New technology keeps SATCOM moving with commanders

Commercial technology promises to revolutionize the way commanders control ground forces while on the move

The explosion of commercial mobile satellite communications technology over the past decade promises to revolutionize the way commanders control ground forces while on the move.

Taking advantage of those new technologies and adapting them for military use is among the Army’s top modernization priorities, and industry has responded with a number of proposed systems. The ongoing Network Integration Evaluation,(NIE) process sifts through what works and what doesn’t.

The challenges are summed up in an acronym: SWAP, which stands for size, weight and power. To be militarily useful, equipment has to be small and light enough to fit on a mobile platform, and that platform has to generate enough power for the equipment to operate in a tactical environment.

“SATCOM on the move is a tough thing to do,” said Rob Semple, manager of business development for ITT Exelis, one of several major contractors developing systems to compete for a share of the modernization pie.

The Army is seeking some $3.8 billion in fiscal 2013 for network-enabled mission command – about $1 billion for research and development and $2.8 billion for procurement.

A significant portion of that money is for continued fielding of the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T), the backbone of the Army’s tactical command and control system.

General Dynamics C4 Systems, the prime contractor on WIN-T, is currently fielding the second increment of the system with two brigades of the 10th Mountain Division and the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division. Those units will conduct follow-on testing at NIE 13.2 in May at Fort Bliss, Texas.

That schedule could slip, however, unless officials find a way to reverse automatic Pentagon budget cuts set to take effect March 1. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 12 that WIN-T and other network modernization programs would be delayed if the first installment of the required $500 billion in budget cuts occurs as scheduled.

WIN-T provides satellite-based voice, video and data communication to Army units on the move, enabling much greater command and control capability than was available as recently as the invasion of Iraq 10 years ago.

For commanders, WIN-T “changes the way they can fight.… They’ve got access to the information they need whenever they need it,” said Bill Weiss, vice president and general manager of communication networks for General Dynamics C4 Systems.

The second increment of WIN-T includes satellite antennas as small as 18 inches in diameter – one of many technological improvements that enables commanders to have the equivalent of high-speed Internet in their vehicles. It also includes a networked, line-of-sight radio and antenna system for smaller vehicles.

Planned improvements for the third increment of WIN-T include hardware that can be installed in an unmanned aerial vehicle to provide line-of-sight radio connectivity and reduce the need to rely on commercial satellites.

“We’re looking forward to getting this fielded as quickly as we possibly can,” Weiss said.

Crafting satellite antennas small enough to fit on vehicles while still enabling effective communications is among the most important technological advances in mobile command and control over the past decade, say industry experts.

iDirect Government Technologies developed a standardized language that integrates antennas with modems to keep them focused on satellites in space and spread spectrum technology to reduce interference.

The company also has developed a technology to increase data transmission rates and is working on a way to provide helicopters with satellite communications – a difficult issue because the rotor blades tend to interrupt the signal.

“It’s a never-ending evolution. It’s what keeps me employed, so I’m kind of happy about it,” said Karl Fuchs, iGT’s vice president of technology. “Right now, there are available to commanders very robust solutions to providing communications on the move.”

The semiannual NIE process is part of the Army’s effort to make procurement of new, commercially available communications technologies more agile, so these technologies can be exploited before they become obsolete. Officials had found that the traditional procurement process was taking too long to field new technologies.

Though the Army’s new agile process has built on past efforts that were less than successful, the service’s current effort still requires greater oversight to reduce the risk of further problems, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), said in a report issued in January.

“Although the Army network strategy is more modest from a technology standpoint, it is still a huge transformational effort that will affect all aspects of Army operations. The size and scope of the Army’s modernization investment deserves high-level oversight attention by both the Army and DOD,” the GAO report said.

Army officials told industry representatives at a Jan. 9 briefing that the service is establishing a combined request for proposals and sources sought process to procure promising capability out of future NIEs as a result of feedback from past rounds. The service also is doing more advanced planning so contractors can better align their research and development resources with the capabilities the Army is seeking.

“The network is driven by commercial technology, and that isn’t going to stop,” said MG Harold Greene, deputy for acquisition and systems management, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology. “We need to be smart enough in the Army to leverage that and bring it in.”

Additional Online Resources

GAO report on Army networks

iGT white paper about comms on the move

About the Author

Charles Hoskinson is a contributing writer for Defense Systems.

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