Army adjusts network strategy for battlefield command posts

Transforming real-time battlespace command and control

The world’s best-designed and most technologically advanced communications networks run the risk of becoming gold-plated monuments to themselves if they can’t be implemented properly, don’t make significant strides in functionality and user intuitiveness, aren’t pushed beyond the command post, and, perhaps most importantly, don’t get buy-in from senior leaders.

The digital divide often experienced by soldiers and Marines in the Iraq war, where operational data exists aplenty at the divisional level but doesn’t necessarily find its way to frontline commanders, is a problem that continues to vex military leaders. But instead of continuing the Iraq and Afghanistan wars with the networks they have rather than the networks they want, the Army has signed off at the highest levels on the Global Network Enterprise Construct (GNEC), a plan for a single enterprise where battle command applications follow brigades outside the continental United States.

The support of Army Chief of Staff George Casey made it possible for the service to begin developing the battlefield network it wants.

“His embrace of that construct begins to demonstrate for everyone that this is not just a CIO/G6 idea or concept or pursuit,” said Army Chief Information Officer Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson. “This is the way we are going to transform the Army. And the chief of staff embraces that transformation. He has taken this construct and said, ‘This is mine.’ We’re going to change the Army, and part of that change is to affect the network, and we, the Army, are going to do this in a phased strategy.”

One of the first phases of that strategy just concluded with the initial operational evaluation of the Army’s Network Service Center in Germany, one of five that will be established around the world and will allow forces based in the continental United States to deploy anywhere and replicate battle command applications.

GNEC is built on four foundational aspects, the first of which is to operationalize the network.

“In the not-too-distant future, we will be an Army that will be 80 percent based here in the continental U.S.,” Sorenson said. “As such, we are going to have to deploy forward in order to engage whatever the nation requests us to do. In doing so, we have to ensure that there is a network available to deploy forward, as opposed to bringing everything with us, establishing a network and only then beginning to do the fight. We have to make this network operationally available for any combatant user no matter where he deploys.”

The second foundational aspect of the GNEC is to improve the security of the network. “It’s great to have a network, but if it’s not secure, it’s not going to be trusted nor used by the commanders,” Sorenson said.

The third aspect is to make it more efficient and effective. “Clearly, the efficiencies will come by eliminating a lot of the duplicative capabilities that we have built over time and to reduce the significant number of help desks,” Sorenson said.

The CIO talked about a recent analysis of Fort Belvoir's network status, where Army information technology managers found six different help desks.

“The reason for that was because of all the independent networks that were built by different network providers,” Sorenson said. “Clearly, there is the need as we move toward the Network Service Center to eliminate a lot of the duplicative effort and also to eliminate the individual and local firewalls that prevent what we hope to have in the future, which is this operational network."

“While they might be trying to do what they think is right by setting up extra firewalls, it becomes an inhibitor in transferring data from one location to another because these firewalls are monitored by the local constabulary, if you will, rather than the official ones.”

The fourth foundational level of the GNEC is joint capability, Sorenson said.

“If you go into Iraq today, you basically have the Marines using our fixed regional hub that is located in southwest Asia to affect operations, and they have been very satisfied with the service they’re being provided by the Army,” he said. “As we’ve demonstrated on the peninsula of Korea, there’s also a need to ensure that we, as individual services, don’t develop our own area processing center but to develop a joint capability whereby the Air Force, Navy and Army can all work from one central location and effectively conduct joint operations.

“Over time, as the Air Force builds out their capability and the Navy does theirs, clearly our interface is going to be the network service center, but we’re also trying to build it in conjunction with what they’re doing to ensure that the joint operations in the future can be better affected,” Sorenson said.

The command post as a weapon

While the Army works to close the digital divide through GNEC, it is also undergoing a simultaneous effort to remake its command posts into a system of systems configuration that is specifically designed to handle the size, weight and power requirements of networking and communications gear.

“There wasn’t a central focal point to pull in all the battle command systems…into one integrated command post,” said Army Col. Cris Boyd, project manager of the Project Manager Command Posts division at the Program Executive Office for Command, Control Communications-Tactical (PEO-C3T). Project Manager Command Posts is responsible for tactical voice and data radios that allow forces to communicate with one another, mission commanders and officials at headquarters.

“What has evolved over time is that we no longer view the command post as a bunch of tents and rigid-walled vehicles," Boyd said. "It is a weapon system, and like a Bradley or an Abrams, the internal guts of the command post have to be engineered and integrated together — not only from an engineering standpoint but from logistics and training as well.”

Boyd looks at that challenge of command posts and battle command as both a science and an art.

“The science of battle command is obviously the engineering, bending the metal and providing the capability," Boyd said. "Basically, the art of battle command is how the warfighter uses his military skills and leverages the science of battle command to make decisions and to lead soldiers in order to accomplish his mission.”

