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Army's RCO eyes rapid prototyping in electronic wafare

December 12, 2016 (Photo Credit: ViaSat)
The Army’s newly established Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO), which stood up at the end of August, is faring well and getting better, according to its director. The key to its continued success — and more important, its funding — will be baby steps in order to demonstrate continued successes.

“We’re going to start small over the next few years, mainly focused on [research, development, test and evaluation], then focus on procurement,” Doug Wiltsie, the RCO director, told C4ISRNET in an interview. “We’ve had initial conversations with the staff members of both the authorization committees and the appropriations committees. We’ve gotten their feedback on what they would be willing to support and so we’re building a funding strategy that will align with that. And then we believe that it will grow overtime. As you’re successful, as you show transparency, as you show that we are accountable for what we’re doing, I expect that the trust level will go up and we’ll be able to expand that over time.”

The main projects the office is focused on currently involve delivering the ability to operate in an electronic warfare-contested or GPS-denied environment as well as trying to accelerate the Army’s capability in cyber, Wiltsie said. From a strategic risk standpoint, he noted, these three focus areas are “all on about the same plane,” and despite the fact that one area isn’t necessarily a higher priority than the other, solutions in some areas are being delivered faster than others.

“Electronic warfare, I would say, without speaking for them, probably somewhat trumps cyber as we move forward as we look at certain theaters we need to operationalize certain capabilities," Brig. Gen Patricia Frost, who leads the Army’s recently established cyber directorate at the Pentagon encompassing cyber and electronic warfare (EW), said last week at the Association of Old Crows' annual symposium regarding the RCO.

Wiltsie said the RCO is working on plans to do rapid prototyping in both the EW area and then in the GPS-denied area with a board meeting on Dec. 13 to discuss the way ahead for these capabilities.

In developing rapid prototypes and solutions to mitigate the capability gaps observed in the field, Wiltsie explained the RCO is taking advantage of Army exercises such as the annual Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) and the Army Warfighting Assessment (AWA), which just wrapped up in October. AWA was focused on meeting three key objectives: training for joint and multinational partners; improving interoperability with joint and international partners; and continuing the assessment of concepts and capabilities for future force development for the Army.  

Wiltsie described a pair of vignettes that took place at AWA, an exercise along with NIE that he described as “really critical for us to be able to get feedback, do operational assessments, do risk reduction on prototyping as we go forward in” the EW, cyber, and position, navigation and timing (PNT) areas of focus.

The first vignette involved the use of prototypes developed for EW, which allow for greater understanding of not only the performance of the prototypes themselves — along with repurposing equipment already in use by the Army — but how they would be integrated in battle. This also helped discern what the operational plan for that kind of contested environment might be and how the troops participating might fare in executing the plan, Wiltsie said.

He said they learned at the exercise a great deal both from a technology and force-posture perspective in how the units would be organized, how they might implement these devices and from what information they could benefit. This is especially critical as the Army is readying its first electronic warfare units.

Frost also explained in early December that the Army is looking to create a new career field and operational detachment specifically for electromagnetic operations, which is targeted to come online within the next year.

The solutions being developed in the EW space by RCO are solely focused in the European theater, Wiltsie explained. He noted that EW became a solution that could be implemented quickly and meets a high need.

“This is a very important need because it gives us the ability to fight in this anti-access, area-denial environment, the cross-domain environment,” Wiltsie said. “We’ve seen that in the equipment that the Russians have used both in the Crimea, in Ukraine, in Syria and so this is a threat that we’ve got to be able to deal with and be able to operate in that environment. That solution set will get us going until the enduring program for electronic warfare starts out in '18. We’re here to fill that gap before that system goes into production.”

Interoperability and training with coalition partners is becoming an increasingly important aspect as many officials warn the U.S. will not deploy or go to war alone. “If you’re going to fight [Russian EW capabilities] in Europe, you’re clearly going to fight with NATO and the NATO partners, you have to take that into consideration,” Wiltsie said. “It can’t be a U.S. Army-only solution. The way the fighting forces in NATO are being organized, they are multinational task forces. So they’ll be U.S. troops with British troops with Polish troops with French troops all in the same organization. That gives them a great capability and it puts another requirement on us to be able to identify how this thing will play across the multinational task force.”

While several partner nations participated at the recent AWA exercise, Wiltsie said the EW operational vignette was only limited to U.S. forces because it was injected late into the process, preventing the proper adjudication across all partners. He did note, however, that coalition partners and capabilities must be taken into consideration from the very beginning in crafting prototypes and solutions as to be able to interoperate with coalition systems. Disproportional upgrades and integration of new solutions into operating concepts asymmetric to its allies will, in fact, hinder future operations, not necessarily offset adversarial advances.

Wiltsie also a defensive cyber operation from the AWA exercise. This operation took place at the brigade level, Wiltsie said, allowing the force to conduct defensive operations of the network as it was running during the exercise as a means of evaluating how the organization would handle an attack.

This is significant, as the Army is seeking to integrate cyber protection teams from Army Cyber Command into brigade combat teams. The Army is executing a program called Cyber Support to Corps and Below, which is described as the integration of cyber effects to the tactical edge to support real-world missions and unified land operations.

More generally on the cyber front, Wiltsie said they’re working very closely with ARCYBER to establish the requirements and a direction at which point they’ll align what they want to focus on as opposed to the ongoing projects going on in the cyber world.

The third area RCO is working on is in position, navigation and timing. The office is specifically focused on the ability to understand when forces are in a GPS-denied environment, sense the level of jamming, and give ground and air maneuver forces alternative solutions that, while they might not be as accurate as GPS, will provide both the understanding of position and navigation and then the ability to provide to the equipment inside those vehicles a timing aspect. The timing aspect is crucial for the subsystems inside either a combat vehicle or an aircraft, Wiltsie noted.

“These are real-world missions, and that’s why we’re focused on them,” Wiltsie said of the mission sets on which RCO is working. “What’s very, very important to understand here is the Rapid Capabilities Office is focused on those strategic risk areas that we don’t have a solution or on a technology that will allow us to leapfrog and provide overmatch to U.S. forces​.”

In addition to Russia’s advanced capabilities, especially in EW, which Wiltsie said they couple with UAVs to give them the ability to do precision indirect fires, he listed four top threats the Joint Staff and defense secretary have offered: China, Iran, North Korea and the “plus one,” or violent extremists. “Those are really the five that we are focused on to be able to provide the capability the Army needs to be able to operate in those environments,” he said.

Within the next three months, Wiltsie said they’ll implementing an incremental solution for EW specifically focused on European forces, and that they’ll be looking at prototyping PNT solutions primarily for ground forces, followed by air and cyber capabilities to detect anomalies in these environments and defend networks.

"So in a year I hope to be implementing all three as well as others that the board of directors define as new projects that we need to move forward with,” he said.
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