High-Speed Wireless on the Battlefield Is Coming, But Not Soon Enough
Fed up with the slow pace of military procurement, Army leaders last year launched a fast-track effort to bring the latest wireless communications technologies to soldiers in the field.
A series of “network integration evaluations,” or NIE events began last summer at Fort Bliss, Texas, and White Sands Missile Range, N.M. The third one is about to get under way. But so far no major technological breakthroughs have emerged, and the process has moved slower than Army officials had predicted.
Despite red tape and other obstacles, the Army still believes that the NIE is the right path toward the deployment of state-of-the-art communications for troops, said Army Maj. Gen. Tony Cucolo, director of force development for the deputy chief of staff, G-8.
“Network integration evaluations are doing what we need them to do: Put promising technology in the hands of soldiers,” Cucolo told reporters April 12.
Several contractors who have participated in NIE events have complained that, so far, the Army has spent most of the time testing existing “programs of record” such as the Joint Tactical Radio System and the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, and has not made major purchases of commercial technology that is being offered by non-incumbent vendors.
Cucolo said he understands industry’s impatience but cautioned that the Army is doing its best to adjust to this process. “This is new to us,” he said. “I completely understand industry standing off to the side with their arms folded, wondering if the internal investment is worth it and asking, ‘What’s the outcome?”
Procurement deals are coming, he said. “We’re growing and improving with every NIE.”
Mike McCarthy, a senior Army civilian who oversees communications technology programs, said that reforming the acquisitions process is going to take some time.
“We are working with how we do acquisitions,” he said. “We don’t like the pace of acquisition, but we have a lot of federal regulations that we have to adhere to, for good reasons.”
The next step will be to convince Pentagon overseers to help expedite purchases of new technology, after the Army reveals its wish list.
“OSD [the office of the secretary of defense] has been very open to the way we’re operating,” Cucolo said. It will be up to the Army, however, to provide “hard test data” that prove the desired equipment meets technical and performance requirements and should be sped through to production, he said.
Army Col. Gregg Skibicki, a G-8 official, said it is premature to commit to specific products until the Army is comfortable that the network meets the needs of deployed forces. “The number one demand is thickening the network,” Skibicki said. By that, he meant that wireless systems will have to be reliable enough to connect Army units and foreign allies dispersed over large areas, and soldiers will have to be able to access the network from moving vehicles.
“We have to push as much data to soldiers as possible,” he said. Many advances so far have emerged from NIE tests, Skibicki added. “We have full-motion video, and the ability to talk on secure nets at lower levels than we ever thought possible,” he said.
So will Army brigades soon go to war armed with smartphones and 4G wireless?
It remains to be seen if and when that happens, said McCarthy. The Army’s program executive officer for soldier equipment is “looking at that,” he said. There is no consensus yet on what technology is the most “cost effective and operationally effective,” McCarthy said.
Cucolo said he is confident that advanced communications are on their way. “We need to build the best four-lane information superhighway … from the two-star joint task force headquarters down to the platoon and squad,” he said. “They will have video, voice and imagery, on the move.”