To master that art, it is necessary to understand how commanders make decisions. Boyd talked about a recent visit to a unit that had fielded a lot of PEO-C3T's battle command systems, and the unit commander’s biggest problem was trying to figure out how to take advantage of all the new capabilities. He addressed the problem by asking the knowledge management officer to spend a week with the entire staff to map the decision-making process. They determined at what level decisions were made, what information from the staff was required to make those decisions, and whether that data needed to be fused. They then overlaid their knowledge management and information-sharing requirements on top of their digital capabilities to determine the best way to feed the system, fuse the data and share it with the commander.

“Taking the decision-making process and the art of battle command and overlaying it over the science of battle command allowed all of them to interact,” Boyd said.

The one area in which art doesn’t come into play, however, is the problem of power — both generating enough of it and transmitting it through the tactical operations center (TOC).

“Power distribution and planning is at the top of our challenges because the Army doesn’t have a [military occupation specialty] for power distribution planning,” Boyd said. “Normally, you have to find a [noncommissioned officer] or somebody designated within the command post who, hopefully, knows how to plan power.”

The need for power will continue to grow, particularly to satisfy the requirements of new programs such as Warfighter Information Network-Tactical Increment 2, which need multiple laptops to maintain the network. The hard part is figuring out where efforts are best spent under the joint capabilities concept known as doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership, personnel and facilities.

“When you look at a problem, you have to determine where you fix that problem," Boyd said. "Do you fix it under doctrine, under organization? For instance, you’ll see all kinds of notebooks if you go into the network part of the TOC today. In one TOC set up for a Stryker brigade, there were 24 notebooks.”

The answer to such a situation could be a material one: namely, a bigger tent.

“Or maybe a material solution would be less boxes with more capability to manage the network,” Boyd said. “Or maybe the question is answered organizationally by moving the network part away from the main TOC and giving it its own little island. We don’t always throw a technical solution at it. Maybe it’s a people issue or a doctrine issue.”

The point is to conduct such analyses from a system-of-systems perspective, said Stephen Levy, technical management division chief at PM Command Posts.

To assist in that endeavor, the organization recently developed a warfighting commander’s handbook for setting up and operating a command post. Manuals existed for putting up a tent or operating a generator, but commanders didn't have one that tied together power configuration, network configuration and infrastructure configuration.

“There’s been no interface control document between all the components within a command post,” Levy said. “Now we have to start thinking about future force programs like [the Joint Tactical Radio System] and what used to be [the Future Combat System] spirals that we’re going to have to accommodate in a command post. We owe it to the other PMs so they know, ‘Here’s what it’s going to take for me to plug this capability into the command post.’ "

“Typically what happens today is that a unit you weren’t planning for shows up for an exercise, and they bring all their computers and all their systems," he said. "But maybe they don’t have a generator, and maybe you don’t have sufficient generating power to feed them. So it’s important that we get the word out: ‘If you want to plug into this modular command post, this is what you’ve got to design to.’ ”

PM Command Posts also has set up a system-of-systems integrated product team to look at size, weight and power issues based on changes to programs within and outside PEO-C3T.

“Our challenge to the future is size, weight and power,” Boyle said. “How do we reduce the size of the command post? How do we use less power? How do we decrease the loads? Because if we can solve all three of those things, we can address the three things we’re really after: mobility, flexibility, capability. Add in reduced cost and footprint and you have your five objectives for the future.”

Throwing a wider net

The Army and Marine Corps have had great success in creating mesh networks where wireless technologies based on 802.11a/b/g are used to hop signals from one device to another to extend the range of a communications network without installing towers.

Ten to 40 nodes is the typical size of such a system, such as those developed under the Combat Service Support Automated Information System Interface (CAISI) program. Through advancements in mobile ad hoc network technology, though, it is feasible to increase the number of nodes to 100 or more.

In July, Florida-based Fortress Technologies delivered to the Naval Surface Warfare Center a number of prototype, secure wireless bridges with software modifications to support advanced meshing capabilities. Fortress also supplies the wireless access to CAISI prime contractor Telos.

“In theory, you can scale to hundreds of nodes, and we have tested 100 nodes in the lab,” said Fortress Chief Technology Officer Maqued Barsoum. “Developed through a Navy research quick reaction fund, the idea is to develop an architecture that provides end-to-end Layer 2 security, so you only have to encrypt and decrypt the data packet once instead at every hub.”

The goal of the program is to “deliver a level of ubiquitous coverage in areas where there isn’t a fixed infrastructure in place,” said Fortress President Janet Kumpu. “The Army’s CAISI systems scale in nodes of 40 at a time. Developing further advancements for self-establishment and path optimization will further extend mesh capability so we can connect the dismounted soldier and ground vehicles in a more mobile network.”

The technology developed for the Navy experiment presented Fortress with some unique challenges, Barsoum said.

“The key challenges were to make a mesh that uses less than 5 percent for its control package, to optimize multicast traffic and to provide an end-to-end security model," Barsoum said. "The other technical challenge is to support the meshing technology over Wi-Fi, WiMax and military radio. We’ve demonstrated those successfully.”

Defense Systems Update

Sign up for our newsletter.

Terms and Privacy Policy consent

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.