Army’s Promise to War-Bound Soldiers: A Wireless Mobile Network

By Sandra I. Erwin
If the Army’s new tech-buying strategy goes according to plan, soldiers soon may be ditching paper maps, staticky radios and bulky satellite receivers.

Instead, they would receive ultra-light radios, tablet computers and sleek smartphones that would actually work in war zones.

For the Army, achieving such goals would be nothing short of a miracle. Although it spends $10 billion a year on network technology, troops in combat zones do not have easy access to information.

The problem often is described as a “digital divide” between the haves — the upper echelons of command — and the have-nots — the platoons and squads that are deployed in remote areas and cut off from the Army’s main tactical networks.

At brigade and battalion-level headquarters, commanders can tap into loads of data — maps, satellite images, video feeds and reams of intelligence reports. That data is not available to the average soldier on the beat in a combat zone. Troops who do the day-to-day patrolling by truck or on foot have push-to-talk frequency modulated (FM) radios, but no ability to pass around important battlefield intelligence such as digital images.

After more than a decade of failed attempts and billions spent to bring the Army into the information age, the service now has a plan that, by military procurement standards, is rather radical. It will focus on giving the latest wireless technology to war-bound units, instead of trying to acquire new equipment for the entire 1.2-million strong Army. It will seek to purchase commercially available items, even if they are not exactly what generals may want, so they can be acquired quickly and used by soldiers before they become outdated. And instead of letting the procurement bureaucracy decide what to buy, the Army will have a dedicated brigade of combat-seasoned “testers” who will say aye-or-nay to a proposed new gizmo.

“Right now, the network is the Army’s number one modernization effort,” said Lt. Gen. Susan S. Lawrence, the Army’s recently sworn-in chief information officer.

“We want a network that can provide soldiers and civilians information of all categories and forms, as well as a means to collaborate in real-time, at the exact moment required, in any environment, under all circumstances,” Lawrence said in an emailed statement.

The big hurdle standing in the way is the Army’s acquisition system, which was designed to manage stand-alone widgets and weapons systems, not a seamless global network. It is estimated that there are currently 40 separate programs spread across the Army that would have to be integrated in order to create the desired network. The procurement process also is IT-unfriendly in that it is too slow to keep pace with advances in the commercial sector.

All that is about to change, said Col. (P) John Morrison, Army director of land-war-net battle command. Morrison is overseeing the new network modernization plan.

“Our programs were not aligned to deliver a network capability,” he said at an Institute for Defense and Government Advancement conference in Arlington, Va.

To accomplish what the Army wants, he said, is “going to require a fundamental change in how the Army does business.”

Morrison’s boss, Army Deputy Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger, directed his staff in August to set up a “network synchronization group” to begin to sort through every IT program and figure out how to bring the necessary technologies together.

The group came to the uncomfortable realization that the Army had been its own worst enemy, wasting lots of time and money on programs that had failed to deliver any useful equipment.

“Everyone knows the history of FCS,” Morrison said, referring to the now-defunct Future Combat Systems. FCS is the antithesis of how the Army should acquire network technologies, he said. It was too ambitious and so expensive that it was only going to be made available to nine brigades.

“We were doing it the old archaic way. Everything was on its own individual path. We weren’t delivering network capability, just network components that users on the ground had to integrate,” Morrison said. “We would say, ‘Let’s buy radio X and we’re going to buy 100,000 of those radios.’” Under the new approach, “We buy what we need, when we need it for ARFORGEN deployed forces.”

ARFORGEN, or Army Force Generation, is the system for organizing troop deployments, based on a rotation model.

For the network strategy to succeed, the emphasis is going to be on “integration,” said Morrison. “From the tactical operations center to the commander on the move to the dismounted soldier … vertical alignment is the key change,” he said. The Army will “integrate the network before handing it off to a formation.” By contrast, “individual boxes are going into theater now. We want to change that.”

