Information technology infrastructure is built on the premise of uninhibited access to an endless flow of data. Combat is, among other things, a moment of acute detachment from that reliable and comforting flow of information. This can leave the Army in a bit of pickle as it tries to harness the power of modern information networks, built on abundance, in a field of acute scarcity.
“Folks at the small end of difficult satellite connections cannot assume that they have the cloud at the end,” said Charlie Kawasaki,chief technical officer at PacStar. Kawasaki spoke at the 18th annual C4ISRNET conference — held in Arlington, Virginia, June 6 — as part of a panel on Battlefield Networks.
Converting the gains of civilian information technology to meaningful, useful, actionable intelligence in a bandwidth-constrained environment is a challenge, to say the least, but it’s one the Army is working on tackling incrementally. That means rolling out innovations every two years from 2021 to 2028, making modernization more of a continuous process than a sudden shift.
“We are focused on the tactical edge, said Joseph Welch, acting deputy program executive officer Program Executive Office, Command, Control and Communications-Tactical, U.S. Army. “What is the right balance of affordability and capability?”
This is all falling under the aegis of the integrated tactical network, or ITN, which is a combination of programs of record, existing capabilities and new efforts. The overall goal is a holistic sense of what can be done in two years, what can be done in 10 years, and what will still work with existing legacy systems.
It also may require a scaling back of ambition, or a honing of desired capability into a practical capability.
“I’m a little bit of a skeptic of both machine learning and AI,” said Col. Rob Ryan, deputy director, Network Cross-Functional Team, U.S. Army. “Are we ready yet, can we do it, does the bandwidth at the end allow us to do this?”
Working within the constraints of both bandwidth and power means finding solutions that can deliver what is needed without overburdening the deployed units with excessive infrastructure. That’s especially important when moving from the power available to armored brigade combat teams to light infantry.
“An airborne infantry company has a 5kW generator,” said Ryan. When it comes to finding what the soldiers can actually do with that power, the question will be “can we do it on the power, is bandwidth something a commander is going to allocate?”
On the acquisitions side, the answer will likely come from a combination of new and legacy private industry partners. And it will likely require an openness at least in part to commercial off-the-shelf technologies.
“COTS is how we solve problems,” said Kawasaki. Acknowledging that the Department of Defense has different requirements than the commercial world, he outlined how the flexibility of designing to the commercial world translates into adapting that tech to a military customer. “Today our tech is used in IT networks, has a small form factor, rugged, network devices, can be backpacked or built up to command units, using less weight and less power.”
Letting go of what doesn’t work is as much a part of modernization as finding what does, and that means some adjustment.
“Some things the Army needs to truncate to make go away, don’t go into vision of 2028,” said Bill Patterson, vice president and general manager of the ground systems line of business, General Dynamics Mission Systems. “That truncation is good for the Army, good for us, and will drive us to the far end of the spectrum. We’re not a COTS provider, won’t be can’t be, won’t compete with COTS ... but COTS cannot provide everything. There are some gaps in capability, in innovation, and we are focusing our investment and innovation on how we help army with those gaps.”
One of the end goals will be creating a technology suite that is as useful for the soldier when combat erupts as, say, a 20-something having a smartphone on hand when they get lost in an unfamiliar city.
“How do get data at the tactical edge transformed into information? Am I just data rich and information poor?” asked Ryan. “Millennials function really good 16 inches from their face. If we can give a Marine a device they can glance down and deconflict airspace with and it’s simple and we can protect it, that’s good.”
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.