Army puts FCS network through paces in demo
C4ISR On the Move testbed shows Future Combat Systems prototypes in action
- By David F. Carr
- Nov 17, 2008
The future of the Army’s battle command- and-control systems came to life this summer at Fort Dix, N.J., during the Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) On-the- Move Product Management Office testbed project there. In July, a convoy of modified Humvees loaded with racks of network equipment and experimental antennas rolled out for maneuvers in Vietnam Village, an area of the base’s training range.
The concept of C4ISR encompasses all the means for using electronic communications to gather and analyze information, command and control military units, and coordinate activities. The onthe- move generation of C4ISR technologies that the Army and Defense Department are working toward will expand the use of sophisticated computing and digital communications in the field and make them more available to warfighters as they move. They currently must stop to set up equipment and antennas.
The exercise used a mix of current and next-generation computing and communications equipment to test interoperability.
Compatibility will be important when the first Future Combat Systems (FCS) mobile wireless technologies and related battle command systems reach the field, They need to coexist, at least at first, with earlier generations of equipment.
The Humvees had a domed antenna for satellite communications and a cylindrical one to support the Army’s Warfighter Information Network–Tactical (WIN-T) program, a line-of-sight wireless communications system designed to support voice and data. Specifically, the exercise featured a test version of WIN-T Increment 2. Although the Army has already fielded a preliminary Increment 1 version of the technology for some operations, Increment 2 comes closer to supporting mobile networks that can automatically reconfigure themselves to support other available WIN-T antennas, even for a convoy in motion. Via the satellite link, the communications vehicles would be able to route voice and data signals among soldiers on the ground and vehicles in the area.
The C4ISR On-the-Move project was the first large-scale test of the FCS network to incorporate all tiers of communication from satellite to vehicles and equipment carried by soldiers, said Randy Zimmerman, a former Defense Logistics Agency officer who consults with the Army on these systems. Although there were glitches, the network performed well, he said.
The Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) in the Army’s Research Development and Engineering Command organized the testing exercise.
Although it was organized as if it were a continuing systems development effort led by Lt. Col. William Utroska, C4ISR On-the-Move product manager, its focus was on system-ofsystems issues rather than any one system.
“If you ask me what my products are as a product manager, the answer is I don’t build a thing,” Utroska said to a group of Army and DOD officials at an event planning session in late July. “What I do is provide a body of knowledge. I don’t have a requirements document. What I do is work off the Army Science and Technology Master Plan.” As the Army refines its plans for the suite of technologies it wants to deploy to maintain information superiority in the field, Utroska tries to assemble a representative assortment of prototype technologies.
In cases where a prototype is not available, he modifies current technology to provide an approximation of the desired capability or uses computer simulation.
The contractors and Army product and project managers who participate get immediate feedback on how their technologies operate and interoperate during simulated field conditions designed to be relevant to their mission, Utroska said.
One of his primary goals is to reduce the risk associated with new system development by identifying problems early.
CERDEC has been conducting annual On-the-Move test events since 2001, but since the effort was formally chartered in 2006, the center has also been conducting related activities year round.
Planning and preliminary testing for this year’s event began in April, but by the time Defense Systems visited Fort Dix at the end of July, operations reached a more intensive pace. They ran from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. to test how the equipment worked and how well soldiers would be able to operate it in the dark and when they were tired.
A presentation day followed the final week of testing. A formal report, including a detailed analysis of all the data gathered during network testing, will follow in November.
Many of the systems evaluated are still several years away from being ready for use in the field. Much of it is prototype gear that is half as rugged and twice as heavy as it is supposed to be in its final incarnation.
However, making products that meet military standards for withstanding vibration, shock and temperature extremes is expensive, and the Army to needs to evaluate whether these systems work well enough to be worth that effort, Zimmerman said. “Part of what we’re after is determining whether the concept itself makes sense.” The exercise showed that the FCS network could perform well when the conditions were right, although it is also important to analyze the conditions when it struggled, Zimmerman said.
Data collection and analysis are among the most important aspects of the tests, Utroska said, and his team has developed new techniques for analyzing ad hoc wireless networks that are more complex and harder to monitor than the static networks of the past.
