Magazine article National Defense

In Damage Control Mode, Army Builds Future Network for Combat Brigades

Magazine article National Defense

In Damage Control Mode, Army Builds Future Network for Combat Brigades

Article excerpt

For the Army, this may be its last chance of salvaging the surviving pieces of the ill-starred "future combat systems."


Working to the Army's advantage is that what remains of FCS is something that soldiers need and currently don't have: A mobile communications network that can be accessed by everyone on the battlefield, even small units that constantly move around.

Current command-and-control and communications systems in the Army were designed for division-and brigade-level use. Before Iraq and Afghanistan, smaller units were not a high priority and, to this day, have limited means of tapping into the Army's battle-command networks. Today's systems also lack enough range or capacity for data to stream down to those small units that are scattered across hundreds of miles.

During the past nine years at war, much of the responsibility for intelligence gathering and counterinsurgency operations has fallen on small units, so commanders have been seeking ways to extend the network down to lower echelons, and even down to the individual soldier.

Troops have voice-communications devices, such as push-to-talk FM radios. But that is not the technology the Army had envisioned for the information age. Army leaders have spoken for years about their desire to provide Internet connectivity to the entire force, and to be able to deliver voice and data from a single device, such as a software-programmable radio or even a smartphone.

The rhetoric, however, has not matched the reality. The closest the Army has come to having an IP network at the squad level is in the "land warrior" system--an ensemble that includes a communications and navigation computer-radio suite. In the land warrior network, each member can pinpoint the others' locations by simply looking at a display. But this is only a niche solution and does not solve the larger problem of connecting every element of a deployed brigade.

After more than a decade of failed attempts--and billions of dollars spent without achieving results--the pressure is on for the Army to fix this. Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli said that the "network" is now the cornerstone of the service's modernization strategy. "It will require an open architecture that will allow further plug-and-play development in the future as our network grows and matures," Chiarelli said at an industry conference last year.

The Army's answer to Chiarelli's call comes in the form of a program called Early Infantry Brigade Increment 1, or E-IBCT--the surviving offspring of the future combat systems. Defense Secretary Robert Gates terminated the vehicles that were in development under FCS but directed the Army to perfect the network and focus on the technologies that soldiers need now.

The equipment that is being acquired under the E-IBCT includes hovering unmanned aircraft, small ground robots, a rocket launcher, robotic motion sensors and a network integration kit to send and receive data from these systems.

The Army's 3rd Infantry Brigade of the 1st Armored Division, which is scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan in 2012, will be the launch customer for the new technologies. Soldiers from the brigade are testing the systems at Fort Bliss, Texas. The plan is for more brigades to be equipped with the advanced network later this decade, and to eventually outfit all 73 brigades.

But the project has not gone smoothly by any means. Earlier this year, Army officials were grilled on Capitol Hill over Defense Department test reports that the E-IBCT had failed critical trials and was being rushed to deployment nonetheless. Lawmakers have slammed the program, and as a result, the Army's $ 1 billion request for E-IBCT for fiscal year 2011 is in jeopardy.

The negative reviews and poor test results drove the Army into action, and officials are now making an aggressive public-relations push to show that E-IBCT has corrected the problems and remains on a path toward a 2012 deployment. …

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