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National Defense > Blog > Posts > Wireless Network for Army Brigades Too Complex, Burdensome
Wireless Network for Army Brigades Too Complex, Burdensome
By Sandra I. Erwin



Army officials have decided to hit the pause button on current efforts to equip combat brigades with wireless communications networks. They are recalibrating their plans after it became clear that the current systems are too esoteric and exceedingly difficult for Army units to maintain in the field.

Three combat brigades have been equipped with a new information network of sensors, software and radios that the Army has been assembling since 2011. Senior leaders have been emphatic that a 21st century battlefield network — with all the bells and whistles that are available to civilians in the information age — would be the Army’s highest modernization priority. An on-the-move communications network that stays connected over vast distances has been a technological promised land for Army commanders, and for soldiers on the front lines who need to email, text and talk.

The Army has spent about $3 billion a year on this effort, in addition to nearly $800 million on five major field exercises at Fort Bliss, Texas, that served as trial runs for the new technology.

Over the past two years, tests at Fort Bliss and deployments to Afghanistan by the 3rd and 4th Brigade Combat Teams of the 10th Mountain Division exposed a number of weaknesses in the network, notably the support and maintenance burden that the new systems impose on field commanders. A third brigade, the 3rd BCT of the 101st Airborne Division, also was equipped with the new network. The Army created a “train the trainer” concept and assigned about 125 soldiers from 3/101 to master the new network communications systems before the gear was introduced to the full brigade.

Commanders became alarmed to discover during field evaluations last fall that it can take weeks to set up the brigade’s network plan and have it ready for deployment. In the battlefield, the management and security duties associated with the network are more taxing than previously thought, even with the presence of highly specialized technicians, industry and government officials said.

The Army believes it can fix these problems through relatively inexpensive modifications to current hardware and software between now and 2016.

The new motto is "simplification,” said Brig. Gen. Daniel Hughes, program executive officer for Army C3T (command, control, communications-tactical).

“We want to correct mistakes that we've made in the past two years. We think we can do it at low cost, with a little bit of innovation,” Hughes said March 18 during a presentation hosted by C4ISRNet.com.

“I don't want commanders fighting the network,” he said. “I want the network to support the fight.”

The most common gripe Hughes hears from soldiers is that the equipment is “not intuitive.” The single-channel rifleman radio, which provides connectivity for smartphones, requires five hours of training. “After the first 30 minutes, soldiers go, 'please stop, let us use it, let us move on,’” said Hughes. “That's what they are used to,” he said.

Soldiers are given equipment that was designed by engineers for engineers, not for average users. During one evaluation, a soldier had to connect two radios, which required that he know the "parameters" of each radio, Hughes said. “I am asking a young soldier, not a signal officer, to understand the parameters of the radio and know how to plug them in,” he said. “If you got it wrong, you couldn't talk.”

That particular process was automated and the problem was fixed, Hughes said. “We just didn't do it upfront. The guys who developed it were engineers and they knew how to tweak it.”

The Army asked vendors in 2011 to come to Fort Bliss to help build a state-of-the-art network, but the initial goal devolved into a more traditional military program with less-than-friendly technology.

“We want plug and play. Industry wants to go there. We need to go there,” said Hughes. “Now, we have great capabilities in silos.”

Of great concern to field commanders is that the network slows down their units because of the additional duties required to operate it. “It takes a lot of manual input to move a unit from one BCT to another,” said Hughes. “It takes manual changes. We want that done over the air.”

The Army’s information nerve centers in the battlefield — known as tactical operations center, or TOCs — are still surprisingly behind the times when it comes to wireless technology. Efforts to update TOCs have been slow. “We have too much Ethernet cable,” Hughes said. As a result, TOCs have become a significant logistics burden. “How do I get to a high-speed wireless capability that is secure?” Hughes asked. “We built a whole bunch of infrastructure.” Moving a massive TOC also puts troops in danger, he added. “If you take incoming artillery, you don't want to be sitting there too long.”

In the coming years, the goal is to install secure Wi-Fi in TOCs. “This is critical for us going forward,” said Hughes.

Simplifying the network is not just about the equipment but also the management structure, he said. “How do I get a flatter network, so you don't have these firewalls and blocks across the board? We need an easily managed network.”

Army officials also worry about the cost of maintaining the network, which requires expensive tech support. The original intent was to field a network that the average soldier could operate and maintain. But that has not been the case. The Army wants to reduce support staff by 75 percent by 2020, and replace it with virtual help, said Hughes. “You do not need to have soldiers be network experts. Systems have to work. They should flip on the power switch, and hit connect.”

Hughes said the focus is on simplifying the rifleman radio and the backbone communications network, known as WIN-T (war fighter information network tactical).

