Signal regiment moves to COTS to improve efficiency
Commercial off-the-shelf approach will reduce manpower and improve training
Maj. Gen. Alan Lynn is the commanding general of the Army Signal Center of Excellence, and Fort Gordon, Ga., assignments he has held since mid-2010. Before becoming the Army’s chief of signal, he was commanding general of the 311th Theater Signal Command, Fort Shafter, Hawaii, and chief of staff for the Defense Information Systems Agency.
He spoke with Defense Systems Editor-in-Chief Barry Rosenberg about taking advantage of commercial off-the-shelf systems to reduce the number of soldiers necessary to operate network and communications systems, and to employ smart devices for training and operating those systems.
DS: How does “signal” fit into “cyber” and vice versa?
Lynn: First of all, cyber is the term that the Defense Department really hasn’t officially defined yet. So to stay within a definable border, let’s look at the difference between cyberspace operations” and signal operations, and then the definition of cyberspace. Under the current DOD terminology, cyberspace operations include operations conducted in and through cyberspace. Therefore, both signal operations, what are better known as network operations, as well as network warfare operations are included in that definition. The Signal Regiment not only conducts cyberspace operations, but also enables others to do the same.
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So cyberspace includes phrases such as technology infrastructures, telecommunication networks, computer systems, embedded processes and controllers. So in the Army these terms belong to the Signal Regiment. We plan, engineer, install, integrate, operate, maintain and defend the Army’s portion of this newly recognized global domain known as cyberspace.
DS: You’re reprioritzing the mission of Signal Command to focus on the Expeditionary Signal Battalion Enhanced (ESB-E) and the concept of what you call micro-cyber. Before we get to those, take me back to your a-ha moments that led to the point.
Lynn: The first a-ha moment for me was actually back in OIF 2 when I was a brigade commander and I was trying to provide communications support down to the lowest possible level, and I ran out of green boxes to do that and had to use commercial system. So that was my first a-ha moment.
Before assuming the position of the Chief of Signal, I also made an assessment of the signal organizational structure and equipment capability today and compared that to the operational adaptability required for armed forces to be capable of conducting full spectrum operations against conventional and unconventional threats for two principal responsibilities, which are combined arms maneuver and wide area security under the new Army operating concepts.
So wide area security is what we do in Afghanistan and Iraq today. So we’re not jumping and moving in those particular quarters. What I discovered was that the Signal Corps is currently designed to support a small segment of our Army down to the battalion level. In essence, we’re currently structured for the type of combat scene during Desert Storm. However, this means that we’re only able to meet about 34 percent of the Army’s requirements in the way we fight today. And that’s in one ARFORGEN [Army Force Generation] cycle.
So what we’ve learned over the past decade of war is that every level of our Army needs voice, data, and video capabilities. The Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth developed this Mission Command Essential Capabilities [MCEC] list. That’s also down to the company level and sometimes below.
So this presents an interesting problem. How do we provide more support without increasing the number of signal soldiers? In essence, the ends, or operational capabilities, have increased, while the means, or the resources available, have decreased. So we have to change the way we use it today.
DS: That’s a pretty big gap?
Lynn: Yes, it’s a huge gap. So what we did as part of the normal course of action here at the Signal Center is to go through what’s called a functional area assessment (FAA), where we take a look at our tactical forces from top to bottom, look at the challenges that are facing the regiment in supporting Army full spectrum operations, and for us that was the 2014 to 2018 time frame.
The analysis showed that the Signal Regiment had several operational gaps. Most importantly, it showed today’s organizational structures cannot provide that full ARFORGEN coverage for units that don’t already have organic signal elements in them.
DS: Just because they don’t exist; they just haven’t been given that capability?
Lynn: That’s right because remember we were still at the Desert Storm structure level at battalion-level support, so anything below that is not provided. Here’s what’s not supported: the theater level commands, the functional brigades, and battalions and maneuver companies.
Second, the modular force does not position senior signal leaders in such a way to ensure adequate training in leader development and embedded signal forces. And third, the Signal Regiment is unable to rapidly field evolving technologies into the force to provide MCEC to the warfighters at echelons because of the antiquated industrial-age acquisition cycle.
DS: So is the introduction of systems like Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) and Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) designed to fill that gap at the lower echelons? Are those the enabling technologies that allow you to make that transformation?
Lynn: That provides some of the capabilities, but there are more capabilities that are required. Let me define the problem a little bit better so I can better answer your question. Some of the requirements that were required for this new modernization strategy is to provide greater beyond line-of-site connectivity, provide mission command on the move and integrate soldiers into the network.
