On the Army’s To-Do List: Quench Troops’ Thirst for Connectivity - UPDATED
On the Army’s technology wish list, the “network” ranks number one.
Many of the details of what exactly is in the Army’s sought-after network remain a bit fuzzy, however. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, vice chief of staff, said the Army needs a network that would allow soldiers to tap their laptop or smart phone keyboards and obtain the information they need, anywhere in the world.
No such network exists yet, and may never will, simply because the Army’s information systems are too complex and disjointed to make that vision possible, said industry insiders. They are hopeful that modernization evangelists such as Chiarelli can help move the project forward.
It is estimated that there are currently 40 separate programs spread across the Army that would have to be integrated in order to create a seamless global network.
A big hurdle is the Army’s antiquated acquisition system. Current practices are network-unfriendly because they were designed to manage stand-alone widgets and weapons systems. Another obstacle is that the acquisition bureaucracy is too slow to keep up with advances in the commercial IT industry, officials said.
Chiarelli cited the tactical network that U.S. and NATO forces deployed in Afghanistan as a model. “The only problem I have with the network in Afghanistan is the fact that it only exists in Afghanistan,” he said in October at the Association of the U.S. Army convention. What makes that network successful is that it was built almost entirely with commercial technology that was purchased outside the traditional budget process. The network “doesn’t exist back here” because of the Army’s difficulties in acquiring off-the-shelf technology, Chiarelli said. The network the Army needs should have an “open architecture that will allow plug-and-play development,” he said.
Units at war today have loads of sensors and computer networks, but they’re isolated “point-to-point” systems, which limits their usefulness. Soldiers in the field often complain about living off the information grid, Chiarelli said. “You can’t blame the soldier for wanting the technology. But when we provide technology and it’s not integrated with the rest of the systems, he has no idea that the reason it doesn’t work is because it’s not integrated,” he said. “The real challenge for us is, how do we change the acquisition system to take advantage of rapid technological change?”
The Army attempted to develop a unified network under the Future Combat Systems program, which was terminated last year. Some of the elements of FCS that have survived include IT hardware and software.
FCS only proved that the Army doesn’t understand how to build a cohesive, user-friendly network, Chiarelli said. “In some instances we found that some people were stove-piped so much so that they were developing different networks to tie their systems into a network, not necessarily our network.”
The next best hope for achieving the Army’s dream network lies at Fort Bliss, Texas. Combat-seasoned troops will be assigned to a technology-focused unit there that will be responsible for testing new systems. They will inform engineers on how to best build a network that suits the needs of deployed troops. “I hope it will be the place where developers can go, bring their systems and allow real soldiers in real combat units to be able to test the value to soldiers,” said Chiarelli.
Maj. Gen. Keith Walker, who oversees technology-testing operations at Fort Bliss — known as the Army’s Evaluation Task Force — said its mantra is to “integrate, train and evaluate.”
Approximately 4,000 soldiers will be heading to Bliss — the Army's second-largest installation, located adjacent to the White Sands Missile Range, N.M. Currently, just 150 troops make up the evaluation task force. The Army formed the AETF to allow soldiers to experiment with new weapons, robots, radios and computers before making final buying decisions. Following the termination of FCS, officials decided that troops with real war experience should test-drive the hardware.
The evaluation task force is part of the Army's Future Force Integration Directorate, under the Army Capabilities Integration Center.
“The number one piece of the modernization strategy is the network,” Walker said in an interview. Selected pieces of the network already have been tested at White Sands, he said, but there is a long way to go. “To prepare to test the network, the next thing we have to do is increase the size of the AETF,” said Walker.
“You can’t evaluate the network in simulations, you have to field to the brigade and put the brigade in the field. The Army has decided to expand the AETF to 4,000, a full-size brigade,” he said. That will happen over the next several months.
During 2011, “we will be pulling as much of the network as is available and putting it in the hands of soldiers, putting them in the field.”
The operative word here is “integration,” Walker stressed. “It does no good to evaluate the rifleman’s radio one week, the ground mobile radio one week, the aerial relay another week, WIN-T [war fighter information network tactical], another week,” he said. “We have to take the pieces and put them together. Until we do that, in the hands of soldiers, we won’t truly be able to determine the strengths and weaknesses of the system.” To be able to field a seamless network, the Army not only has to make the technology work but also has to adapt its organizations and leader training, he said.
Right now, the various pieces of the network are “in stovepipes, all over the United States,” said Chiarelli. Until “we put it together, develop the network … we won’t get there. We have to bring all the pieces together.”
A major Pentagon review of key pieces of thenetwork, meanwhile, is scheduled for Dec. 22. The systems that will be scrutinized by the Defense Acquisition Board are those that survived the FCS cancellation and are being funded under a “brigade combat team modernization” program. They include a network integration kit and several unmanned vehicles that are supposed to function in a unified network. This effort has suffered several technological setbacks, and this upcoming review is regarded as pivotal to the Army’s ability to field a brigade-size network in Afghanistan in 2012.
The Army’s 3rd Infantry Brigade of the 1st Armored Division, which is scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan in 2012, will be the launch customer for the new technologies. The plan is for more brigades to have this equipment later this decade, and to eventually outfit all 73 brigades.
UPDATE: The Dec. 22 Defense Acquisition Board review of the Army's brigade combat team modernization program has been postponed until January 10.