Army Continues Hunt for the Latest Wireless Technologies
After completingthe first one in July, Army leaders want to keep the momentum going into the upcoming NIE, scheduled for late October through mid-November.
Military officers and Army civilian buyers will be scoping the latest wireless communications and high-speed networking technologies for possible use by combat units. In its fiscal year 2012 budget, the Army requested at least $4 billion for information-technology systems for deployed forces. High on the wish list are mobile systems that can be installed in Army trucks and armored personnel carriers, and provide connectivity to small units as they move around the battlefield.
Since the Army started the NIE — abrainchild of Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli — there have been heightened expectations about the prospects of upgrading military networks with gee-whiz technology from the consumer industry. Of special interest to the Army are high-speed wireless systems, low-cost smartphones and phone apps.
One of the NIE’s goals is to help decision-makers figure out how take advantage of commercial technology in order to replace expensive, proprietary — and often outdated — tactical radios and information systems with better and cheaper alternatives.
Suppliers of mobile communications now regard the NIE as the ticket to success in the Army’s IT market. Unlike traditional military contractors that have been used to charging billions of dollars over many years to develop a new system, vendors that are invited to the NIE must bring ready-made products and make them fit into an Army brigade’s complex web of communications and command-and-control systems.
Some military contractors wonder whether the NIE will bring about lasting change in the military’s infamously slow and plodding procurement system.
“It should help increase the speed of acquisition,” says Kevin L. Kelly, vice president of LGS Innovations, in Herndon, Va. The company, a subsidiary of Paris-based Alcatel-Lucent, specializes in miniaturizing network equipment.
“What frustrates everyone in industry is how long it takes,” he says. In the world of wireless technology, there is no patience for government red tape. “If you take 18 to 24 months, you just bought old technology,” Kelly says.
High-speed mobile broadband is one of the technologies the Army must have in order to exploit the capabilities of smartphones.
Acute shortages of network bandwidth remain a huge problem for deployed troops. “All the greatest apps in the world are useless if you don’t get the connectivity,” Rodger Knox, of Northrop Grumman Corp., says in aJune interview at the first NIE. “You need the commercial cell capability to provide the bandwidth,” Knox says.
For the October event, the emphasis will be on mobile connectivity.
LGS is offering a “rapidly deployable network” — a 4G wireless broadband system that can be mounted in a military vehicle. Kelly says he is hopeful that if soldiers give the product positive reviews at the NIE, the Army will buy it in large quantities.
Tech experts see smartphones and 4G networks as a match made in wireless heaven.
The combination of an advanced cellular base station and mesh networking would give soldiers tens of megabits per second of data throughput in moving vehicles, Kelly says.
The Army sooner, rather than later, must bridge the bandwidth deficiency gap that exists today in combat zones, says Kelly. The contrast between the connectivity that soldiers are accustomed to at home and what is given to them when they deploy is “mindboggling,” Kelly says. “There’s orders of magnitude difference between the throughput capacity and processing capacity on the commercial platforms compared to combat systems.”
Even the military’s newest radios, theJoint Tactical Radio System, or JTRS, have very rudimentary data processing capability, he says. “It’s a serial processor on board a handheld push-to-talk radio that is using technology that looks an awful lot like the walkie-talkies we used in the Vietnam War.”
By contrast, iPhones or Android devices now come with multi-gigahertz processors, and function as computing platforms that also feature 3D cameras, motion sensing and built-in GPS. All that can be purchased for a few hundred dollars, whereas a JTRS handheld radio might cost $9,000, Kelly says. The poor throughput in military networks is even more glaring. A 4G network delivers speeds in excess of tens of megabits per second, compared to a few hundred kilobits per second to download data to a JTRS device.
Why, despite its multibillion-dollar IT budgets, has the Army failed to modernize?
The most obvious explanation is that, as in any large organization, change does not happen quickly. “There is not much you can do about that,” Kelly says. “A lot of policy and a lot of politicking need to take place in order to implement change.”
Another reason why smartphones may not become mainstream in the Army for a long time is the lack of globalized standards, Kelly says. Competing digital technologies — CDMA, TDMA, iDEN, GSM — that are supported by various cellular carriers create serious dilemmas for military buyers, as one phone won't work from one system to another. “It’s hard for the military to imagine what technology they’ll use when they don’t know what country they’ll be in next,” Kelly says. What works in one part of the world may not work elsewhere.
Another issue is radio spectrum. “The U.S. government owns very little spectrum,” Kelly says. When the military deploys overseas in a friendly environment, it can use what limited spectrum is reserved for the Defense Department. Even then, the restrictions are significant, says Kelly. As 4G networks become more standardized globally, the military will be able to use smart radios that can frequency hop and take advantage of unused spectrum.
Cybersecurity is another concern that has hindered adoption of smartphones, although the National Security Agency increasingly is finding new ways to protect data and devices, Kelly says.
The NSA has assigned an entire team of engineers to work on wireless communications security. The agency now recognizes that commercial smartphones are becoming de rigueur in official business. In the past, organizations such as the Defense Department or the CIA would buy customized secure phones that would cost thousands of dollars apiece. The NSA, Kelly says, “does not want another $8,000 cell phone. They want to use commercial cell phones and be able to modify the network components or add software to encrypt communications when necessary,” he says. “That’s new for the NSA. Typically they have not embraced this before. … They are getting more comfortable [with off-the-shelf technology].”
The economic benefits of commercial smartphones, he predicts, will outweigh other concerns.
Wireless technologies such as LTE and 4G already come with built-in security, Kelly says. In the early days of mobile devices, he recalls, “I could stand next to you with a Radio Shack scanner and listen to your conversation. That doesn’t happen anymore. … 4G is very sophisticated.” The time it would take a hacker to crack the encryption key would be much longer than the shelf life of the information itself, he says.
The Army’s much publicized interest in wireless networks and smartphones has caught the eye of many IT vendors that typically would have stayed away from the U.S. military market.
NowForce, an Israel-based smartphone software developer, has opened a subsidiary in New York, and is targeting U.S. military customers.
The company was selected to participate in the coming NIE, and will be offering a mobile command-and-control smartphone app that already is being used by Israel Defense Forces and emergency-response organizations, says Evan Spier, director of business development.
The app was created for emergency first responders who, like deployed soldiers, suffer from a lack of network connectivity at the “last tactical mile” when they leave their vehicles. The software allows the commander of a small unit, for instance, to issue alerts or orders to every soldier under his watch.
Besides smartphone apps, one of the most anticipated pieces of equipment at the October NIE is the so-called “war fighter information network-tactical,” or WIN-T — a high-speed backbone communications network that connects deployed units to the mother of all military networks, the Defense Department’s Global Information Grid.
A new version of WIN-T, called Increment 2, for the first time will provide on-the-move communications for company-size units. A dozen vehicles are being outfitted with WIN-T antennas for the exercise.
To prepare vendors for the NIE, the Army will be hosting an “industry day” Sept. 8 in El Paso, where vendors will be apprised of the Army’s latest info-tech needs. They also will be briefed on the equipment that will be used by the “evaluation brigade” — the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, which is based at Fort Bliss. The brigade will conduct its simulated deployment at White Sands Missile Range, N.M. The environment there resembles the conditions in Afghanistan.
This will be the second of four NIE events leading up to a full-blown brigade-level network evaluation scheduled for late 2012.