Army combat brigades during the past two years have been outfitted with the latest communications and networking technology. But the improved connectivity available to brigade commanders and staffs has yet to filter down to smaller mobile units—below the battalion level.
Unlike brigade headquarters, which stay in one place for extended periods, smaller units typically are dispersed, and frequently are on the move. The command-and-control and communications systems the Army is buying for the brigades are not small or mobile enough for dismounted soldiers, nor do they have enough range or capacity for data to stream down to thousands of troops who are scattered across hundreds of miles.
In Iraq, commanders have questioned why the Army is not extending the network down to lower echelons, and even down to the individual soldier.
“The network needs to get situational awareness below battalion and company level,” said Maj. Gen. Thomas R. Turner II, commander of the Army 101st Airborne Division and former chief of the Multinational Division North in Iraq.
“We are not fielded now with the kind of bandwidth going down to that level. We probably need that,” he said, speaking at a conference of the Association of the U.S. Army.
Infantry troops in Iraq are issued voice-communications devices, such as push-to-talk FM radios. But that is not the technology the Army had in mind for the information age. Army leaders have spoken for years about their intent to provide Internet connectivity to the entire force, down to the individual soldier. The Internet protocol, or IP, can deliver voice and data from a single device, such as a software-programmable radio.
The closest the Army has come to having an IP network at the squad level is in the “land warrior” system. The land warrior ensemble includes a communications and navigation computer-radio suite, a helmet-mounted display and a customized rifle. The land warriors are connected to a network, and each can pinpoint the other soldiers’ locations by simply looking at his display. They are the dismounted equivalent of the “blue-force tracking” system the Army employs aboard vehicles.
“Land warrior enables IP to the soldier level,” said Brig. Gen. Jeffery W. Foley, director of architecture operations at Army headquarters. “We finally have enabled the technology to give platoon, squad leaders and company commanders the situational awareness.”
The land warrior radio, called Microlight, is a line-of-sight device that can transmit and receive voice and data such as maps, photos and video. But one major shortcoming in the land warrior net is that it has limited bandwidth — a problem that is found across the Army and is not unique to this program.
“There is immense competition for the EPLRS waveform,” Foley said, referring to the enhanced position location and reporting system network. Just within a single battalion, too many users are drawing on a limited supply of EPLRS connectivity.
“Depending on where the competition is, we have to figure out how to program it, and determine priority users,” said Foley. The upshot for land warrior is that the net has to be restricted to only a few dismounted soldiers, and they have to carefully ration the bandwidth so they can maintain both voice and data communications.
The communications capabilities of land warrior recently were tested in a field experiment by the 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division in Fort Lewis, Wash. The battalion wants to take 230 land warrior ensembles to Iraq sometime in 2007.
Maj. Keith Markham, the battalion’s executive officer, said the land warrior radios offer reliable voice communications. During the experiment at Fort Lewis, he told reporters, the EPLRS radio was the only means of voice communications available below the platoon level. The dismounted soldiers minimize the use of bandwidth by staying relatively close to the Stryker vehicles, and they only transmit data to the vehicle.
Despite its achievements, the land warrior program appears to be on the chopping block — at least temporarily until the Army can work through its current budget crunch. Col. Richard D. Hansen Jr., program manager for land warrior, said the Army’s senior leadership has vowed to support the program and its planned yearlong deployment in Iraq. Regardless of what happens to land warrior in the long run, Hansen said, the Army is “still committed to connecting the soldier to the network.”
The deployment of land warrior in Iraq could be a make-or-break test for the system, and would give commanders an opportunity to assess the benefits and drawbacks of operating a squad-size IP network that constantly is on the move, officials said.
In response to emerging Army demands, radio manufacturers are positioning themselves to market radio devices that would enable an IP network. Among them is the land warrior Microlight radio, made by Raytheon, which currently is the Army’s only handheld device for high data rate transmissions that also has top-secret encryption, company officials said.
The company has orders for 600 Microlight radios — priced at about $10,000 each — under the land warrior program, but is pursuing additional customers. “The Army has to ask how important is connectivity so the soldier can plug into a network without all the other land warrior capability,” said Gerry Powlen, a senior Raytheon executive. “I think there are applications beyond land warrior.”