The On-the-Move team also emphasizes designing a test architecture that will stretch the capabilities of every system it tests, he said.
“For example, we had one piece of equipment that in the lab provided the correct throughput that it was supposed to, but when we brought it out here, it was nowhere near that,” Utroska said. In resolving the issue, the vendor “was able to come up with a software bug that they never would have found through their analysis in the lab.” Too often, the difficult challenges of system-of-systems engineering — where what matters is not the performance of any individual system but how many systems fit together — have been addressed with Microsoft PowerPoint presentations rather than rigorous testing, he said.
“You’ve heard of ‘build a little, test a little,’” he said, citing a maxim for incremental system development. “Here, it’s ‘build a little, stress a little, test a little.’ ”
HUNTING FOR GUNS
The scenario for the C4ISR On-the- Move Product Management Office testbed project involved an insurgent force that had a supply of AK-47 guns, rocket-propelled grenades and a suspected improvised explosive device (IED).
Shrugging off their backpacks, the soldiers deployed the antennas atop short tripods, plugged them into their Panasonic Toughbook ruggedized laptop computers and tried to see who could tune in a video feed from one of two unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) buzzing overhead.
The Army conducted the testing with a combination of scripted scenarios designed to make technologies interact predictably and unscripted ones designed to test whether soldiers could make the equipment work for them during stressful situations.
With the officials on site, the foray to Vietnam Village was a more scripted test because visitors from a task force on IED countermeasures wanted to see specific capabilities demonstrated before they returned to Washington.
First, they got a walkthrough of the mission-planning technologies being used for the test, including a tabletop touch-screen system for displaying maps and sketching routes. Users could edit those maps and other images with their fingertips.
The mission planners then led the way to the next room in the command post’s maze of tents, where they walked through the scenario again, on conference room-size screens, and showed how the visualization system could pivot from an overhead view to a simulated groundlevel view for another perspective of the terrain.
The UAV video feed test used two aircraft: Buster, a twin-wing mini-UAV from Mission Technologies, and gMAV, a gasoline-powered version of Honeywell’s Micro Air Vehicle ducted fan design.
The scenario involved a soldier on the ground tapping into the video feed from a UAV someone else was operating. In future versions of the system, a soldier might also be able to take control of a surveillance camera mounted on the UAV – to zoom in on an area of interest, for example – without interfering with the UAV operator’s control of the craft.
One of the Army’s Future Combat Systems “concepts is that everyone should have access to everything that’s flying above them and be able to see what it’s seeing,” said Randy Zimmerman, a former Defense Logistics Agency officer who now consults with the Army on these systems.
After spending a few minutes examining the UAV video feed, the officials walked along a road to an area where an IED was supposed to have been planted.
For testing purposes, the IED was simulated by a siren triggered remotely with a handheld device in the same way that IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan are often triggered by a cell phone, garage door opener or other radio-based device from a concealed location close to the scene of the attack. After the test supervisor showed how he could trigger the explosion by making the siren sound with his remote control, the officials watched a scenario for proposed countermeasures.
First, a remotely controlled ground robot rolled down the road, peering into the woods until it saw the location of the IED. Then a patrol of soldiers followed, with one man carrying a backpack with a mast sticking out of it – a prototype of a system called Dismounted IED Countermeasures Equipment (DICE), which broadcasts radio interference across a broad assortment of frequencies associated with IED attacks.
The system proved that it could prevent the simulated IED from being triggered.
DICE is the mobile version of IED Countermeasures Equipment, which is usually mounted on a vehicle. The system’s goal is to provide a way to neutralize hazards such as IEDs when it’s not practical to avoid, disarm or destroy them.
After the officials left, Zimmerman said, “we reset the platoon and did the whole test as if the VIPs were not there at all,” making the exercise a little less scripted and the simulated IED harder to find.
More importantly, in the course of 10- day and 10-night missions, he felt he was able to effectively evaluate the technology and how the soldiers worked with it in a variety of settings and scenarios. “I got several things out of it, starting with insight into how a future force network might perform.”
David F. Carr is a special contributor to Defense Systems.