Army streamlines tactical comms capabilities

Military service augments programs of record with emerging capabilities

Open-market technology and downward pressures on defense spending are causing changes in the Army's tactical combat communications. The service is going leaner on hardware to push capabilities farther with software and that's culminating in a sea change in networking planning and acquisition that will push new capabilities to warfighters years sooner than anticipated, defense officials say.

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Army hones in on tactical edge communications

The service is streamlining communication technologies and weaving a tighter network to satisfy a much more basic need because it wants a more agile, mobile force. “If there’s any one capability warfighters are looking for as we deliver this global network enterprise, it’s comms-on-the-move,” Army CIO Lt. Gen. Susan Lawrence said Oct. 11 at the 2011 Association of the United States Army Conference in Washington.

Put to the test

The comms-on-the-move strategy drives the Army’s network strategy and it also underscores a new testing approach that puts programs of record in the mix with emerging and developmental technologies. The Army’s Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) process allows a brigade-sized force opportunity to put technologies through the paces, vetting them before they go live in theater. NIE was  launched this  summer at Fort Bliss, Texas, and White Sands Missile Range, N.M., and first round of semi-annual assessments stretch for six weeks. The second evaluation – the fall 2011 NIE -- is underway.

The results of such an assessment show the strengths and weaknesses of the network strategy, according to Army Col. John Wendel, military deputy for the director of Systems of Systems Integration, formerly known as PEO Integration.

For example, take the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS), a next-generation suite of software-defined tactical radios that allowa for a range of frequency waveforms that would have otherwise been parceled out to proprietary devices. As part of its assessment, the NIE evaluated the JTRS’ Soldier Radio Waveform (SRW), as well as its Wideband Networking Waveform (WNW).

The objective waveform, SRW, is a government-owned waveform that could be ported to other radios across industry from a government waveform repository, or library, said Wendel, who oversees the hardware and software integration for the NIE.

“What we’ve done, between this event and the last [testing] event, Harris, ITT, three radios within the GMR [Ground Mobile Radio] – the JTRS family of products – have successfully ported SRW onto their radios,” he said. “So now we have eight radios that have successfully ported SRW, and six of which are in this NIE and have already demonstrated that radio-to-radio interoperability. And that’s huge. Now its company and troop-level across the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division – the test brigade – and we’re now settling on a common company and troop architectural backbone waveform SRW.”

That is setting up a measurable result for the Army. “We’re getting away from the emergence of proprietary waveforms on proprietary radios. That’s just one efficiency that’s going to translate into huge cost avoidance for the Army,” Wendel said.

NIE also found success with the WNW, and the GMR had good waveform, he said. “However, the programmatic wrappings for that radio have made it unaffordable and some of the user interface issues still need to be solved. It wasn’t as intuitive as it could have been for the user,” he added.

Those concerns regarding GMR were heard by the Defense Department; DOD announced last month it was cancelling the JTRS’ four-channel GMR in favor of a two-channel radio. The Army will soon put out a solicitation for the replacement low-cost, reduced size, weight, and power radio that has the ability to port objective waveforms in the coming months.

The GMR cancellation confirms the Army is getting away from the emergence of proprietary waveforms on proprietary radios. “That’s a response to what the Army has figured out from several years of testing is that we think the two channel radio is about right,” Wendel said. “We think that WNW needs to go forward, but we also think we need to re-compete the radio” to bring the price down.

With that line of thinking comes the problem of interoperability. “I think we’re doing that by setting up objective waveforms and we’re communicating with industry what kind of waveforms we want from both the bridge and objective architecture,” Wendel said.

Wendel, who stopped short of naming specific programs, said the Army must take edge device technologies and seamlessly integrate them into existing architectural foundations. “As we go to the lower tactical Internet at the edge -- primarily dismounted leaders – how do we get that seamless integration, plug-and-play of commercially available technology and programs of record?” The question, Wendel said, is only one of the technical and security problems that need to be solved.

