FORT BLISS, Texas — The Army is introducing the power of 4G to the battlefield, providing coverage that stretches across a forward operating base so Soldiers can access mission information from their smartphones, not their desks.
The 4G LTE infrastructure is part of a new collection of advanced commercial technologies, including coalition and first responder capabilities and Wi-Fi for command posts, that answer Soldiers’ demands for tactical network systems delivering increased bandwidth and enhanced capabilities in smaller packages.
“Soldiers and commanders in tactical operations centers need more bandwidth for data-intensive tasks like sending large PowerPoint files, maps, and full motion video,” said Lt. Col. Joel Babbitt, product manager for Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, or PdM WIN-T, Increment 1, which is responsible for fielding this new equipment. “The transformational nature of these technologies is increasing situational awareness and effectiveness for Soldiers at all echelons.”
The Army fielded the Tactical Network Transmissions, known as TNT, equipment package for the first time to the 86th Expeditionary Signal Battalion, to support the Network Integration Evaluation, or NIE, 14.2 at Fort Bliss, Texas. NIE 14.2 was the seventh in the Army’s series of semi-annual evaluations designed to integrate and mature the tactical network in a relevant operational environment.
As their name suggests, the expeditionary nature of ESBs requires agility and advanced communications capabilities. These units are flexible and modular in nature, so they can support a vast range of missions in the most austere regions. They primarily support other units that don’t have their own communications equipment. ESBs can support higher headquarters at corps and division, but they also have smaller teams to support units within a brigade combat team, or when needed, to provide network support for natural disaster relief efforts or other emergencies around the world.
The Army is providing the new TNT equipment collection to significantly increase network capability and throughput while reducing size, weight and power, to help ESBs become leaner, more versatile and rapidly deployable. Some of the TNT equipment is also scheduled to be fielded to National Guard units for improved communications during civil support such as natural disasters.
Among the multiple capabilities provided by the TNT equipment is Wi-Fi coverage for the tactical operations center, removing some of the cables that tend to clutter command posts and allowing Soldiers to roam from their desks so they can be more effective. In addition, a 4G LTE infrastructure, which covers the entire forward operating base, allows Soldiers to use their secure network on the battlefield via smartphones, and in the near future they will be able to use laptops and tablets with the capability as well.
“Commanders can just pick up their cell phones and directly call or text anyone they need to within the radius. It’s a much faster line of communication,” said Cpl. Michael Bullis, Company B, 86th ESB, who operated the equipment at NIE 14.2. “On the software end, Soldiers have a centralized knowledge base on their phones, and the Army will continue to add apps to provide a more realistic view of what is going on in operations.”
As part of the TNT effort, the Army married its 4G LTE/Wi-Fi system with a National Security Agency encryption solution, Commercial Solutions for Classified. It uses the same encryption technology as the commercial internet, enhanced for military purposes, enabling the Army to avoid research and development costs to incorporate this advanced technology. TNT is the first DoD program to use Commercial Solutions for Classified for military utility.
“Medics can use the 4G phones in forward operations, with apps like ‘patient tickets,’” Bullis said. “They put the information directly into their phone while they are right there on the scene, instead of having to come back, or give the information to someone over a radio to type it in.”
The TNT technologies also include the Tropo Lite terminal, nick-named “Tropo in a can” by Soldiers, because of its transit-cased deployability. Tropo Lite bounces microwaves off the atmosphere for high-speed transfer of large volumes of data between sites and over mountains — providing an alternative to expensive satellite communications.
TNT also includes a smaller, more transportable line-of-sight radio system, called “TRILOS,” which significantly increases throughput over legacy radios increasing throughput from 16 Mbps to 200 Mbps.
“Having more throughput means faster and more reliable services, and in wartime it is critical for a commander to send his message quickly,” said Capt. Levelle Moore, Company B commander, 86th ESB.
This spring’s NIE included increased joint and coalition force participation, and to help support the coalition aspect of the event, the TNT package introduced the versatile Mission Network Enclave, known as MNE. Within 10 minutes, this network stack can be reconfigured to provide tactical access for one of four different networks: the coalition network, Secure Internet Protocol Router, Non-secure Internet Protocol Router, or commercial Internet and phone service. This flexibility enables MNE to support either coalition operations or civil support, such as first responders in disaster relief efforts.
The system’s integrated radio-bridging and cross-banding solutions provide seamless interoperability among disparate radio nets that previously could not communicate. The need for this type of capability was made evident by communication lapses such as those that occurred during Hurricane Katrina relief, when first responders could not communicate between agencies.
“MNE is going to be great because we may be called to support a natural disaster or an emergency around the country, like Hurricane Katrina or Sandy,” said Maj. Rickie Meers, operations officer for the 86th ESB. “MNE is going to enable us to integrate all the different civilian agencies and combine all of their different radio systems and frequencies to be able to talk quickly between each of the agencies, and with everyone out there. That is invaluable.”
Along with increased capability, ease of use and size, weight and power reduction are high priorities for the Army, and Soldiers in the field are beginning to notice significant improvements as technology evolves. Before the turn of the century, electronic devices such as televisions were large and cumbersome, and it took a lot of effort to move from location to location. But fast forward to 2014, and movies are being watched on smartphones and tablets. As technology continues to evolve, it’s going to make missions easier on Soldiers and their units, Moore said.
Additionally, today’s Soldiers have grown up in a digital age and are often found teaching their parents how to operate the remote. The Army is working to make new technologies such as TNT more intuitive and easy to operate, which will also ease Soldiers’ burdens, he said.
“Soldiers are used to having some of this technology at home, so they just pick it up and can use it right away,” Moore said. “These new capabilities are going to be an asset in the long run, and the Soldiers are excited about receiving this equipment.”