Big Challenges Face Army in Quest to Revamp Network

By Magnuson, Stew | National Defense, October 2018 | Go to article overview

Big Challenges Face Army in Quest to Revamp Network


Magnuson, Stew, National Defense


Of the Army's top six modernization priorities, "the network" ranks number four, but it is perhaps number one in terms of its complexities and challenges, senior service leaders have said.

Seth Spoenlein, deputy director of the space and terrestrial communications directorate at the Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center, said the Army sometimes has a hard time explaining to industry what it needs because its network and the problems it faces are so complex.

It touches on every other of the six priorities: long-range fires, combat vehicles, vertical lift, air-and-missile defense and soldier lethality. None of these can function on the battlefield without communication links, he said at the National Defense Industrial Association's Army Science and Technology Conference.

"If you want that gun to go farther, first I have to find and fix the target. I need sensors to do that. I need to send that information back. I need to process that through mission command. I need to make a decision. Hit that button and let it launch and track it to make any inflight adjustments," he said.

And how the network is used changes depending on the platform. A helicopter pilot has challenges that differ from soldiers on the ground or the driver of a fighting vehicle, he noted.

The problem has been particularly acute over the past few years as the Army realized that its communications nodes could be particularly vulnerable in battle zones. Peer and near-peer competitors may be able to quickly find, fix and destroy command posts that communicate with higher headquarters as well as small units in the field. The network may also be susceptible to jamming or cyber attacks.

This realization led in 2017 to the Army halting future iterations of the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical system, the service's expeditionary communications backbone. Senior leaders said it was too vulnerable to attack and too complex for soldiers to use. The service is now revamping its battlefield network plans.

It is still early in the process, Spoenlein said. "We haven't even taken the first step--maybe step .05--of walking us in the direction of getting the requirements, acquisition, the [science and technology] communities together to focus on the problem," he said.

Mary Miller, performing the duties of assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering, said, "We need to have reliable comms. We need to have redundant comms." And the Army "can't just wholesale replace the legacy infrastructure," she added.

Adversaries can disrupt networks, she said. If they degrade or destroy communication nodes, the network should have self awareness and be self healing, she added.

"This is work that is early days, but it is work that absolutely needs to be done because our current capabilities are not suitably protected," she said.

Spoenlein added: "You may have the greatest sensor in the world but if you can't move that data, what value is it?"

However, CERDEC officials at a media day at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, earlier in the summer, said they were in some ways ahead of the curve. They anticipated many of the network challenges long before the top six modernization priorities came to light, and had begun work on some of the problems: particularly the vulnerability of stationary command posts, said Beth Ferry, power division chief at the command. "We were already tracking that and already on it," she added.

CERDEC is at the end of a three-year effort called the "Expeditionary Mission Command Science and Technology Objective," which is working on improving mobile command posts, the tactical computing environment and the energy sources needed to fuel them.

The suite of technologies growing out of the program have so far undergone operational tests on four continents and in 12 exercises, and there are plans for more, said J. …

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