Army's backbone on the move goes for its IOT&E at NIE 12.2

WIN-T Increment 2 gets full workout with 60 communications-on-the-move vehicles, and lots of lessons learned

A cornerstone to the Army’s recent Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) 12.2 involved the incorporation of the Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOTE) for the Warfighter Information Network – Tactical (WIN-T) Increment 2 (Inc 2) system.

WIN-T Inc 2 provides the Army with “that backbone network that enables the connection of command posts and key commanders and staff when they are tactically deployed,” said Jim Price, vice president of tactical networks for General Dynamics C4 Systems, the Army’s WIN-T prime contractor.

“It’s analogous to [cell phone providers] except that it’s now housed in military vehicles. I can move it from one continent to another and I can move it across the ground, because I can’t rely on the commercial infrastructure being there.”

Designed to fill a critical communications gap identified during the 2003 march on Baghdad/Operation Iraqi Freedom, WIN-T Increment 1 (known as the Joint Network Node) was first fielded in 2004 and has been deployed in combat operations since 2005. While an effective means to provide satellite communications, JNN operated only while units were at the halt, and it took 30+ minutes to set up the antenna.

“Increment 2, for the first time, really provides that on-the-move capability,” Price explained. “Now, when I say ‘first time’…obviously there has been comms on the move using push-to-talk radios and other kinds of radios for a long time. But that high-speed backbone network that ties the command posts together has not been an ‘on-the-move thing.’ But it will in Inc 2. It will allow those command posts and key commanders to continue to operate as they are moving.”

Asked about specific key technology enablers underpinning the Inc 2 capabilities, Price replied cautiously.

“I’m not sure I would argue it as technology enablers per se, other than some of the process computing power getting small enough that we can put it on vehicles (and) create mechanically steered satellite antennas to track satellites while on the move, and build radios and antennas for the line of sight system that can switch and find the distant ends and those kinds of things. Satellite comms and line-of-sight comms have been around for a long time. But we have put computing underneath that to allow it to operate on the move.”

The Inc 2 design features both satellite and integrated line-of-sight backbone, with the greatest capacity derived from line of sight. Line of sight is always first choice because of capacity and lower cost, but when that is lost due to terrain the system automatically switches comms to satellite mode.

Regarding Inc 2 equipment on order, General Dynamics C4 Systems currently has orders for one division headquarters set and eight brigade sets of equipment, with the division headquarters set already delivered to the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) at Ft. Campbell, Ky., and one brigade set already delivered to 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division (2/1 AD) at Ft. Bliss, Texas, according to Price, and based on a March 2010 WIN-T Inc 2 Milestone C/low rate initial production decision. The soldiers of 2/1 AD are tasked with evaluating network systems during the NIE 12.2, and the 101st provided the higher command functions/capabilities to 2/1 AD during the evaluation.

Following completion of the WIN-T Inc 2 IOTE phase in late May, the Army test community will enter into a data reduction and analysis process, leading to a formal system report, according to Price.

“Right now a full rate production and fielding decision is scheduled for late-September,” he said. “And at that point we anticipate getting the go-ahead to begin fielding the remaining seven brigades that we already have on order, and the Army being permitted to obligate their FY’12 funds for another order that we will then start fielding at a rate of somewhere between 10 and 15 a year for the next four or five years.”

Right-sized Pipes?

With Inc 2 providing the communications backbone with on-the-move capabilities, extending that backbone down to warfighters on a fluid battlefield involves the use of newly integrated vehicle designs, like the Point of Presence (POP) and Soldier Network Extension (SNE) platforms, which provide commanders with on-the-move communications and digital-data capabilities.

According to COL Dan Pinnell, commander of the Army’s 2/1 AD, the primary differences between the POPs and SNEs relate to tactical bandwidth, with the SNEs, normally assigned at company command levels and below, possessing far less bandwidth capabilities (Satcom-based 64-128 kbps throughput gateway to the WIN-T wide area network) than the POPs.

Some of the early observations and experiences from the NIE 12.2 field evaluations might result in adjustments to the Army’s comms-on-the-move architecture, in terms of both capabilities and fielding plans.

Talking recently to Defense Systems during a tactical pause of 2/1 AD during NIE 12.2, Pinnell noted that the original communications architecture reflected a vision of a consistent battlefield, where units fighting at the combat edge would require less bandwidth than their higher headquarters.

