Army Command Post Programs Face Pivotal Year
After years of work to make the Army’s mobile command posts more survivable, service leaders say they are on track to field two major updates to their systems during fiscal year 2023.
Army leaders first became concerned about the survivability of command posts operating close to battle zones when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014. During that conflict, Russian forces were able to quickly find and destroy Ukrainian command posts by using a combination of unmanned aerial vehicles and electronic signature detection.
Since then, the service has focused on two projects to make command posts more mobile and survivable.
The Command Post Computing Environment, or CPCE, aims to modernize the internal computing environment. The first version of the new system is already in a number of soldiers’ hands, the Army said.
The second program — Command Post Integrated Infrastructure, or CPI2 — seeks to increase command posts’ overall mobility and survivability.
The two programs are among the list of 24 programs Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville has pledged to have in the hands of soldiers by fiscal year 2023 — either as prototypes or fully-fielded systems.
The key problem with the legacy computing environment is the lack of interconnectivity, Lt. Col. Travis Rudge, Army product manager for tactical mission command, said in an interview.
In the past, applications “were stove-piped to mission command systems that pertained to their own warfighting function, which also meant they had typically their own hardware,” Rudge said. “They had different interfaces, so some didn’t connect to each other.”
As a result, commanders were unable to have “full visualization” of the battlefield, he said, describing someone in a swivel chair having to “move around to different screens to see different stuff, different data.”
The goal of the computing environment is to eliminate the swivel and collapse all those applications onto a “single pane of glass,” he said.
It “provides an easy-to-use common operational picture … through a single mission command suite operated and maintained by soldiers,” an Army fact sheet said. Pulling information from a variety of sources and vantage points, the system can give commanders a more complete, layered visual of the battlespace.
The computing environment is being developed and fielded in different “increments.” Increment 1 received full deployment approval December 2021 and has begun fielding to units, an Army press release said.
Increment 1 “marks the first significant convergence of warfighting functions into [the command post computing environment] and incorporates improvements across a wide range of applications,” the fact sheet said. Applications include “new mission planning and whiteboard tools, geospatial capabilities to converge some intel functions, and security and general performance enhancements.”
The 41st Field Artillery Brigade stationed in Grafenwoehr, Germany — the only Army fires brigade based in Europe — was the first to receive the new system, the statement said.
To date, more than 120 units have received a version of the computing environment, said Rudge.
Along with this convergence of software comes a reduction in the hardware footprint. Units using the computing environment are also fielding the latest version of the Tactical Server Infrastructure.
In comparison to the legacy server stacks, the newest hardware reduces weight by 800 pounds, decreases setup time by 63 percent and cuts startup time in half, the Army fact sheet said.
Increment 2, which is currently in development, is looking to reduce the hardware footprint even further with a cloud-enabled architecture.
Incorporating the cloud into the computing environment means it can provide “persistent mission command as a service,” Rudge said.
The cloud is “always going to be there, it’s always on,” he said. If a unit has to disconnect from the network during a mission, they can take their latest status of the computing environment and still execute the mission command on the move, Rudge explained.
“And then as soon as they’re able to — or maybe en route if possible — they will reconnect, and all the … functionality will still be there in the cloud just kind of waiting for them,” he added.
While the Army won’t be able to get rid of all the hardware, giving the environment access to the cloud will also improve command post survivability, Rudge said.
“Even though it’s going to be some combination of cloud and hardware, you’re going to have less hardware at some echelons,” he said. “Less hardware means less footprint. Less footprint means less vulnerability.”
The second iteration will be ready for testing and feedback from soldiers by March 2023, with the aim to complete final testing in the third quarter of fiscal year 2024, Rudge said.
Soldier testing and input has been critical to the development of the command post computing environment, said Justin Eimers, public communications deputy in the Army’s program executive office for command, control and communications-tactical.
“Taking this software, putting it in the hands of soldiers … in operationally relevant environments is an enormous benefit,” he said. “This program has been doing a ton of DevOps with units, who are providing feedback that we are … integrating into the software.”
For example, a whiteboard tool which allows for better collaboration was added to the computing environment as a “direct result of feedback from” soldiers, Eimers said.
Putting the products in the hands of soldiers has also played an important role in the development of the Command Post Integrated Infrastructure, which seeks to improve command post mobility by shifting from tents to vehicles, said Lt. Col. Jeremy Rogers, product manager for integrated infrastructure.