ITT Industries developed a similar device but, instead of being a handheld radio, it’s intended to be attached to the vehicle-mounted single channel ground and airborne radio system, or SINCGARS.
This “sidehat” radio, also priced at about $10,000 each, would bring data connectivity to the SINCGARS voice communications net. A SINCGARS terminal with a vehicle adaptor costs about $30,000.
Army officials said the service is interested in these technologies but has yet to decide how to go about procuring them.
Lt. Gen. Steven Boutelle, the chief information officer, said the sidehat concept “makes sense” because it allows the Army to make further use of its 400,000 SINCGARS in service.
“SINCGARS will be out there for 20 to 30 years,” Boutelle told reporters. The sidehat radio would run the EPLRS data network but also would be programmed to operate the next-generation software radio application, known as the “soldier radio waveform.”
Although ITT and Raytheon developed the sidehat radio, the Army is considering seeking other vendors to manufacture the system, said Boutelle.
ITT currently owns the sidehat design but would “work with the Army” to make it available to other companies bidding for the contract, said Larry Williams, business development director at ITT. “The Army’s intent is not well defined,” he said. “We had proposed ITT and Raytheon dividing up the production share. The Army did not agree. They want it opened to competition.”
Boutelle is confident the SINCGARS net of vehicular radios can be extended to individual soldiers. Army engineers designed a prototype network called SITS (SINCGARS information tactical system) that combines terrestrial and satellite communications for battalion level and below. It includes a dismounted voice radio, an EPLRS data radio and a small “point of presence” satellite dish.
A battalion of the Army 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan operated a SITS network recently and requested that the hardware be made lighter and smaller, so that it can be transported on a humvee truck, rather than a Chinook helicopter.
The Army currently is building 10 palletized systems for company-level use in Afghanistan, said Boutelle. It costs about $70 million to equip a battalion with an IP network.
The satellite point of presence is a key technology for mobile users, who cannot rely on terrestrial communications. It is a foot-and-a-half dish that automatically points to the satellite. It pushes the network down to an individual vehicle while it moves.
For the SITS network, the Army is considering acquiring the satellite dish that is being developed for the WINT (war fighter information network tactical) program. WINT has been in the works for years, but has experienced delays and budget cuts — much like other next-generation technology programs in the Army. Another option contemplated for the SITS is using the L-band satellite net now employed in blue-force tracking systems.
The intent is to keep communications on the ground and pop out the wideband satellite terminal when troops need extra range. Units currently in Iraq use low-bandwidth satellite communications, which often incurs delays.
Boutelle said the SITS network could make more efficient use of the communications capabilities because it allows soldiers to switch from terrestrial to satellite communications relatively easily. There is a misconception, he said, that everything in the field has to be done over satellites, and that results in a huge bill for the Army. “Sometimes I’ve seen people go from one side of the airfield to another and use satellite. Why? It’s too costly.”
Wasteful spending on networking technology also is seen in the “data link” world, said Boutelle. Too many Army programs, particularly unmanned surveillance aircraft and other sensors, develop customized radio links to download data. The problem is that there is an abundance of money available for these technologies in individual aircraft programs, said Boutelle, so “they grow because they can.” The Army has to find a way to consolidate dozens of systems currently out there, he said. “It costs a lot more money because you are buying several systems that don’t talk to other systems … Data links are flourishing in new systems sent to Southwest Asia. Who’s approving that? I’m telling the Army to restrict that.”
Similar criticism was heard from the deputy chief information officer of U.S. Central Command, Army Col. Rick Davis. “Information technology is coming to Central Command with virtually no TTPs [tactics, technique and procedures],” he said at a Defense News Media Group conference. Central Command, he said, imposed a moratorium on new applications unless they are vetted by the chief information officer. “We are trying to improve discipline to control what gets brought in,” Davis said.
Voice-over-IP technologies are the worst violators, he noted. “We are seeing many solutions that are not integrated … There is no coherent VOIP command-and-control structure.” The head of Central Command, Army Gen. John Abizaid, once complained about having four phones and three computer monitors on his desk, said Davis. “There is great frustration on this.”
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