What Battlefield Network Should the Army Buy? The Debate Continues

By Sandra I. Erwin

Senior Army leaders traveled to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, this week searching for clarity on how the service should modernize its battlefield information networks and communications systems.

This is a question senior officials have been trying to answer for years and one that continues to be a thorn in their sides. Much attention and billions of dollars have been poured into research, development and procurements of tactical radios and networking technologies but commanders in the field have been less than satisfied by the results thus far.

The challenge of building a cutting-edge battlefield network has become even more complex in recent years as U.S. combat units cry out for more interoperable systems that are compatible with those of other civilian agencies and foreign coalition partners.

Gen. David Perkins, commander of the Training and Doctrine Command hosted a “Mission Command Network Summit” Sept. 22 to address interoperability issues and other tactical communications shortfalls in the Army.

The gathering at Fort Leavenworth was intended to help leaders “figure this out,” Perkins said last week at the Army Maneuver Warfighter Conference in Fort Benning, Georgia.

“What kind of network do we buy? It’s a huge question,” Perkins asked.

TRADOC spokesman Greg Mueller said the summit is “one of many events the Army will use to inform its mission command network refinement effort.” The goal is to “receive and integrate input from senior operational leaders on requirements and capabilities by echelon, and priorities for modernization over time.”

Perkins noted that the problem reaches beyond the realm of the traditional military acquisition process. Typically the Army meets its equipment requirements by “buying things” but it is now finding that the conventional approach does not work for battlefield networks or other complex systems the Army wants to modernize, such as combat vehicles.

“It’s not technology for technology’s sake,” he said. “It’s technology combined with soldiers in formation.” This requires fresh thinking, he added. “When we come up with plans to buy things, we haven’t always done well at that,” he added. The new mantra is to “develop strategy to build capability.”

The deployment of a modern battlefield network is becoming a bigger concern as the Army faces pressure to recast itself as a global “expeditionary” force that can respond to crises on short notice.

Transportable, reliable communications, and command-and-control systems are essential to that vision. Many of the systems the Army has been developing for decades such as a joint tactical radio system and mobile satellite communications for moving vehicles are still in development or scheduled for production in the coming years. A new wireless command post is in the early development phase and may not be ready until the next decade.

The holy grail is what the Army calls “network enabled mission command.” It is a combination of equipment and tactics that provide leaders at the company level and below with reliable tactical communications and access to important data in forward-deployed areas.

The realization that the Army needed to shift gears on network modernization led to recent changes in how technologies are tested and how the Army solicits feedback from soldiers on what works in combat.

During the same week Army leaders debated network issues at Leavenworth, a major exercise known as “network integration evaluation” got underway at Fort Bliss, Texas. This exercise, called NIE 16.1, marks a change from how the Army has conducted NIE trials over the past six years. Thus far, the semi-annual NIEs put Army communications technology to the test by allowing soldiers to formally evaluate systems in a field exercise. Future NIEs will focus on testing “programs of record” whereas experiments on future concepts will shift to a different event known as “Army war-fighting assessments.” Annual NIEs will be scheduled in the spring, and war-fighting assessments will occur in the fall.

Officials said interoperability with NATO allies is one of the priorities of this NIE. “The United Kingdom forces are the focus of multinational operations taking place throughout the NIE, which will also integrate Italian forces and personnel from 13 NATO countries,” said an Army news release.

The mission command network has been under almost constant review since Perkins took command at TRADOC. Underpinning these discussions is “senior TRADOC leader frustration over an inability to get to a cohesive consensus about what needs to be done,” said an industry source. “It’s messy and slow to deal with.”

The Army has enough money in its budget to equip two or three brigades per year with updated networks. “My concern is that the ability to plan and manage these networks organically is practically nil,” said the industry official. And Army units cannot organize and manage their networks without major contractor support. That is a problem when a rapid-response unit has to deploy on short notice and with a light logistics footprint.

Topics: C4ISR, Tactical Communications, Expeditionary Warfare, Infotech

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