So we’ve got WIN-T and JTRS programs. These are programs of records They provide the mission-command-on-the-move capability and some integration of soldier in the network, but they don’t provide a unifying capability to fully network the force in support of the Army operational concept vision. They don’t connect all the way down to the company level. That’s probably the main issue, and they don’t provide the mission-essential capabilities to the earlier battalions that were not connected previously.
So the FAA focused on transforming the Expeditionary Signal Battalions to more modular organizations, something more like JCSE, the Joint Communications Support Element.
With JCSE you look at the same types of equipment that we’re using today, and see if there are some commercial systems available off the shelf that provide more capability and a smaller footprint. So as part of the FAA, the decision was to implement a forced design update and fund the implementation of the Army Network Modernization Strategies without creating any additional funding requirements for the Army.
DS: For example?
Lynn: We’re changing the types of pieces that we’re using. For example, a satellite system such as JNN [Joint Network Node] provides 4 MB of capability. That’s about a 9,000-pound system that’s hauled around by a truck, and between that and a line-of-sight system it takes nine people to operate it.
So if I take a smaller line-of-sight system and a smaller satellite system it could be operated by four people and have the same capability or better, and lighter weight. So you’ve gone from a 9,000-pound piece of kit for the satellite, for example, and you’ve gone down to a 36-pound piece of kit that provides the 4 Mbs capability that the JNN does. You can put it in your backpack. These systems are available right now today. There’s no development required.
So we’re transforming that Expeditionary Signal Battalion, and what we’re doing is calling it the Expeditionary Signal Battalion Enhanced, or the ESB-E. So it consists of smaller, lighter, more transportable, modular and scalable networks, as well, and provides those support packages. They’re mostly commercial technologies that are available today.
These support packages are what we’re calling the micro-cyber packages, and they are the future of the Signal Regiment. Micro-cyber will provide Mission Command Essential Capabilities across all echelons.
DS: And this is specifically for Satcom?
Lynn: It’s line of site, it’s tropospheric scatter; it is satellite obviously, and it’s some of the radio equipments, as well. We’re going to use the 86th Expeditionary Signal Battalion as our proof of concept for micro-cyber systems. The 86th has two companies that will field these new support packages, and they’re going to be part of the Network Integration Evaluation at Fort Bliss.
They’re going to provide the realistic communications support under the NIE concepts. And if they use these new systems it’ll be the perfect opportunity for a proof of concept. So the 11th Signal Brigade will be the senior signal commander to provide the training readiness and oversight support to all the brigade modernization command signal units. So this will give the full concept validation for the FAA and micro-cyber operational concept.
There’s couple other things that I want to pull out of micro-cyber so that you’re aware of it. For example, we’re taking back some of the systems that we weren’t able to provide for the Army, for example, the Trojan Spirit network [to handle top secret communications]. We couldn’t provide them the capability for the military intelligence folks.
So with the micro-cyber we’ll be able to fully support an operational network with TS/SCI [top secret/sensitive compartmented intelligence] coalition network, command and control VTC [video teleconferencing] with full motion video, and also a deployable network operations planning and engineering in support of not only just Army but joint interagency, intergovernmental, and multinational and homeland defense civil support missions.
DS: So this is a more long-term capability?
Lynn: Roger. It’s looking at the full spectrum.
DS: What’s the timeframe for some of those capabilities?
Lynn: This is going to be completed by 2014.
DS: What do you think will be the hard part in making this transition to micro-cyber work?
Lynn: Probably the most difficult thing really is in the schoolhouse piece. Over the next three to five years we’re going to be changing the type of training that we’re doing. In the past with this industrial model we bring a soldier in and we train him to do one thing. They’re taught to do this one system, and we’re completely changing that to develop a multidiscipline enlisted soldier.
For example, we’ve got a line-of-site system, we’ve got tropospheric scatter and we’ve got a satellite system. Instead of training a soldier to do each one of those, we’re going to be educating him in the theory of how those systems operate. So as these systems begin to change more rapidly, that soldier will be able to adapt with those changes. So instead of having three military occupation specialties, we will have just one MOS — a transmission MOS — that will take care of all of those.
Also as part of that we’ve developed a group that is developing apps here at the Signal Center. They’re developing apps for Androids and for iPhones, but they will also be developing the training packages on iPhones and on handheld devices so that soldiers can utilize those devices as part of the training that they’re comfortable with right now. These are all digital natives. They want to use those type of devices to learn on.
If you can look at the systems and put them into operation on a step-by-step manual in your iPhone that actually looks and feels like the system that you’re going to be putting into operation, then the training piece will be much easier when they actually get their hands on the equipment.
And as we look at the future perhaps those same apps that they use to train on could be the actual apps to put the system into operation. So you can imagine it as a training device and also as a GUI [graphic user interface] for the future operations on each of the systems. That makes it simpler for the soldier, and not harder.