FORT BRAGG, N.C. — When paratroopers with the 82nd Airborne Division’s First Brigade Combat Team landed in the drop zone during a night jump last week, it took leaders 45 minutes after hitting the ground to locate about 90 percent of their formation.
For contrast, at an exercise early last year, the commander of that brigade didn’t achieve 75 percent accountability of formation until the second day of the exercise.
That’s one of the major improvements that’s coming to three more Army brigades as part of Capability Set ’21, a new set of network tools that will be fully fielded to the First Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd in December.
The exercise at Ft. Bragg provided a soldier touch point opportunity for the Army’s integrated tactical network (ITN) team, made up of Program Executive Office Command, Control, Communications-Tactical and the Network Cross-Functional Team, to hear what soldiers thought about Capability Set ’21.
And leaders from the Army’s tactical network modernization team received some important feedback: the technology works, but the training needs improvement.
“It does what we thought it would do, which is increase situational awareness up and down,” Col. Andrew Saslav, commander of the 82nd Airborne’s First Brigade Combat Team, said in an interview with C4ISRNET. “That’s the critical thing … we don’t know where people are on the battlefield unless we can talk with them. Now, I can see them and that just speeds up processing.”
That’s good news for the Army as it’s set to deploy Capability Set ’21 to three more infantry brigades in fiscal 2021. The exercise, originally scheduled for January, was delayed after the deployment of the brigade to Kuwait in January and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Army’s tactical network modernization effort is working to provide a resilient tactical network to enable faster communications and data transfer to enable multi-domain operations (MDO) or Joint All-Domain Command and Control.
“Our obligation is very simple: we have to make this work,” said Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, said at a meeting Sept. 24. “And if it doesn’t, MDO, all-domain and everything else, is a pipe dream.”
While a high-profile Army experiment in the Yuma, Ariz. desert tested various future networking capabilities, this lesser known event in North Carolina found that the network tools fielded to brigades significantly improve communications, but that soldiers need improved training with the batteries and additional cables.
A major difference maker is Capability Set ’21′s End User Device, a Samsung Galaxy smartphone that works in tandem with the soldier’s radio to broadcast their location to all other users across the formation, as well as provides mapping capabilities. On average, the new “revolutionary” capability allows Saslav to see his formation 45 minutes to two hours, he said, a far cry from last year and a “game changer” when it comes to fighting battles.
“My job is to resource those companies, troops and batteries in the fight and I do that mainly through fires, whether that’s Army indirect fires, or its joint aircraft. If I can’t see them, if I don’t have a real-time data on where they are, then I can’t support them. And so now I can support them faster more quickly, I can bring everything in closer to get that into the fight,” Saslav told C4ISRNET.
The devices also allow soldiers to mark enemy positions and broadcast that information back through the rest of the formation. Shared understanding and increased situational awareness across the formation will save lives, and the EUDs increase both by an “untold variable,” Saslav said, because the capability eliminates the game of “telephone” played between the brigade commander and soldiers spread throughout the field.
Another Capability Set ’21 technology, known as the Variable Height Antenna, a tethered drone flying a TSM radio, successfully extended communications by several kilometers further than a standard, ground-based antenna would reach, the exercise found. These capabilities are a critical component of the Army’s work evolving its network into a mesh network that gets away from line-of-sight communications and uses individual radios as nodes that extend the range of the network to allow soldiers to talk to each other beyond line-of-sight, across the battlespace.
“I can always talk to the lowest radio to the highest radio because we have this mesh network and in ITN terms, that’s game changing for us,” Saslav said. “It is moving us beyond line of sight, so for the first time, and that beyond line of sight is movable and fixable.”
While the devices provide greater situational awareness, Saslav said during the exercise the location data wasn’t coming in with specific identifiers for what dots representing locations meant. But, in a way that highlighted the DevOps approach that the Army is taking to the modernization of its tactical network, the software was updated during the exercise because the vendor was in the field, Saslav said.
In addition, the Army discovered some linkage challenges between the radio and device, finding that the radio and device would lose the link between them if they were switched off. Leaders in the field want the devices to connect automatically so soldiers don’t have to connect them together themselves.
A new approach to training
But one major challenge Army tactical network officials learned from talking to soldiers using the equipment on the ground was that the training process for teaching soldiers how to use the equipment needed to improve. The radio and EUD are connected together to broadcast location information, but soldiers were trained to use the devices separately. But since the devices need to be used as a system, leaders learned that the soldiers needed to be trained on how the system works.
“What needs to happen is soldiers need to be trained with the equipment as they are worn and functions as an overall network because everything affects everything else,” said Capt. Brian Delgado, S6 of the 82nd Airborne Division’s first Brigade Combat Team.
And that network can be affected differently depending on the terrain. So while classroom training on the devices is important for the soldiers to learn the technology, they also need to learn how to use the technology in the field and how the terrain can affect it. Capt. Matthew Kane, S6 of the first brigade’s 3rd Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, told C4ISRNET that his big takeaway was adjustments to training.
“It needs to be as hands on as possible,” Kane said. “You need to get in the terrain and actually test the radio. The classroom won’t cut it just because it’s no longer programming the radio and walking away.”
These new capabilities also mean soldiers must carry more batteries and more cables with them. Col. Garth Winterle, project manager for tactical radios at PEO C3T, said that the team identified a couple issues with battery life, one that requires training soldiers different configurations to optimize battery life. The other battery life problem was addressed through a firmware update by the vendor.
Several Army personnel in the field also noted that soldiers needed to be taught best practices for cable management.
Soldiers “weren’t experts on how it’s powered or how to manage cables and that’s not a fault of the paratroopers,” Delgado said. “That’s a fault with the way that we were addressing training.”
As the Army perfects Capability Set ’21 and moves forward with Capability Set ’23, its next iteration of network tools, it will continue to rely on the feedback of soldiers to ensure that technology works, while being simple and intuitive enough for the user.
“The beauty of it is that feedback we’re going to get because [which] soldier right now has a really good idea that’s going to make this better? And that’s the feedback we’re really looking for,” said Col. Rob Ryan, deputy director of the Network-CFT.
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.