Priority one will be to build the “transport layer” of the network, Morrison said. Software applications and services will come later. “Connecting the soldier to the network is what we’re after,” he stressed.

The Army’s CIO office last year set the standards, or “technical architecture,” which calls for all network traffic to run over IP, or Internet Protocol. The Army also unveiled a “common operating environment” for vendors to be able to develop standardized software applications — including smartphone apps — that are compatible across the network.

“We want a network that is transport agnostic, with common computing environments … with interoperability and data sharing on the front end,” Morrison said.

At Fort Bliss, Texas, this summer, the Army will attempt to string together a prototype network and put it to the test. An “integrated network evaluation” will be conducted by soldiers who have combat experience and are familiar with the needs of deployed troops. This unconventional approach to trying out technologies is “causing some consternation in the testing community,” Morrison said. The procedures still are being sorted out.

Other unresolved questions include how to define “soldier connectivity,” Morrison said. Besides voice communications, what else do soldiers need? Does information have to flow one way or in multiple directions? Resolving these issues, said Morrison, “will impact how we design the last tactical portion of the network.”

Shaking up the culture is not easy in the Army. “Each acquisition program manager had their own schedules and priorities,” said Morrison. “We need to bring all that together, based on the CIO established standards.” Rather than set impossible goals, the Army will have to adapt to what is commercially available. “What is already good enough that we can get in the hands of soldiers?” he asked. “The IT explosion only will continue to get better. Let’s not lock into something today.”

The “pipes” that will connect network users are radios that will run software applications known as “waveforms.” The Army has for years been developing waveforms under the Joint Tactical Radio System program, but the project has moved at a much slower pace than officials had predicted. When the Army and Marine Corps mobilized for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, JTRS radios were still in viewgraph stage, so the services ended up buying other radios that already were in production. JTRS still continues, but the emphasis is now on producing waveforms that can be installed in existing radios.

“We have interim waveforms — like the Harris 117-G ANW-2 — to provide data downrange,” Morrison said. “But it’s not the objective waveform we want to end up with.” The desired JTRS waveforms are the SRW (soldier radio waveform) and WNW (wideband networking waveform).  

The Army wants radio manufacturers to adapt their products so they are compatible with SRW and WNW. “This will require change from us and from industry,” Morrison said. “We want to start having industry bring us products as opposed to us building our own.”

It remains unclear what will happen with JTRS hardware and other programs that are still alive, but may not make it once the Army narrows down its IT wish list. “Watch the traffic lights,” Morrison warned contractors. “We’ll move away from individual programs continuing on their own.”

So far, the Army has committed to buying a handheld JTRS device known as the “rifleman radio.” It was developed by General Dynamics C4 Systems, but the Army wants other vendors to compete for future production orders. One of GD’s partners in the development of the rifleman radio, Thales Communications Inc., will likely be one of those competitors. The rifleman radio will run the JTRS waveforms for both voice and data communications.

Another supplier, Harris RF Communications, plans to begin installing and testing the SRW waveform on its 117-G radios this summer, said Brendan O’Connell, who oversees the company’s military programs.

The Army’s network strategy may strike some vendors as a sea change in how business typically is done. Fearful of being stuck with obsolete technology, the Army will be reluctant to commit to long-term production contracts. “If a better radio comes along, if it passes muster, we may want to wrap it into future capabilities,” said Morrison.

Another unknown is how the Army will handle smartphones. Service officials have been making headlines during the past year brandishing iPhones and Androids as if they were standard pieces of Army gear that every soldier will receive when he or she joins the service. But all that hype aside, smartphones are far from becoming mainstream in the Army.

“We need to make decisions about what we want to do at the soldier level” concerning the use of smartphones, Morrison said. “We need to have an Army discussion on it. My personal view is that the handheld technology is something we want to get after. I don’t think we’re synchronized yet in the Army on how we get after it.”

The general who oversees the procurement of all soldier equipment, Brig. Gen. Peter Fuller, agreed that the smartphone hoopla may have gone too far.

