Army aims to make mobile tactical network iPhone-easy (almost)

The Army is working to make its mobile tactical network more usable with a series of intensive tests driven by soldier feedback.

The tests — a 27-day event in February at the Aberdeen Test Center and another scheduled for June — are part of an effort to simplify the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, or WIN-T, so that if functions in a way soldiers are familiar with, the Army said.

"We want an 'on' switch for the network — we want it to be absolutely transparent to soldiers," said Brig. Gen. Daniel P. Hughes, program executive officer for Command, Control, Communications-Tactical, which manages WIN-T. "When you pick up a cell phone, how much training do you need to make it work? It's intuitive, and that's how the Army network should be."

Changes were prompted by feedback from soldiers in theater and at recent Network Integration Evaluations (NIEs), which verified the need for better usability, the Army said. Improvements, including faster startup and shutdown times, a friendlier interface and improved troubleshooting tools, are being incorporated into WIN-T increment 2.

 Army WIN-T POP vehicle

A network-equipped Point of Presence vehicle provides mobile mission command.

The system, designed to give warfighters mobile voice, video and data communications in remote and rugged terrain, operates from a “command post” in a tactical vehicle loaded with routers, switches, modems, software, encryption devices, radios and antennas. By its nature, it’s not going to be as completely easy to use as an iPhone over a Wi-Fi network, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be made easier.

"We took a hard look at the system at the engineering level, every component in great detail, to see where we could reduce complexity," said Lt. Col. LaMont Hall, product manager for WIN-T Increment 2. "We reduced things like the time it takes and the number of steps required to start up the system, the time it takes to conduct operational tasks, the number of logins and clicks -- all in an effort to simplify everything as much as possible to reduce the burden on the soldier."

WIN-T Increment 2 was first deployed in late 2012 and took mobile communications to the company level. The original iteration of WIN-T operated at the battalion level. During its NIEs and other tests, the Army has been streamlining the network — taking it from more than 70 separate systems down to about 20.

Increment 2’s enhancements included those to its network-equipped vehicles — the Soldier Network Extension, or SNE, used for network communication at the company level, and the Point of Presence, or POP, for mobile mission command at the battalion level and above, the Army said.

Recent improvement include cutting in half the time it takes to launch applications such as Tactical Ground Reporting, Voice over IP and chat.  

"We also spent a lot of time looking at the user interface and what we could do to improve it so it is easier for the Soldier to operate," Hall said. "It's much more intuitive now, more of the smartphone mentality, easier to understand and use, with larger buttons that are easier to see."

The WIN-T project team also is making troubleshooting easier. Before the recent improvements, users could troubleshoot about 20 percent of problems themselves, but would have to call for service the other 80 percent of the time. Increment 2 has improved that with an interface designed for a general user rather than a signal officer.

"We want to completely reverse those percentages," Hall said. "Our intent now is let the general purpose user troubleshoot and resolve 80 percent of those issues."

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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