The new vehicle-based command post architecture comprises four different product lines: a mission command platform; a command post support vehicle; an integrated support system; and a mobile command group.
The first three products are “fully dependent on one another,” Rogers said.
“The [command post support vehicle] acts as the network comm locally within the command post. The mission command platform provides the office space that the commander and staff operate out of,” he explained.
The integrated support system provides “networking and voice configurations for the command post,” and can provide additional, tented seating and floor space if needed, he added.
The mobile command group is not a required piece of the integrated framework at this time but is “designed to allow commanders flexibility on the battlefield” if needed, Rogers said.
The mobile command group can provide the command post extra mobility “that allows the commander — kind of like a taxi service — to get them from point A to point B,” he said. However, others see this vehicle set acting as “a mobile pack that allows the commander to have a common operating picture while on the move,” Rogers said.
“We don’t necessarily have an understanding of what the capabilities are supposed to be integrated into [the mobile command group], so it’s difficult for us to move forward in that regard until we get an update in our” capability development document, said Rogers. That update is supposed to arrive sometime in fiscal year 2023, he added.
The program underwent a number of operational assessments last year, which gave the program the flexibility to modify the command posts, Eimers said.
“That’s providing us really valuable feedback for how commanders would use this entire set of tools in operational environments, operational scenarios to accomplish their mission,” he said. “We’re still taking a look at the holistic set of capabilities as part of CPI2, and really taking that feedback from commanders in the field on how they’re customizing that set of tools to meet their needs.”
The infrastructure offers the flexibility for a “building block approach,” Rogers added. Commanders can structure the command post for one mission, then reconfigure it for a different one.
The previous tent-based command post infrastructures “took anywhere from six to eight hours to displace at the [brigade combat team] level and 12 to 24 hours at the division level,” Rogers said.
The Army’s target tear-down time is 30 minutes, Rogers said. During the operational assessments, units with the most training could “place and displace their shelters in the 15-minute range,” with the average just over the 30-minute goal, he said.
One area where the command post still has room to improve is the wireless networking capability, Rogers said.
“No matter how much bandwidth you give a unit, they’re always going to want more,” he said. “Anytime you’re operating an entire command center over Wi-Fi, it does create some bandwidth constraints, and so we are looking at options to make that system better.”
The Army has tested “millimeter wave” capabilities as an alternative for command post communications, but that requires a line of sight that units won’t always have, Rogers said.
“If you’re in a densely wooded area, it makes it very difficult to establish that line of sight between the vehicles if they’re dispersed,” he said. “With Wi-Fi, you can overcome some terrain, but it decreases the range at which you can connect.”
The goal for the command post is to disperse “up to 250 meters between shelters,” he added.
Increment 0 of the command post integrated infrastructure will be fielded to brigade combat teams in the third quarter of fiscal year 2023, Rogers said. Increment 1 will undergo a “formal test to validate the final CPI2 design” within the next year, he added.
With both the command post computing environment and the integrated infrastructure — along with the Army’s many other modernization programs — the service is making many significant changes to how soldiers operate, Ajay Kochhar, a RAND Corp. senior technical analyst, said in an interview.
Having units test these new capabilities has allowed the Army to understand what works best for the warfighter and for the technology’s development, he added.
“My impression is that the Army is aware of the challenges … but it’s preparing to address them actively,” Kochhar said. “They recognize … the inherent challenge in introducing new technology — a new kind of technology at a different scale — [and] pairing that with a new way of operating.”
“Relative to other services, [it] seems like the Army is emphasizing an approach that utilizes experimentation to understand the viability, the utility, the ease, and how to improve” new technologies, he added.
The Army has conducted exercises with both systems at the same time so soldiers can gain hands-on experience of what the future holds, Rogers said.
“When we arrive with CPI2, we have those units bring their tactical servers, their tactical radios — and as part of our fielding, we install that equipment into our shelters to help provide the tactical command post for the unit,” he said.
When combining the two programs “you get a traditional flavor of what a command post would look like during those demonstrations,” he added.
Modernizing both the internal and external environments of the command posts at the same time will allow for greater capability going forward, Kochhar said.
“There are distinct functions being performed by these different categories of systems,” he said. “And the Army’s recognizing this, and focusing on each category of systems to evolve so they all work together in a much better way.”