Army Testing New Tactical Network Capabilities
The Army’s stock of radios and other tactical communications systems is slated for an upgrade.
Over the next few years, the service plans on improving its tactical network by fielding new sets of capabilities on a biennial basis. Through a series of experiments, the Army has begun using soldier feedback to determine what its future communications systems will look like on tomorrow’s battlefields. National Defense recently sat down with a group of officials to discuss the service’s vision.
“It is completely an iterative process,” said Col. Rob Ryan, deputy director of the Army’s network cross-functional team, which is spearheading the modernization effort.
“There’s no shot clock in how we do this because what is your iPhone going to look like in 2030? You don’t know how [you are] going to communicate in 2030.”
Col. Garth Winterle, project manager for tactical radios and integrated tactical network, said the service plans to field new capability sets to four brigade combat teams in fiscal year 2021, five BCTs in fiscal year 2022, and then six BCTs per year starting in fiscal year 2023.
The service will begin focusing on fielding new capabilities and equipment to light infantry units, then switch to Stryker and armored brigades in 2023.
“There’s some simplicity to it and there’s some difficulty with it,” Ryan said. “Strykers are relatively newer, one of the newer things we have on the battlefield. Bradleys and tanks have been around for a while, so we have some really good challenges.”
However, the service will still be able to build on the work done in the previous capability sets because Strykers will move around dismounted soldiers, Winterle noted.
“The infantry dismounts in a Stryker brigade are going to use very similar soldier-worn equipment,” he said. But the Stryker provides additional advantages because it can take on heavier network equipment and provide access to more power, he noted. “There’s a lot of things we can then add to that vehicle that I wouldn’t be able to do on … a light vehicle.”
The “backbone” of capability set 21 is the current Leader Radio and Manpack Radio, he noted. The service will also add commercial-off-the-shelf, nondevelopmental item solutions.
“A lot of it is kit that’s already part of programs of record,” said Col. Shane Taylor, project manager for tactical network. However, some improvements may be made to these existing systems through engineering change proposals or modification work orders, he noted.
To define a fielding strategy and determine how the Army wants to improve the tactical network, the service has been conducting experiments with new equipment. These systems were tested with the Army’s new security force assistance brigade in Afghanistan so the service could obtain soldier feedback in theater, Winterle said. That feedback provided by the units will help the service determine how it will adjust and apply the technologies to infantry brigade combat team operations.
The Army already knew that some of the legacy equipment didn’t work well, Winterle said. For instance, the service prefers newer mesh networks over the old Soldier Radio Waveform.
The service also held a preliminary design review in May to see if there were commercial-off-the-shelf solutions that are ready to be fielded now, Winterle said. Through the review, “we’ve kind of locked in the design of the architecture” and examined what capabilities or improvements the Army may want to add to its current stock of tactical communications systems, he said.
One of the major potential changes includes having units at the battalion level and below operate at the unclassified level, he noted. The service wants to have more secure unclassified radios, which would be more affordable than classified systems. The Army may also run mission command platforms on vehicles at a lower classification level, he noted.
Studies show that most tactical information at the battalion level and below is unclassified, he noted. By changing the systems’ classification levels, soldiers would have more flexibility for participating in multinational or coalition exercises. And it is expected to make the network simpler, he noted.
“We’re executing a network architecture that moves most of those to secure or unclassified in order to kind of provide us [with] a better range of options for the commander on the ground,” Winterle said.
However, these platforms will still be encrypted to ensure they are secure.
“The reality of it is we’ve probably been over-classifying our networks and making it more complicated and more expensive in the past,” Winterle noted. “We are going to have different classification boundaries out there and we have to be cognizant of where those are and put basically stopgaps in place to make sure there’s no spillage across that network.”
The teams are also pursuing different types of servers down to the battalion level to increase the mobility of the unit. Typically, battalions need to rely on a brigade headquarters, but integrating new servers would eliminate that need.
“The brigade would have to be out in the field for all the battalions to be able to talk to each other,” he said. “This sort of breaks that paradigm by moving some of that compute [capability] down to the battalions … so they can operate independently.”
There are also additional ways to connect or extend system ranges. The Army has tethered drones that can elevate radios 200 or 300 feet in the air for better connectivity and data throughput, Winterle noted.
Ryan said the Army wants its tactical communications network to have modular systems so it can make quick upgrades.
“If I have modular systems, I’m not pulling out necessarily the whole system — maybe a part of this system of systems — and that allows us creativity and allows us modernization,” he said. As the service moves ahead in its capability sets, it will need to build upon previously fielded equipment.
Additionally, implementing the integrated tactical network platforms through capability sets rather than focusing on acquisition category programs ensures the Army is not wed to a single solution long term, Taylor noted. The service hopes to make fixes and changes to its systems quickly as it moves through the process of developing its vision for the future tactical network.
Multiple companies are contributing equipment to the experiments. The service is trying to stay away from sole-source vendors, Winterle said. Following the experiments, the Army will still competitively award procurement contracts unless there is “absolutely only one vendor” that can provide a capability, he noted.
The service will also leverage its science-and-technology work and see if it can bring in multiple small businesses and academia for support, Ryan said.
“If we can do that, we can keep this site picture as wide as we can,” he said. “We can see best of brand and that’s what we’re after.”
Previously, the Army was able to test new and emerging network technologies through its yearly Network Integration Evaluation event, which ended in late 2018 after about seven years. However, the service still plans to hold large-scale evaluations by holding a brigade-size demonstration for every capability set before “locking down” what it wants, Winterle said.
A two-week demonstration will be held in February with the 82nd Airborne Division. A battalion will be outfitted with new tactical network technologies and act as an opposing force against another battalion.
The Army is executing these demonstrations within the resources it has available to them, but Winterle said he predicts the demonstration for the 2023 capability set will be conducted with a full battalion of Strykers and an armored brigade headquarters.
“It’s not NIE — we don’t have those kind of resources — but it’s an opportunity to bring in … early prototypes to see, ‘OK, is this useful in the field at a small scale in that concept of operations?’” Winterle said. “I can bring in upgrades to my programs of record and they can actually be demonstrated and executed at the same time at the brigade level.”
The Army will also use smaller exercises throughout the year such as battle lab events to test new capabilities and will continue to hold industry engagements, he noted.
“We’re going to leverage every single opportunity we have to get capabilities into soldiers’ hands and get immediate feedback,” he said.
Currently, the service is examining potential technologies using Defense Logistics Agency contracts to conduct “on-ramping events,” Winterle said. This would allow companies to show their products and potentially participate in week-long assessments to determine if they are viable to put on contract.
“If I have three vendors that show up to that assessment, I could — and probably will — focus on trying to buy from all three vendors and get those into different units [to see],
‘OK, which one’s better? What do I like about this radio?’” he said.
However, the goal is to move towards indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contracts in fiscal year 2021, Winterle said.