The Army wants to develop a force that can compete with adversaries such as China and Russia in every domain by 2028. To do so, service leaders say they will need to deliver incremental updates to the tactical network every two years beginning in 2021.

“We’re going to have a network of ‘21, a network of ‘23, ‘25 and ‘27 with our goal for the network of ‘27 to be the network that implements the 2028 vision,” Maj. Gen. Dave Bassett, program executive officer of Command, Control, Communications-Tactical, said at a February industry forum in San Diego, California.

This approach to incrementally improve capability is a departure from previous efforts, where the Army was locked into one vendor and one technology set. Now, the service is more cognizant that technology could force service leaders to change their vision.

“As we see new opportunities there are going to be new things to come on to this chart,” Bassett told industry leaders at a January luncheon. “As we see new technologies that are developed and available to us, this plan is going to evolve. If we didn’t change every time you saw it, I think that would probably be a bad sign.”

The Army is working to deliver the network of 2021 by refining an experimental baseline with test units.

The plan for 2021 is to field four infantry brigade combat teams and Expeditionary Signal Battalions and ramp up from there.

Capability set ’21 “is about the quick win and delivering some available technology that we think we can bring to bear quickly to change the way we fight,” Bassett said.

The iPhone model

Army leaders have modeled their two-year plan after the commercial industry’s process for iteration — namely Apple’s iPhone.

“If you look at the iPhone development cycle, does Apple come out with a new version of the iPhone every year? Yup,” Bassett said.

He noted that almost right after a big release, Apple is working on the next. They release the iPhone X, then the next year is the iPhone XS.

This incremental model is something the Army is trying to replicate as it prepares for the network of 2028.

“We’re recognizing the major releases. It doesn’t mean we don’t release anything in between, but these are the major feature releases of the tactical network to bring those things together in a way that’s recognized and managed across the force,” Bassett said.

Another departure from previous approaches is the Army is recognizing that not every unit will field the same equipment.

“It will be focused based on the most pressing operational plans and scenarios,” Maj. Gen. Peter Gallagher, director of the network cross-functional team, told an industry audience in January.

Future capability sets

The focus of the Army has been primarily on scaling the integrated tactical network from the company level up to brigade as a way to prove the technologies, concepts and mission command. The units used for experimentation have typically been light infantry to date.

The Army plans to focus on Stryker and armored brigades in 2022.

In terms of capability set ‘23, Army leaders have said if the ‘21 set is characterized as expeditionary and intuitive, ‘23 will be increasing the resilience of the network and improving capacity through additional satellite communications.

“Multi-path connectivity, giving our leaders and commanders out there and soldiers on the edge not only a simpler network, a more expeditionary network, but options when the adversary gets a vote,” Gallagher said. “Every one of these capability sets is designed to make the network easier to use. Every one of these capability sets we think makes the network more resilient, gives us redundant communications options in the face of an EW adversary.”

Bassett noted that when the commercial industry began building cellphones and networks, they didn’t have applications or data. While the backbone was being built, industry brought forth a minimal viable solution, and when the technology matured, it introduced applications, videos and the like.

“You can see it’s an incremental build of capability, adding capacity, adding automation and then bringing it all together with available technologies so that by 2028 we meet the multidomain dominance that the Army is asking us to deliver in those time frames,” Bassett said. “As you get to [capability set ‘25], now that you’ve got more bandwidth at the tactical edge, what can you exploit in terms of things like AI and machine learning and cloud capabilities. Now that we’ve got the pipes in place that allow data to flow up in places where you can look at it all together.”

According to Army documents, the service is interested in technologies such as high-capacity communications through low-Earth orbit and medium-Earth orbit, initial integration of 5G, integration of air-ground capabilities, anti-jam systems and higher-bandwidth waveforms.

Bassett added that the Army does not feel constrained by the two-year window for capability sets.

“It’s something that we can program against and plan against and deliver against,” Bassett said. “Ultimately, it’s going to help us move this strategy forward from a vision of where we want to go with the network to a resourced and executable plan in which we hope we build competence as we deliver every single year between now and 2028.”

Learn more about the Army’s progress improving current network offerings in our eBook “Understanding the Army’s Integrated Tactical Network.”

Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.

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