“For some reason, everybody thinks that every kid in the Army is going to get a smartphone right now. We haven’t figured out who is doing that and how we’re going to do that,” Fuller said at an industry conference hosted by Worldwide Business Research.

Phones may be appropriate for use stateside or in parts of the world with a mature infrastructure. The Army does not have mobile cell towers that it can bring to combat zones.

There are too many unknowns about how the Army could employ smartphones, Fuller said. “We’re still working through this. People want to talk. People want clear voice that is not garbled over Voice Over IP.” He cited a Verizon TV commercial that shows how every customer with a smartphone is backed by a marching army of maintainers and installers. How does that work for customers who deploy in the middle of nowhere? “Every time someone shows the iPhone and says they want this, [I’m reminded] that Verizon has those commercials,” said Fuller. “You can’t assume you’ll have an infrastructure.”

Engineers are exploring various options to achieve mobile wireless connectivity. One would be to create “ad hoc” networks by installing mini-cell towers aboard military trucks. “Why can’t we have a self-organizing network that is just for us?” Fuller asked. “You have vehicles and soldiers, why not make them part of the network?”

The smartphone debate, industry experts said, is part of a broader conversation that is needed between customers and vendors about how to blend military-unique and commercial technology.

The Army is being wise about wanting to exploit what is commercially available, said Aaron Brosnan, director for business development at Thales Communications Inc., in Clarksburg, Md. The company is one of several suppliers of tactical radios for the U.S. military.

“There are differences between commercial and military technology,” he said in an interview. “We just need to understand those differences” to avoid setting unrealistic expectations, he said. “It’s a balance.”

Military IT users cannot expect off-the-shelf smartphones to replace tactical radios, unless they were willing to give up on high standards of reliability and top-secret encryption, Brosnan said. The Army expects its radio networks to function 24/7. By comparison, “Many times we pick up the phone and realize we don’t have a signal … or we can’t get a hot spot at the airport.”

The Army recognizes all this, he said, “but there is this massive momentum toward a commercial model. They even talk about getting to a commodity approach” to buying communications systems, Brosnan said. “I think at some point they recognize there is still some hard requirements that exist ... From our perspective we think there is a happy medium.”

The new approach to modernizing the network, he said, is a “revolutionary change, not just in the technology but also the overall architecture, and the process for how they upgrade systems and manage the network.”

From industry’s standpoint, he said, “It makes a heck of a lot of sense.”

The idea of bringing many programs under one roof, blending them with off-the-shelf technology and connecting all the pieces is uncharted waters for the Army, said Brosnan. The service has “never been aligned in a way that it can field these systems as they come on line.”

Over time, the Army will find ways to capitalize on the investments it has already made in traditional radios by combining them with emerging commercial IT, he noted. Once the Army is able to develop a mobile ad-hoc cell network, for instance, it could use current radios over a 3G cellular infrastructure, Brosnan said. If the cell networks went down for whatever reason, deployed forces would still have the dedicated Army radio network.

Smartphones do have a future in the military, but some degree of reliability, availability and security may have to be sacrificed, he said. “There’s a place for both [milspec radios and commercial smartphones] to coexist.”

For the Army, this may be its last chance to provide soldiers with modern wireless technology before budgets begin to shrink, officials said. The network is important enough to the Army that its vice chief of staff, Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, personally has been involved in the entire process, and expects to be at Fort Bliss periodically to check up on network tests.

“This could be a model program for the Army,” he told contractors at a recent conference. “The next steps are actual acquisition decisions,” he said. “It drives me crazy to see soldiers at Fort Bliss using technology that would make them more effective only to see us spend another 12 months debating whether we should proceed to a formal operational test that might eventually yield a procurement decision.”

Ultimately, he said, “We have to make it work.”                             

Topics: Infotech, Netcentricity

Comments (0)

Retype the CAPTCHA code from the image
Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Please enter the text displayed in the image.