When a soldier has to connect two combat network radios, he has to get out of the vehicle, pull about 14 switches in a certain sequence to turn on the satellite network, said Hughes. Then he has to get back in the vehicle and set the parameters for each radio, and then select the network to access, and wait 12.5 minutes for the system to start.

The manufacturer of WIN-T, General Dynamics C4 Systems, announced March 20 that improvements were made to the system to “reduce complexity and improve reliability,” based on feedback from deployed soldiers using the system in Afghanistan. "We are working with the Army to make significant strides in streamlining and simplifying network operations,” said Chris Marzilli, president of General Dynamics C4 Systems.

System start-up time now takes less than five minutes, whereas previously it required multiple steps, log-ins and about 12 minutes to complete, the company said. WIN-T’s soldier interface has been updated with intuitive software, and easier troubleshooting tools, according to GD. “Previously, troubleshooting was an in-depth, multi-step process developed for trained signal soldiers,” the company said. WIN-T increment 2 will be tested in combat-like conditions between June and November 2014.

Hughes said he has informed contractors that the Army is going to crack down on complexity. “I need contractors to understand that simpler is better.” Under the Army’s latest plan, it will continue to tweak current equipment and will shop for new technology for future brigades after 2016.

Contractors argue that the complexity issue is a chicken-or-egg situation. Systems are convoluted sometimes because the technical requirements are so far outside the mainstream. The commercial sector offers dozens of secure Wi-Fi options that could be militarized, yet the Army continues to hard wire its tactical operations centers.  

The military has less tolerance of risk than commercial users, which can deter progress, said Kevin L. Kelly, CEO of LGS Innovations.

“Not everything works all the time,” Kelly said in an interview. “When you're innovating you have to be OK with failure. You have to make multiple investments. There's never a one size fits all solution.”

Many of the systems the Army now complains are too complex probably are, because the contractor was striving for perfection. And soldiers suffer the consequences as they continue to be sent to war with push-to-talk radios. “For a 20-year-old soldier, it's blinding, it puts him at a disadvantage,” said Kelly.

Contractors believe the Army’s network could benefit from more flexibility in how requirements are set and how much freedom vendors are given to make tradeoffs.

One of the toughest challenges in the Army’s network is mobile communications via satellite links. While WIN-T is the established “program of record” for satcom on the move, there are alternative systems that do not meet 100 percent of the requirements but offer other benefits, said Steve Richeson, director of business development at Exelis Inc. The company installed a “global network on the move active distribution” system in an Army Stryker combat vehicle. Soldiers tested it at Fort Benning, Ga., and did not find it overly complex, Richeson said in an interview.

“The need for simplification is something we hear all the time,” said Richeson. “To be fair to the program guys, they have to deliver what is in the program. … We've really focused on keeping this at a level that can be operated by the technicians that you typically have available.”

The Stryker, like tanks and other heavy vehicles, need satcom on the move but could not handle the dish antenna that WIN-T uses. The Exelis satcom system employs a smaller antenna that does not interfere with the Stryker’s hatches or turrets, and makes the vehicle less detectable, he said. The drawback is that, to make the system smaller, the user has to sacrifice bandwidth. “We made some trades that WIN-T didn't make to accommodate heavy platforms,” Richeson said.

Exelis’s satcom system uses a low-profile antenna made by RaySat Antenna Systems. “We're trying to convince the Army they should be taking a look at these kinds of products,” said David E. Gross, the company’s chief operating officer. With an electronically steered array, a WIN-T antenna that is 20 inches tall could be reduced to a couple of inches, said Gross. Current RaySat antennas are about 10 inches tall. Like others, he insisted that these new technologies require tradeoffs. “There's no free lunch,” said Gross. If the Army wants to bring down the size, weight and power consumption, some performance specs have to be relinquished. “At some point, what's good enough has to be accepted, versus perfect.”

The Army’s procurement system is working against its efforts to simplify the network and adopt emerging technology, contractors said. “Some of the complexity and integration is driven by industry,” said Richeson. “During the high demand cycle during the war, industry was rewarded for that because it allowed platforms to do new tricks. But when you institutionalize that, sometimes that level of sophistication makes it difficult for end users.”

Richeson also cautioned that the Army should not fool itself into thinking it can take low-cost consumer technology and militarize it. “It’s an unfair comparison,” he said. “The guy at the store doesn't have to guarantee immediate service, no dropped calls, security and durability that is required in a military grade radio.”

When Army officials bring this up, Richeson said, once they tell contractors what they really need, they realize that, to complete the mission, the stuff from Apple is probably not going to cut it.

Photo Credit: Army

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