Thirty years ago, Apple introduced the Macintosh computer with a splashy Super Bowl commercial and the bold promise that information technology could change the world – if it was easy to use and accessible by all.
Now, the Army wants to unlock the same potential for its next-generation tactical communications network.
From touchscreens and mission apps for soldiers to wireless networking for command posts, Army senior leaders today outlined their vision for a powerful, yet simple to operate tactical network designed to support both a more expeditionary force and a generation of Soldiers who are digital natives.
“We absolutely must change,” said Brig. Gen. Daniel P. Hughes, program executive officer for Command, Control, Communications-Tactical, or PEO C3T, the organization that provides the Army’s tactical network. “How many people have been to an iPhone training course? We’ve got to get to the point where the Army network is intuitive and omnipresent for our soldiers.”
Speaking to more than 250 representatives of large and small businesses during a Tactical Network Industry Seminar here, the leaders stressed the need to partner with industry and continuously inject next-generation technologies into the Army network to meet evolving operational needs from today through 2025 and beyond. To retain information dominance against adaptive adversaries and emerging threats, a smaller Army will not only need a robust, versatile and rapidly deployable tactical network – it will need a network that is intuitive for all soldiers to use.
After fielding the advanced, integrated tactical communications suite known as Capability Set 13, or CS 13, to select brigade combat teams, known as BCTs, supporting the advise-and-assist mission in Afghanistan, the Army’s focus is to extend similar networking capabilities to additional BCTs by fielding the follow-on CS 14 and subsequent capability sets, while applying soldier feedback to drive further technology improvements.
To meet these objectives, the Army requirements, acquisition and research and development communities have developed a Network Modernization Roadmap with three interconnected phases: Network 2.0 (fiscal years 2014-15), Simplified Tactical Army Reliable Network (STARNet, fiscal year 2016-20) and the Network After Next (NaN, 2020 and beyond). The roadmap is a blueprint for industry and government to focus development efforts and bring forward innovations to fill capability gaps. It will also help direct the Army’s limited modernization resources to investments that will have the greatest short-, mid- and long-term impact for the end user.
During the day-long seminar, Army officials described their technology goals for each phase of the roadmap, covering detailed focus areas from radios and smartphones to satellites and cyber security – all with the theme of providing intuitive systems that offer the same seamless communication and collaboration as the devices Soldiers use in their daily lives.
For example, in the area of mission command applications, the Army is seeking to standardize maps, messaging and icons across the tactical formation so soldiers experience a familiar interface from handheld devices to vehicle platforms to command posts. The Army will also incorporate more touchscreens and voice and gesture recognition capabilities, enabling commanders and Soldiers to request, receive and act on information more quickly during operations when time is of the essence.
And because tomorrow’s Soldiers are today’s middle school and high school students, that is exactly what they expect, said Jennifer Zbozny, chief engineer for PEO C3T.
“Everything they do is electronic, and it’s very intuitive to them – they just know,” she said. “That’s really the audience we are building for.”
Officials also discussed other key goals to increase network capacity and versatility in support of future missions, including advancing alternatives to satellites for beyond line of sight communications, improving radio and antenna designs, streamlining network management and configuration tools, and reducing the footprint of Tactical Operations Centers, or TOCs. Simplifying TOCs by consolidating hardware such as computers, wires and servers, reducing power requirements, leveraging wireless networking solutions and converting many hardware systems into software applications will enable units to set up and tear down their command posts more quickly and operate them more effectively.
Along with industry innovation, the roadmap will also leverage the expertise of the Army Science and Technology, known as S&T, community. The vision for the future network has been shaped not only by trends in commercial communications technologies, officials said, but also by ongoing Army S&T efforts in the areas of cyber security and anti-jamming, next-generation communications waveforms, dismounted and mounted navigation, and integrated, commander-centric mission command.
“As budgets get moderated, science and technology within the Army is being upheld,” said Robert Zanzalari, associate director of the Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center. “There is a need to continue to invest in the basic technologies we need.”
By outlining needs and synchronizing capability gaps now, the roadmap will help make the most of those investments and facilitate smoother technology transitions from Research and Development centers to programs of record, officials said.
Army laboratories will also serve as a key venue for industry to bring their proposed solutions for evaluation and integration with other network systems. Industry partners will receive detailed, timely feedback from the laboratories about their capabilities’ performance and areas for improvement, just as they do today as part of the Network Integration Evaluation, or NIE, process.
The NIE, a series of semi-annual field exercises that began in 2011, to rapidly integrate and improve network systems for fielding, will also play an important role in supporting the future network by providing a realistic operational environment to gather test data and Soldier feedback on emerging technologies. The next event, NIE 14.2 in May, will focus on validating the CS 15 network baseline and feature increased participation by joint and coalition forces.
“That’s what makes the NIEs so critical and so important for modernization,” said Col. Greg Baine, chief of brigade modernization integration for the Brigade Modernization Command. “It adds in that operational relevance to what it is we’re looking for.”
After completing six NIEs and successfully fielding CS 13, the Army has listened to feedback from industry partners and is implementing a new construct for NIE. The approach gives industry additional time to propose solutions to more focused capability gaps, which will be determined by periodic network baseline assessments.
“We will take every third NIE and put the entirety of the network in the field and assess it holistically,” said Col. Mark Elliott, director of the Army’s G-3/5/7 LandWarNet-Mission Command Directorate. “Whereas in the past we gave industry about six to eight months between when we would ask you to bring us a capability to the time we put it in the field, we’re now trying to give about an 18-month timeframe to help industry get after some things that take a little more lead time.”