“The POPs have size, weight and power that are appropriate to the MRAPs, and are worth any bill that I would pay on that vehicle to use it,” he said. “The SNE vehicles are at the troop and company levels--satellite communications only--and the pipe is much smaller. We saw a lot more friction. They had a lot harder time getting anything on the move. They had a lot harder time using some of the big bandwidth demanding programs, like CPOF (Command Post of the Future), at the halt. We’ve shared that with the development teams and would like to go back and look at that.”

Pinnell explained why that needs to be fixed. “Well, in the offense I can get away with smaller bandwidth at the cutting edge and a lot more bandwidth at the higher levels. But the minute I go into a humanitarian assistance mission or I go into a stability tactical mission that flips on its head and all of the data demand is really down at the company and troop level.”

The brigade commander offered an example. “When you conduct census operations to gain an understanding and gain control of a population you take 3 megabit pictures, you fill out forms and you generate a 5-8 Megabit folder on every one of these individuals that you are collecting. So if you are in a village of 400 and you’ve now got to push that through a 128 kilobit per second satellite pipe, you’re practically going to be there for the rest of your life.

“Again, on the move, in offensive operations and maybe defensive operations, [the company / troop commander] is not pushing a lot of pictures; he doesn’t need to see a lot of stuff,” Pinnell reiterated. “But have we built in the flexibility required? If the Army is telling me that I’ve got to be ready for a hybrid fight – which means I’m in multiple paths fairly quickly—[then] I’m transitioning very quickly between things that have high data demand at the low end to things that have lower data demand. We’re going to have to have a very flexible vehicle with a flexible capability all the way down.”

Not Just Commanders

Another emerging set of lessons involves the battlefield delivery location for some of the new on-the-move capabilities.

At the company level, for example, CPT Josh Horner, commander of Pinnell’s Alpha Company, 1-35 Armor, explained that his primary communications tools moving toward an objective in his SNE included some form of Blue Force Tracking (BFT), the Tactical Ground Reporting System (TIGR) and voice over IP phone integrated into his SNE.

While acknowledging the tactical significance of the broad spectrum of additional battlefield tools, Horner said that one of his early suggestions to data collectors had involved the possibility of taking some of the systems out of his SNE.

“It’s mission command on the move, so when people hear that they want to give it to commanders,” he said. “But there are so many different systems in there that I think it would have been more applicable to put [some of them] in my executive officer’s vehicle. All of my key CP (command post) personnel ride with him in his vehicle, and the way it stands at this point they are riding up to the objective just twiddling their thumbs. The only SA (situational awareness) they had at that point was BFT, battalion net and company net.”

He also noted: “On both battalion deliberate attacks my XO didn’t dismount.” “He sat and ‘battle tracked’ from his Caiman [MRAP] vehicle, but there was nothing in it. It doesn’t matter what the platform is, it’s just that I thought, for the system, that it would have been more beneficial there.”

Pinnell echoed some similar observations from his brigade perspective.

“This is the fourth time in a row that we as a team between the two brigades – 5/1 and 2/1 [before the NIEs, 5th Brigade, 1st Armored Division conducted early network experimentation under the Enhanced Infantry Brigade Combat Team  effort] – have said that we really need a command and control vehicle at minimum brigade and battalion level.

Pinnell described such a C2 vehicle being defined as “the place that I am going to put those supporting staff members who are available to help analyze, translate, and provide dense pointed information to a leader forward.

“For example, the challenge when I’m moving in my truck [POP] is that I have one screen in front of me,” he explained. “And when I’m moving I can’t be heads down on that screen. I’ve got to be trying not to die, trying to see what is happening and trying to guide operations. That single screen in front of me is good at the halt. It’s good for planning. It’s good for relatively static operations.

“Once I’m moving I’m referring to it but I’m just taking quick glances up and down. I’m not in there messing around with all the other capabilities. We need to empower our fire support officers, air officers, and our S2s (intelligence and security) to stay connected and to continue to be able to analyze and provide useful information analysis to the leaders.”

“Right now, when I take off, if I’m doing an 80 kilometer attack, I’ve got two choices: I can either leave [the static brigade tactical operations center] in place, so that they can stay connected, or disconnect everything, put them in the back of a truck and bump them for eight hours. It goes from being a staff with a big support operation to nobody behind me, just me and the box and the other commanders talking to boxes. We’ve got to be able to do better than that. I need to be able to maintain connectivity on the move, and I need to be able to keep the staff engaged and effective on the move and at the quick halt.”

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