As technical capabilities for soldiers – such as reliable tactical communications for expeditionary forces, cyber defense and electronic maneuvers – become more important as adversaries look to deny capabilities, the Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) aims to provide troops with the tools they need to succeed on the battlefield.

C4ISRNET reporter Mark Pomerleau recently caught up with John Willison, director of the space terrestrial communications directorate at CERDEC, to discuss his office's role in combating advanced threats and ensuring technical success.

C4ISRNET: Can you provide a brief overview of what your office is working on to help the warfighter?

WILLISON: We're a research, development and engineering organization. Our mission is twofold: One [part] is we do research and development. The other is we provide engineering support into program executive offices and program management offices. That engineering support, while it's not our core mission group, presents between two-thirds and three-quarters of what we do on a year-to-year basis.

From a science and technology (S&T) or a research and develop-ment (R&D) perspective our R&D budget is typically somewhere between $50 and $60 million a year, and we break that R&D work into four specific areas.

The first one is cyber and our emphasis within cyber is cyber defense, cyber situational awareness. ... Within that space we worry about cyber defense tools [and] network analysis tools for if an intruder is in the network.

The second space is uninterrupted communications. Between cyber and uninterrupted communications, it's really kind of two parts of the same problem. From a cyber [perspective] we're worried about cyber threats. From an uninterrupted communications [viewpoint] we're worried about either electronic warfare threats or limitations caused by the environment. The way we break that down is we're worried about contested environments – and that's an EW threat to our environment from an enemy, it is congested environments, and so that can be just how do we more effectively and efficiently use the spectrum that we have access to?

The third part of our portfolio is expeditionary networking, and here we're heavily leveraging commercial technologies and adapting them to the Army-unique space. So we get into things like how do you apply cellular on a battlefield, how do we apply broadband or ultralight band to allow soldiers to have less wires on them?

The final space – and it's a small space for us but it's an important space – is modeling and simulation.

C4ISRNET: What are the threats the Army is facing in this space?

WILLISON: Cyber is a lot harder to pin down the threat, but we have categories of threats. The insider threat is one category we're worried about. Cyberattacks are obviously another category that we're worried about. And depending on which category of threats we're worried about to the network and depending on where we're operating, we then look at different technologies or employing different tools to help the network operators, to help network defenders within that space.

The uninterrupted [communications space] is a little different. The threat doesn't necessarily evolve as quickly, so EW threats don't change as quickly as the cyber threats change, so we get an opportunity to do a more deliberate engineering assessment of what the threats are. But it's still a relatively complex space because you've got to worry about all the variables of what we've deployed into what regions, what capabilities does an enemy have that we understand and how have they deployed them in different regions and that's going to differ region to region, that's going to differ type of conflict by type of conflict, and that's going to differ from what forces of ours have we deployed and what forces have they deployed.

C4ISRNET: Everyone thinks of Russia as the top threat in EMS and EW. Who are some of the other threat actors in this space with significant capabilities?

WILLISON: From our perspective we think about threats in a couple of different ways. One is, when you say Russia is a threat, really what we're talking about is a couple of things. One is their technical capabilities and then the way they fight. Their technical capabilities aren't limited to them because they'll sell those technical capabilities to someone else, as will China, as will other folks. We've got to factor that in [so] that those capabilities won't be limited.

Now the way they fight is a different perspective and the theater is a different perspective as well. And so we've looked at this as kind of multi-dimensional ... and what are the capabilities that exist out there from a technical system and then how do they fight or how are they deployed. So it's more [regional] from our perspective.

When a lot of people talk about threats they talk about box on box – we've got a box and they've got a box; good starting point. How are those boxes deployed, what's the quantity, what other things do they work with? And then the third part we've layered in is what do we do with that? So instead of just saying my radio doesn't work, we can say, well, I can't do a [medical evacuation] call. That's more significant now than the folks that make the trade space, so we've broadened it to try and look at just not one theater.

C4ISRNET: With your engineering, S&T and R&D mission set, how do you work to transition the tools and capabilities within cyber, uninterrupted communications and expeditionary networking into programs of record and tools that the warfighter can use in theater? 

WILLISON: With our S&T investments we typically take a three-step approach. We start where we can with model and simulation activity, so that allows us [time] before we invest very heavily into building capabilities.

[Almost] every capability we're introducing into the Army ... has an effect on the network. You're falling in on a network that already has other people on that network competing for network capability, competing for spectrum usage. So importantly when we look at individual capabilities, we look at individual capabilities as modeled within the broader overall Army, joint or coalition environment.

From modeling and simulation, we then move into doing S&T once we get a prototype capability. The second step is going into lab-based risk reduction. So we bring that into our own federated network of labs so that we can take the capability that we've prototyped and embed that, integrate that into the overall environments. So that gives us some sense of if it meets the performance requirements that we've outlined.

The last step is we go into field-based production. For us, CERDEC overall, we've got two specific field-based risk reduction venues – both are up in New Jersey. Both are at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.

C4ISRNET: What are the biggest tactical and strategic challenges you and your staff are facing right now? 

WILLISON: Look at our three different portfolios. It really reflects what we believe are the three different, most significant operational challenges.

With expeditionary and early entry operations, given contested environments in contested regions, the ability to get expeditionary [capabilities] without compromising too much of the network capability is a huge challenge. Obviously some of the things we're looking at there are wireless command post, wireless soldiers, the ability to share data locally. The quicker you can get in with the least amount of setup and the least amount of infrastructure, then that's a huge challenge from an Army perspective.

Uninterrupted communications: So this is an area we've shifted more investment into to reflect a greater appreciation for the EW threats that exist. So countering those EW threats is first understanding what threats we're encountering, then being able to manage the network given those threats, and then hopefully being able to maneuver around within the network given those threats is another significant operational challenge for us.

The third one, of course, is cyber. ... That will continue to be a significant challenge.

It's not only what technical challenges are there, but how do we bring the operators up to speed, how do we hone new skill sets for new operators to be able to operate effectively in cyberspace?