Tech-Warriors Changing the Face of the Army

By Sandra I. Erwin
WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. — Anyone who has lost faith in the Army’s procurement system, look no further than Private First Class Nicholas Johnson.

A commander’s driver by day and computer programmer by night, Johnson spent four weeks at a simulated combat outpost in the desert this summer creating software applications that allow unit leaders to track troops’ whereabouts, identify potential enemies and pinpoint geographic coordinates of intended targets. These apps, unlike traditional military software, are open-source and compatible with most commercial smartphones or tablet computers.

In what may be a shock to some procurement officials and military contractors, Johnson was able to design these apps within a matter of hours, at minimal cost to the U.S. government.

To be sure, Johnson is not your average private. He was a network administrator in his previous life, and has an extraordinary ability to grasp soldiers’ needs and turn them into digital products. After an all-nighter writing code, Johnson will hand phones back to soldiers and say, “By the way, this requirement you had last week, it’s done,” he tells National Defense in a interview at White Sands, where Johnson’s unit — Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 35th Armored Regiment — was participating in a network-integration exercise involving an entire brigade of 3,200 soldiers. The 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, based at Fort Bliss, Texas, has become the Army’s go-to organization for testing new technology.

Johnson’s apps are being evaluated for possible Army-wide use, as part of a program called “connecting soldiers to digital applications,” or CSDA. On a large TV-size computer monitor at Alpha Company’s operations center, Johnson’s software displays a map of the unit’s area of operations. By touching the screen, he could show different pieces of information, or “battlefield metrics” that are piped in from sensors such as streaming video from drones. Icons depicted soldiers’ individual location and biometrics.

Unlike most Army units that manage data in separate “stove pipes,” Johnson stores it in a central server, and is able to design individual apps based on what commanders or team leaders request. The server is the “company cloud,” he explains. It’s no different than the cloud-based computing that has become standard in the private sector.

“This is the foundation of bringing together everything that is measurable on the battlefield,” he says.

The problem with many of the Army’s information systems is that they fail to satisfy the customer, Johnson says. The Army will pay millions of dollars to a contractor to create generic applications that are “force-fed to units,” and in many cases the units are only using 25 percent of the application, he says. The key is to get only the data they need, he adds. “For the Army to sit here and say they still want to pay five million dollars for a contractor to produce this just seems completely unreasonable, and would be hard to justify,” he says. Why waste money “when we have the talent in the Army to do this?”

Alpha Company Commander Capt. Kevin DeWitt, a tech-savvy leader who encourages soldiers like Johnson to think outside the box, says the procurement system pays too much importance to gadgets, whereas what truly matters is the access to information.  

“I wouldn’t say that the future of the Army lies in CSDA. I would say the future of the Army lies in information and data at the soldier level,” DeWitt says in an interview. “CSDA is a great starting point to get information to the soldier in a format that they understand.”

At Alpha Company’s “mountain village” in the White Sands highland, the tactical operations center features 16 workstations, each displaying feeds from different sensors and information systems. During a visit in late June, Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli asked soldiers why they needed so many screens. Chiarelli wondered what it would take to consolidate disjointed information networks that, if they were integrated, would produce more useful battlefield intelligence.

Johnson said his app eventually should be able to display all the data on a single screen, although he is not there yet. Chiarelli, a proponent of reforming the Army’s onerous procurement system, was the driving force behind the 2nd Brigade’s network exercise and views soldiers like Johnson as pivotal to the Army’s future.

As Johnson described to Chiarelli what he was doing with smartphone apps, “It dawned on him that, yes, some of these applications took me hours, not days or weeks,” said Johnson.

Programs such as CSDA, if they gain traction, could have huge implications for how the Army does business with its technology suppliers.

In just one night’s work, a single private literally can save the Army millions of dollars and spare soldiers from having to wait years for new gizmos.

Industry is recognizing that this is the future, says Rodger Knox, of Northrop Grumman Information Systems. Knox was at the exercise as a support contractor for Alpha Company. One of Northrop’s products, a blue-force tracking software application, was being evaluated by soldiers there.

Under the traditional acquisition process, Knox guesstimates, Johnson’s app would have taken years and cost millions of dollars.

