Mission command-on-the-move nears operational use

Test run pushes mobile command a step closer to battlefield reality

An informal evaluation is spurring Army plans to untether commanders from their posts, allowing them to take command post capabilities with them while circulating around combat areas of operations. But network improvements are needed before the initiative is ready for fielding, Army officials said.

The Army’s satellite-based Mission Command On-The-Move (MCOTM) received its first test run recently during the Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) 12.1 at Fort Bliss, Texas, and White Missile Range, N.M., that concluded last December. The operational dry run incorporated the new network upgrade of Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T), Increment 2, which pushes satellite communications down to the company level. Although the evaluation was unofficial given that there is not a program of record for the initiative, the exercise was considered a leap forward because it ensured feedback regarding equipment performance and needs will head straight to Army senior leadership.

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MCOTM seeks to empower commanders in the field with a much improved situational awareness as they move across their battlespace and beyond line of sight, which have never before been possible.

Going mobile

The nature of counterinsurgency warfare means commanders are controlling larger and larger areas of operations. However, legacy line-of-sight communications have limitations when it comes to keeping leaders plugged in. MCOTM is a vast improvement over current scenarios when a commander circulates around his battlefield, according to LTC Matthew Fath, commander of 1st Battalion, 35th Armored Regiment of 1st Armored Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team. For example, in Iraq battalion commanders were forced to rely on single-channel radios and Force XXI Battle Command Brigade-and-Below, he said.

“No commander worth his salt is going to command from his tactical operations center,” Fath said. After commanders leave the command post, their links to vital data and intelligence start to blur. However, after putting MCOTM through the paces during NIE 12.1, Fath sees a new world opening up.

“A company commander is the prince of a counterinsurgency,” Fath said. “When he unplugs from his FOB [Forward Operating Base] or JSS [Joint Security Station], to have those tools available to him and those back haul capabilities of a mobile command-on-the-move system is some powerful stuff,” he told Defense Systems.

Now if you give him beyond the line-of-sight communications, you give him a data path,” Fath said.

For example, MCOTM could be pivotal in operations such as raids where photographs and census data could be accessed simultaneous to ensure proper identification of suspected insurgents, Fath said. Currently in theater, in situations where there is no hard copy photo, commanders are forced to radio back to the company command post for more information. “So instead of being able to see a picture, you’re trying to paint a picture [for] a guy over voice, which is very difficult to do and get it right,” he said.

Central to MCOTM’s bag of tricks are applications that enable on-the-move capability, said COL Carl Hollister, product manager of Command Post Systems and Integration (CPS&I). Joint Capabilities Release/Force XXI Battle Command Brigade-and-Below (JCR/FBCB2), provides situational awareness through minimal bridging efforts and allows the commander to issue and view graphics and orders. The Advance Field Artillery Tactical Data System provides the Fire Support Officer the capability to send call for fire, he said. Tactical Ground Reporting (TIGR) and unmanned aerial vehicle feeds allow for commanders to receive intelligence and digital spot reports, Hollister added.

New network

The MCOTM evaluation also allowed a sneak peak at WIN-T, Increment 2, which will be formally tested this spring at NIE 12.2, and is on track to be pushed out to eight brigade combat teams by fiscal 2013. Increment 2 improves upon Increment 1, which fielded beyond line of sight satellite capabilities down to the battalion level for operations at the halt.

“What Increment 1 does not provide is mobility for the tactical network and mission command,” said COL Edward Swanson, project manager of Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T).

WIN-T Increment 2 will undergo an initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E) in May, with a full rate production decision being a primary part of the Army’s Capability Set 13-14 fielding, Swanson said. Increment 2 will then be fielded to 10 division headquarters and 54 brigade combat teams, which pushes initial on-the-move capabilities out to the Army’s tactical network, he added.

NIE 12.1 provided early exposure to some Increment 2 equipment, such as three Point of Presence kits and 10 Soldier Network Extensions integrated onto Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected All-Terrain Vehicles (MRAP ATV), he said.

“This is providing extremely valuable feedback on what works well and what needs to be improved,” Swanson said. “Doing this in a realistic operational environment with soldiers and other mission command systems and applications is a great opportunity to assess effectiveness and suitability before conducting the formal WIN-T Increment 2 IOT&E in coordination with NIE 12.2.”

Road to integration

What is lacking on the MCOTM front is an official blueprint for integration. Although there are programs of record for the individual systems -- such as JCR/FBCB2, TIGR -- there is currently no program of record to integrate the all those systems into a vehicle.

“The key to integrating these disparate systems on multiple vehicles is to designate a [program of record] as the lead integrator with the task of creating a common vehicle infrastructure kit, performing system of systems integration [via standardized systems and applications], and conducting system of systems training,” Hollister said. “It is also very important that we keep in mind that the vehicle has a limited number of personnel to operate and maintain the systems, so we must ensure the capability is focused on what the commander really needs to execute mission command on the move.”

The need for incorporation goes beyond equipment, Hollister said. Although WIN-T establishes the tactical network, the lack of plug-and-play capabilities is creating operational challenges, he said. “All mission command applications should be as simple to add as programs, like Microsoft Office, and should not be dependent on a specific hardware,” Hollister said. “Establishing and testing a network baseline prior to NIE 12.2 would allow subject matter experts to concentrate on integrating systems under evaluation into the architecture rather than concentrating on establishing a stable network.”

Establishing an integrated network baseline is crucial to executing a Network Integration Exercise, the CPS&I program manager said. “In order to extend the network to the individual soldier in the field, you must baseline the network and validate connections from end-to-end.”

“We must not lose sight of the acquisition process as we bring potential materiel solutions to the NIE,” Hollister said. “All of the considerations of size, weight, power, testing, engineering, integration, and training are factors that bear on the decision to procure a new materiel solution.”

Going forward, as MCOTM matures and purchases are made, life-cycle costs will need to be tackled, Hollister said. “Are we going to continue to invest in research and development or just introduce a new solution when the current one is no longer relevant?”

Hollister’s words echo what forces found during evaluation; that there still remains much to be done before MCOTM goes prime time.

“Some of the equipment had some challenges, to be honest, but that’s why we’re there,” said Fath, who evaluated the systems while in a MATV MRAP. Those challenges largely revolved around reliability of the bandwidth of some of the systems. “For a transport layer, you’re only as good as your bandwidth,” he said. Satellite-on-the-move capability proved to less than perfect, he added. “We had some limited success with that, but we’ve got a ways to go with some of the communications systems.

“It’s important to identify those issues that we had,” Fath said. “It has an incredible capability, the capability we want. Now it’s a matter of getting a materiel solution to match those capabilities.”

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