Battle for the Army’s Wireless Network in Full Swing

6/27/2011
By Sandra I. Erwin
FORT BLISS, Texas — Dozens of defense contractors have set up camp at this 3,200 square-mile swath of the military’s southwestern training range complex. They anxiously await the results of the U.S. Army’s first-ever “network integration exercise” — a six-week combat drill that could decide the winners and losers of the battlefield technology industry.
Suppliers of military radios, software, command-and-control systems, sensors, smartphone apps and ruggedized computers all are vying for a piece of the Army’s $6 billion communications technology and electronics budget. The Army is looking to deploy a new tactical network that would allow a brigade to deploy to a war zone with its own wireless communications, have every soldier “plugged” into the net, and not have to depend on local infrastructure.
Senior officials have touted the network integration exercise, or NIE, as a new beginning for the Army’s troubled procurement system. The service’s rigid process for buying equipment, rooted in the Cold War, has failed to deliver the innovation that battlefield commanders have sought for years, such as a capability to share data in real time, up and down the chain of command, and a wireless communications network that is reliable and safe from hackers, but also fast and able to keep up with the fast moving flow of battlefield information.
A state-of-the-art tactical network would give field commanders a huge advantage over any adversary, said the Army’s former chief information officer, now retired Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson. Unlike the old days when only division and brigade-level commanders needed access to the latest intelligence, now soldiers at the lowest echelons must have accurate information at all times, Sorenson said in an interview last week. The lack of information is what creates the fog of war that leads to bad decisions, such as dropping bombs on innocent civilians. “If they have the wrong information … the consequences become front-page news,” Sorenson said. A modern tactical network would allow commanders — from four-star generals to platoon leaders — to track their troops’ location and the position of the enemy. “If they get bad info we may a have a problem in our hands,” he said.
Sorenson, who is now vice president at management consulting giant A.T. Kearney, draws a parallel between the combat advantage that information provides with that of night-vision technology. The Army’s theme years ago was to “own the night,” he said. Advances in night-vision sensors paid off for the U.S. military, and that same competitive edge is needed on the information and communications side.
The Army is now making a serious commitment to gaining that edge, he said. “And you’re not going to see the Army reversing course on this.” The big question is whether the Army can break away from outdated acquisition practices that have wasted billions on dollars on programs that are technologically obsolete by the time they reach the final testing phase. Having a full brigade, plus some division-level support, at Fort Bliss, assigned for experimentation and evaluation of products is a big step in the right direction, Sorenson said.
Staging periodic NIE events will allow the Army to respond more quickly to commanders’ needs. It will also help contractors design products that better suit troops’ needs. “When you get soldiers and engineers together, magic happens,” said Sorenson. The Army in years past has tried to build the network like it builds every other weapon system, and that has been a recipe for failure. “The network changes every 18 months. You can’t build the network like a tank.”
Army Training and Doctrine Commander Gen. Robert Cone was here last week to observe the field exercise, which is scheduled to wrap up in mid-July. The unit assigned to the NIE is the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division. “I think the process of field testing this equipment with combat-experienced soldiers can give insight into the kinds of technological applications and their success better than any other process that I am aware of,” Cone said in a TRADOC news release.
One of the companies whose products are under evaluation is Harris RF Communications, a manufacturer of tactical radios. Vice President Dennis C. Moran, a retired Army major general, said he is optimistic that this exercise will create a much-needed competitive environment for vendors to showcase their products. “The Army is on the right path to provide a venue to evaluate the network as it grows over time and to insert technologies to fill gaps,” he said. “In industry, we are pretty excited.”

Topics: C4ISR, Tactical Communications

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