It still remains to be seen whether the CSDA app that Johnson created will have a future in the Army. It is in a three-way competition with Northrop’s software and with another piece of software developed by Overwatch, called SoldierEyes.

Unlike most vendors that engage in “stove piping,” Northrop Grumman and Overwatch representatives attending the exercise supported Johnson and turned over raw data to him that typically would be kept off limits for competitive reasons.

The reason it has been tough to consolidate Alpha Company’s 16 data systems into a single server is “vendor lock-in,” Johnson says. “The Army owns the data. But in the past vendors have collected the data, and held it by not allowing it back out of their application,” he says. “Using my expertise, I can get a hold of these vendor systems, shake loose the data, with or without the vendor’s help, turn it into a common format where I can bring it back to these virtual servers, process it and get it to the soldiers or whoever needs that data.”

Knox, who served in the Army for 20 years and has been in the defense industry for 10 years, describes Alpha Company’s tech feats as the “most impressive thing I’ve ever seen. … These guys are doing phenomenal work.”

The apps also challenge the procurement status quo because they are hardware agnostic. Johnson was demonstrating his software on a Motorola Atrix smartphone, but the same information could be displayed on any device that supports W3C standards, short for World Wide Web Consortium.

The Army has the tools and the means to provide soldiers the latest technology, but it has to break out of the old ways of doing business, Johnson says. “The Army has missed the value of open source software and open standards. … [Now they] have people like myself to manipulate data” and pass it to whoever needs it.

This approach is the answer to the often-heard complaint that soldiers are overloaded with information. Every company in the Army is likely to have different needs for data, and not every soldier should receive all the data, Johnson says. Command-and-control applications only would be given to unit commanders, team leaders or platoon sergeants.

Once those parameters are set, it may take a day or two, or even a week, to create an app, depending on how much detail is wanted. The server processes the data and sets up the thresholds so that information is passed in the right format to the correct person, he says. An infantry commander, for example, generally wants to see everything within 300 meters, whereas a tank commander may want to see out to 3,000 meters.

Most soldiers only want apps for text messaging and, increasingly, to receive live video streams from overhead drones. Johnson in one night designed an app that connects the company’s full-motion video system — nicknamed “The Kraken” — to handheld devices over a 3G wireless network.

“It went viral. … It went on every cell phone on site,” says Knox. “The soldiers just went wild. It’s an operational capability requirement that he [Johnson] knew and he could fix.”

Another common problem for deployed troops — a shortage of network bandwidth — was not a concern for Alpha Company, which had its own cell tower, a 3G Quicklink system that is relatively easy to install and designed for use in areas where there is no local infrastructure.

“All the greatest apps in the world are useless if you don’t get the connectivity,” Knox says. For the final two weeks of the NIE event, the company upgraded to a 4G LTE (long term evolution) to provide extra bandwidth. “We loaded up 12 phones simultaneously with full-motion video over the network and still didn’t use a third of the capacity of the base station on site,” Knox says. The 3G cellular equipment — loaned to the Army by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency — had to be shipped to Afghanistan.

“Taking advantage of commercial technologies has been phenomenal,” says Knox. “You need the commercial cell capability to provide the bandwidth.”

Alpha Company’s 3G cellular tower was an Ericsson Oceus product. Northrop Grumman and Oceus teamed up to build the overall CSDA network. Northrop provided the backhaul between the three base-station sites and did the network integration. In addition to the base station at mountain village, there was one down the hill, and one at brigade headquarters, about 100 miles away.

Ways to extend the coverage beyond the 25 miles that such a network provides include aerial relays or mobile Wi-Fi such as mesh networks. “Fortress [Technologies] has one that works extremely well,” says Johnson.

For the next NIE exercise in October, the emphasis will be on mobile connectivity, Knox says.
Greater use of off-the-shelf equipment and in-house software writing alone could save the Army billions of dollars in the future, says Johnson. “Hardware vendors are not going to be able to overcharge the Army because we already know their price points. … We know how much Motorola [and every other manufacturer] charges for smartphones.”

The Alpha Company model could be applied to any organization, he says. “There are more people in the Army like me, I guarantee.”                          

Topics: Infotech, Science and Engineering Technology

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