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Army Seeks New Network Tech For New Brigades’ Post-Afghanistan Missions

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

A mobile Army command-and-control system called “WIN-T Increment 2” set up for testing at Aberdeen Proving Grounds.

Army Seeks New Network Tech For New Brigades’ Post-Afghanistan Missions

The U.S. Army is shrinking, but its appetite for new network technology is only going to grow. Though the military has invested massively in digital infrastructure over its decade in Afghanistan, that existing network is too static and headquarters-bound for the more mobile operations that the Army envisions after 2014. So while the service is cutting back on personnel, combat brigades, and (if Congress allows) new purchases of iconic heavy hardware like the M1 Abrams tank, its top procurement priority is a network that can connect troops on the move at every level, from division headquarters to four-man infantry teams in the field.

Even if the Army didn’t want to upgrade, it would still have to buy new command-and-control equipment, because it’s reorganizing its combat brigades to be more self-sufficient and robust for post-Afghanistan missions. While org chart is still being finalized, both official and unofficial statements strongly indicate that the new brigade structure will be beefed up to three battalions of combat troops – most current brigades have only two – and that the “brigade special troops battalion,” currently a grab-bag of assorted support subunits, will be upgraded to an engineer battalion. Because it’s disbanding some existing brigades due to budget cuts, the Army expects to have enough heavy equipment – tanks, trucks, armored troop carriers, bulldozers, etc. – to fill out the new formations, but new battalion headquarters will need new network equipment.

“It’s a lot of small stuff that just adds up,” said Maj. Gen. Anthony Cucolo, director of force development on the Army staff, in a recent roundtable for reporters. “[It’s] mostly communications… that we will have to buy.”

Nor is the Army satisfied with the communications systems currently available. “The idea is to pass voice data and imagery as fast as you can, and while on the move,” said Maj. Gen. Cucolo. When he commanded troops in Iraq in 2009-2010, Cucolo recalled, “one night one of my Stryker infantry platoons was out with the Iraqi police and we had full motion video of the target locations… but it only went down to the brigade [command post],” he said. “I wanted to get that imagery down to the platoon leader standing next to the Iraqi police. This effort we’re working on right now does that.”

Two key programs are central to that Army effort: a streamlined digital communications package for troops on foot called Nett Warrior – the latest incarnation of a long and troubled development program called Land Warrior – and, for commanders, the less romantically named WIN-T Increment 2, short for “Warfighter Information Network – Tactical.”

The current version of WIN-T, also known as Joint Network Node, offers impressive capabilities as long as you’re standing still, but it doesn’t operate on the move. That problem is tolerable waging counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq, because units typically stayed in the same area for months, if not a year or more, with well-established command posts overseeing just a few mobile patrols or convoys at any given time. But mobile connectivity is essential in an offensive like the 2003 blitzkrieg into Iraq, or even in a peaceful deployment to an area where U.S. troops haven’t been before and there is no established communications infrastructure, as is envisioned for the “building partnership capacity” missions the Army wants to ramp up around the globe.

“WIN-T Increment 2 is really our first moving wide-area network,” said Jennifer Zbozny, a senior engineer at the Army’s PEO C3T (Program Executive Office for Command, Control, and Communications – Tactical). Applications previously restricted to command posts – virtual white-boarding, artillery fire control, intelligence sharing – will now be available to commanders on the move. Outside the building on Aberdeen Proving Grounds where Zbozny spoke to reporters, Army testers have an array of vehicles set up with WIN-T 2 equipment, from a truck full of gear for a brigade or division commander (pictured above) to a Humvee-load for the lieutenant colonel in charge of a battalion. (In the field, the battalion commander kit would be mounted in a more heavily armored vehicle such as an MRAP, Stryker, or Bradley). Some of this gear was already field-tested at a Network Integration Evaluation in November at Fort Bliss, Texas, but WIN-T program manager Col. Ed Swanson said that was just a limited subset of the system rushed to the field after a truncated training program for the troops operating it; the real test for the full-scale system, he said, will come at the next NIE in May.

Also being put through its paces is the Nett Warrior system, intended to bring the network capabilities commanders have come to take for granted – at least, while they’re not moving – to individual foot troops on the ground. Nett Warrior plugs into the existing Rifleman Radio, a variant of the Joint Tactical Radio System already fielded to some units in Afghanistan, and uses the digital radio to access the Army network. Soldiers were unhappy with the version tested in November, so the Army is preparing a new model for the May test. The original Nett Warrior included a backpack-carried computer and a monocle-like display that flipped down, distractingly, over one eye. “It ended up weighing fourteen pounds,” said Col. John Morrison of the Army staff. Now it’s been stripped down to a wrist-mounted smartphone, hardened somewhat for military use, and not every soldier will get one, only leaders of four-man teams and larger formations. A new acquisitions process is allowing multiple commercial vendors to offer competing versions of the smartphone piece, said Morrison, so “there’re going to be three to four variants” at the Network Integration Evaluation in May.

If both systems prove out this time, the Army will start fielding them to operational brigades in the fall. And if they don’t? Maj. Gen. Lee Price, the head of PEO C3T, just said, “We prefer to be more optimistic.”

Edited at 4:17 pm on Tuesday, 20 March to clarify that Humvees are being used in WIN-T testing as stand-ins for more heavily armored vehicles.

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