Meanwhile, strengths have emerged from the evaluations. The Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T), tested under Increment 1 in the summer, is coming back to the fall evaluation under Increment 2. The high capacity satellite communications system network did well at the battalion-and-above level, and will now be pushed out to WIN-T enabled vehicle platforms to demonstrate its on-the-move capability.

Inflection point

During the past decade of war America’s enemies kept current with weaponry that wasn't forced through a byzantine acquisitions process. It was a message driven home to Army officials and stakeholders recently by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.  “Today we find our military, and the Army in particular, at an important inflection point,” he said Oct. 12 at a AUSA conference. “The reality is there aren’t a lot of countries out there building massive tank armies – it is unlikely that we will be re-fighting Desert Storm in the future. Instead, I see both state and non-state actors arming with high-tech weaponry that is easier both to buy and to operate, weapons that frustrate our traditional advantages and freedom of movement.”

Meanwhile, the Army is turning to the open market to make its simplified network strategy a reality because traditional monolithic programs of record could easily stretch out by nearly a decade from requirement development through testing. “We found that 80 percent of the programs that took that track failed. They never made it to the production phase and they never made it in the hands of soldiers,” Wendel said. IT and radio programs are evolving so quickly that anything over a two to five years becomes obsolete, he added.

The Army networking strategy is driving towards common command and control software applications to head off obsolescence.

“I liken it to an apps store,” Wendel explained, adding that there will be a set of about 15 to 20 applications that can be ported onto edge devices and can be selected and ported onto command-and-control devices on platforms, such as vehicles. One low-cost single type of edge device could be bought and refreshed on the open market and in quantity with a common engine, such a 3G or 4G network, he said. “Now you can start collapsing the hardware solutions if I have common software applications,” he added. “We’re going to take a broad sampling of what’s available, and we’re going to buy what’s available and works, and we’re going to look at it twice a year on a full-up operational test in relevant terrain with a heavy brigade combat team.”

Culture shock

Although the Army is seeking software applications that give it security and interoperability without limiting its choice of devices, network and products providers are facing a new set of potential problems.

“The specifics of information assurance, network security, of information security -- obviously there’s a good reason for it, but it could also be an inhibitor,” said Dwight Hunsicker, Globecomm Systems’ vice president for government business development.

“People who aren’t supposed to be on the network, you’re guarding against. But that protection sometimes makes it difficult for people who should connect and cannot,” he said, pointing to early interoperability issues with Blue Force Tracking systems among NATO allies in Afghanistan. Then there are the problems that can come when multiple industry providers build components according to a set of government standards that should ensure interoperability, but they don't for various reasons. The strategy places “tremendous pressure,” on industry, however it allows the open market to bring out the best, he said.

Common waveforms, common operating and computing environment, standardized fewer applications that work across all those devices – “It’s all happening right in front of our eyes,” he said.

“NIE is a great way to pull it all together because if you can’t integrate, you can’t play.” By providing interface standards, transport standards, the operating and computing standards to industry, the Army will be looking for plug-and-play devices that will easily integrate into its architecture, bridge and objective, Wendel said. Ideally, the Army would be able to refresh the edge devices, such as a smart phone, every two years under this new strategy. 

“We’re telling them the government is going to buy less, more frequently,” he said. “Instead of taking all that that time and schedule risk, which turns into money and technological obsolescence, we’re telling industry ‘develop your product and bring them to us.’ This gets us to the punch line very quickly without major R&D expense.”

“With the backdrop of shrinking defense resources as we pay our nation’s debt as a country, we all understand that DOD budgets will shrink over the coming years. As that happens, we’ve got to get smarter about how we modernize our network,” he said. 

Wendel said of that situation, "I think as long as we continue to enforce and reinforce the process we’ve established over the last nine months, and it endures, I think we will overcome a lot of those challenges. And we will get exposure do developing IP technologies and network technologies that are developing on the open market and we’re going to integrate those with technologies the Army has already bought and programs of record that already exist in the architectural foundation of the brigade.”

It’s a culture shock, but one that is needed, said the integration chief. “The biggest concerns I have, really, are getting the best technologies available integrated quickly so we can deliver them to the soldiers deployed who need them.”

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