The Army recently conducted a critical design review for technologies it plans to deploy for Capability Set ’21, one of the first pieces of its battlefield network modernization.
In the review, the Army tested various elements of Cap Set ’21, such as tactical radios and satellite terminals. Now, the service is making a series of capability trade offs — assessing affordability, technical maturity and density across formation. For example, the Army is weighing trade-offs between how many of its two-channel Leader radios and more affordable single channel radios will ultimately end up in an infantry brigade.
Col. Garth Winterle, project manager for tactical radios at the Army’s Program Executive Officer for Command Control Communication - Tactical, and Lt. Col. Brandon Baer, program manager for helicopter and multi-mission radios (HAMMR), talked with C4ISRNET about the decisions made during the critical design review and what these choices mean for the next batch of equipment known as Capability Set ’23.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
C4ISRNET: What decisions were made during the critical design review (CDR)?
COL. GARTH WINTERLE: We went from a 100 percent classified network, hard to get people security clearances, very expensive, NSA-certification required for everything as part of the network architecture, to 75 percent secure but [with an] unclassified architecture at battalion and below. That really adds a lot of flexibility — not only in the addition of affordable commercial technologies that really add capability rapidly because that shaves about 24 months off potential fielding timeline if you don’t have to go to NSA — but it keeps a very strong encryption using some of the same algorithms you use for NSA certified radios.
It’s secure. It’s not unsafe. While it’s unclassified, it’s still very well encrypted. It’s just a different way of doing business. So it really opens the door for a lot of different things. Plus, it really improves the ability to share data with coalition and multinational partners, who are also operating at that security level.
C4ISRNET: Can you explain the Terrestrial Transmission Line of Sight (TRILOS) radio and the capability trade off you made?
WINTERLE: The quantities were adjusted in order to afford more flexible, more expedient and pretty much more affordable options at the brigade level and below. There’s a system called TRILOS. Think of a big dish on a portable tower. If you can line it up with another big dish on a portable tower over pretty long distances, you can get very high data throughput very quickly ... It’s purpose is to connect large command nodes together and enable them to share data much, much better. So one of the things we looked at as part of the CDR, and we experimented with, is a new smaller expeditionary version.
I talked about a giant dish on a portable tower. We went to the company we worked with called Silvus. They have a smaller, little four antenna radio, it’s about the size of your home WiFi router [and] does the same thing in slightly less bandwidth. It’s not as capable, but it performs that same function. And it’s much, much lighter, much easier to pack out and we’re actually putting those under quadcopters, like a drone, that are tethered [so] they operate off a line. So you can raise that up in the air and hold that radio up in the air and get really good range to connect two of those radios together to share data. By trading out one system of those large dishes on the tower, we’re able to buy a significant quantity of the smaller systems.
TRILOS, those dishes on towers, still remain in the architecture. But just by reducing the quantity marginally, we’re able to really add a much more expeditionary much, much lighter, easier to set up. And we can buy it in larger quantities to increase the quantity out in the architecture to increase that capability.
C4ISRNET: Can you describe how the Army intends to procure some of the Integrated Tactical Network components?
WINTERLE: The intent is to compete everything. Single channel radios are a prime example. We’re getting ready to invite vendors that have conforming radios to an industry day to basically have a radio run off. [We want them to] provide us enough radios so we can get them integrated and start assessing them against each other and against the current offering from the vendor that actually went through the experiment. It’s going to be a fully competitive action.
It is important to note though that I can’t just go out and buy a new radio and, boom, I can field it. There is an amount of time where we are going to have to procure a limited quantity of the systems that went through the experiment until I can get those other radios through enough lab-based experimentation and integration, so that I know they work on the network. So even though they might be very similar [to] what we experimented with, there will be a delay so I can actually start fielding those to operational units. But [our] intent is to start that as soon as possible as part of the procurement fielding next year — this competitive run off of single channel radios. Anywhere else where there was a stand-in capability where we know from market research that there’s other vendors, we’ll perform the same sort of competitive actions.
C4ISRNET: What are some of the lessons learned from Capability Set ’21 that can be applied to Capability Set ’23?
WINTERLE: We’re going to have a design review every year. The year prior to the preliminary design review, which is the year we’re in right now for Cap Set ’23, focuses on small-scale experimentation and a kind of assessment of ‘what are those technologies that going to compete to be added to the architecture as part of the preliminary design review’ in April of next year. So we picked April. We just did this CDR in April. So the preliminary design review for Cap Set ’23 is next April. We’ve partnered with the network cross functional team to help conduct research and development funded activities of certain key technology that they want to see added to the architecture in Cap Set ’23.
C4ISRNET: How has the Army’s capability set testing structure been suited for COVID-19?
LT. COL. BRANDON BAER: Traditionally, we do a large operational type test, where our approach has been lab-based testing, [cyber]-based testing, and then doing what we’re calling soldier touchpoints. They’re smaller experiments, but we’re doing more of them. It gives us an opportunity to capture data, soldier feedback at different points of time. We call it developmental operations or DevOps. We can go back and tweak the stuff, fix any problems, get it back out there and continue to collect feedback.
But I think it’s extremely important due to current conditions with COVID-19, and everything else. Because everything has kind of gone into a large pause. And if we would have had a large pause during operational tests, it could be six months or a year before we have another opportunity to do that, where when you’re doing multiple events ... we’re capturing data at different times and different soldier feedback, you’re not reliant upon one event. As we move forward, I see continuous benefits through that.
Andrew Eversden covers all things defense technology for C4ISRNET. He previously reported on federal IT and cybersecurity for Federal Times and Fifth Domain, and worked as a congressional reporting fellow for the Texas Tribune. He was also a Washington intern for the Durango Herald. Andrew is a graduate of American University.