force being established at Fort Bliss, Texas. He said the program office is now in charge of integrated testing and evaluation of field sets of equipment and software for troops. The key role of PEO Integration is to ensure that systems are tested and evaluated as a part of the overall force generation process.

As the service’s integration efforts shift from EIBCT to the AETF, policy is also being rewritten to accommodate this change. Mehney notes that there is a pending acquisitions memorandum from the Office of the Secretary of Defense that will help define the policy.

Although the Army’s FCS and EIBCT efforts can be viewed as less than successful, Mehney contends that the service learned three important things from the programs. The first is that the EIBCT laid down the infrastructure that will allow the Army to expand its tactical networks in a more interactive and intuitive manner.

The second lesson was that the EIBCT effort gleaned information from warfighters about what they really need from networked operations and capabilities. In numerous exercises, soldiers and commanders stressed the need for more connectivity. Mehney noted that based on field tests, the most useful network applications for warfighters were chat, whiteboarding and file transfer. Imagery, while useful at lower echelons, lost its importance as it moved up the command chain, because it was either old information by the time brigade and battalion commanders viewed it, or it was not needed because those echelons had their own imagery resources.  These revelations changed the way the Army thought about tactical networks, Mehney said. The emphasis now is to build connectivity and increase overall system capacity for all users.

The third lesson learned from EIBCT was that the program spurred innovation and provided opportunities for government and industry to support large- and small-scale networking research and development efforts. Mehney noted that the effort laid the groundwork, through software standards, waveforms and other requirements, that now provides industry with a template to model new technology against before they pass it on to the Army for further development. This added investment will also serve to attract additional private-sector firms interested in participating, he said.

On the acquisition front, Mehney noted that with the elimination of EIBCT, the Army is now aligning programs of record to technology development and integration cycles to redefine how it fields equipment. The outcome of this alignment is that is allows systems to be integrated and at readiness prior to deployment. Traditionally, many systems were fully integrated in theater because there was no common operating environment, waveforms, or support from an overarching network strategy, he said. The new approach changes this by institutionalizing the integration process at home.

The EIBCT’s replacement is the AETF, which is the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Armored Division. The AETF will deploy as a brigade-sized unit to test and support the integration of new capabilities under the Army’s Force Generation program. Mehney said that the ARFORGEN program is designed to re-equip and train units returning from deployment in two-year cycles. At the end of the cycle, fully replenished forces are ready for deployment kitted out with the latest technologies.

Mehney noted that the first integrated set of equipment will be fitted to Army units in 2013 and 2014. However, these units will not be fully up to the network reset standards envisioned under the new network strategy, he said. But units reset in the 2015 and 2016 cycle will be the first fully integrated set within the task force and acquisition cycle linked to service deployment cycles and the ARFORGEN process.

The new ARFORGEN and network growth efforts are built around three key elements:

  • A communications backbone running nonproprietary waveforms such as the Joint Tactical Radio System wideband networking waveform and the Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System.
  • A common operating environment.
  • The launch of a nonproprietary competitive business approach. Evaluations and test will be used as part of the acquisition process to help industry.

On industrial support, Mehney said that the Army will examine capability gaps and contact industry for the technology to fill those voids. These newly selected systems and software will be tested at Fort Bliss. Future force integration will be one part of the new Network Integration Center being established at Fort Bliss. The center’s mission is to work out doctrine and refine use and capability areas for new technologies as they are integrated into the Army’s networks.

In the coming months the Army plans to solicit industry, Army and government laboratories, universities, and large and small firms to locate potential off-the-shelf technologies that can be plugged into the service’s networks. Mehney said that the goal is to make acquisition decisions for technologies that can be tested and evaluated in the 2015-2016 refit cycle.

But while the Army is looking at technological readiness, integration readiness is just as important, Mehney contended. A key requirement for new software and systems will be their ability to integrate into the brigade-based networks and systems envisioned under the ARFORGEN process.

PEO Integration works at the brigade level and is involved in a variety of activities supporting ARFORGEN. Mehney said that the Army evaluation task force will test new equipment beginning in April and May. These initial tests will lead to an integrated network baseline exercise in June and July. He explained that the AETF will conduct a brigade-sized limited user test of network components such as the Joint Network Node and network integration kits held at the White Sands Missile Range, N.M.

These tests also represent the beginning of a testing and development process that will be set in place to support the two-year Army Force generation cycles and the next technology capability set, which is scheduled for integration in 2013-2014. Mehney said that other related technology tests will also be underway during this period. One of them will be a brigade level test this fall that will focus on company command post capabilities.

The efforts scheduled for this year have to goal of integrating technologies and networks together by the end of the year. This will finalize what will be included into the Army’s capability sets with network integration tests being the final event in each cycle. Mehney added that these tests will be formalized into a two-year cycle. He explained that this process will become standard practice while industry brings forward new technologies to look at new and effective tools.

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