FORT BRAGG, N.C. — The U.S. Army’s special operations forces have benefited from new waveform capabilities thanks to a push by the service to modernize the its tactical network.
The effort is led by the Army’s Network Cross-Functional Team and Program Executive Office Command, Control, Communications-Tactical. Lt. Col. Brian Wong, once the Network CFT’s chief of market research, now commands the 112th Special Operations Signal Battalion, but he still communicates with his old colleagues about the tactical network.
“There’s a lot of just people coming together to solve, frankly, very similar problems, just different applications and the mission set. I often argue that 70-80 percent of our problems in special operations with communications is very similar to the conventional side,” Wong said. “How we apply it in the mission sets we use it in, are really what differentiate it, and so we can partner on how we hunt for technology, how we prototype it, experiment with it [and] provide feedback."
C4ISRNET sat down with Wong in late September at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to discuss the special operations community’s work with the tactical network team, how the SOF community’s needs differ from those of the conventional Army, and how his previous role at the Network CFT helps him in his role commanding soldiers.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
How does your old role as director of market research at the Network CFT, which helps design new network tools known as capability sets, inform how you approach this job?
I think it gave me a really good insight to two main things. One, where is the Army going and what relationships need to be built to enable that piece. And then, two, what is going on in industry from both a science and technology side and what’s currently available on market, and what can we rapidly identify to prototype and experiment with for possible injection into one of the capability sets.
The fun thing for me was that I kind of sat at a nexus of what was going on on the commercial side, and then where the Army was trying to transform to, and then based off of all my operational experience in the SOF community, in the Stryker community years before that, too, where we can find unique solutions to some of these problems and really try and accelerate stuff into the force for use. So whether we did that through some of the technical exchange meetings, working with the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s rapid innovation fund, or some of the PEO-run events, I think that that partnership and just kind of seeing the greater enterprise helped enable me to kind of get after certain prototypes and experiments that we did on the CFT.
Capability Set ’21 will soon be fully fielded to its first infantry brigade for the conventional Army. How does the network kit for special operations differ from that of a conventional soldier?
The kit that we have in the battalion is tailored specifically around support to Army special operations forces. Because of that the kit can vary, because our mission set in the battalion is really about supporting Green Berets, the psychological operations groups, to civilian affairs teams, the theater special operations commands, all the way from a team level up to a full two-star headquarters, depending on the mission.
And because of that, the kit we have is specifically scalable, tailorable and modular to meet those needs, whether it’s from one person deploying out to go to support a 12-man Green Beret [Operational Detachment-A], or the full two-star headquarters for First Special Forces Command. And then what we also do is take a look at the threat, where we’re going and the mission set, and then also look to adapt on the fly as stuff on the ground changes.
How do you adapt to events on the ground when people are distributed all over the world?
I think the good thing is, because we’re a communications battalion, we typically always have comms. So sharing of ideas, standard operating procedures, what’s going on in certain theaters is always easier to push that information back.
What’s the next step in that process?
What always isn’t easy is how do we take that and then go out into industry or the Army research labs and find people to help solve those problems specifically, and do it in a rapid fashion to meet the requirements of the operators on the ground, whether that’s a Green Beret operator, a logistics operator, a comms operator on the ground.
I think U.S. Special Operations Command and Army special operations forces over the last many years have shown we have a pretty good model on how we rapidly do that. And with rapid acquisition authorities we take those ideas from the ground up, bottom-up innovation, and push them into prototyping experimentation. Some of the stuff that we try to take to the Network CFT and the PEO is: How do we take that SOCOM model of moving fast and scale it out to the Army going forward?
What are the unique challenges in network capabilities that special operations forces faces but conventional soldiers may not?
I call it the global SOF laboratory because SOF is in dozens of countries overseas, right? We’re in theaters of war. We are probably to a certain extent, at scale, probably closer to some of the near-peer competitors more than others. We see the environment a little bit differently in how we operate, how we do unconventional warfare, how we do partner force operations, how we train partner [and] host nations as well. Those challenges for us are a little bit different and probably a little bit more dynamic.
We take those lessons and what those operators at the edge are seeing and experiencing, and we pull it in and feed them back. It’s like: “Hey, this comms kit that we have 80 percent is what they need on the ground.” “Hey, they’re asking if it can do these small tweaks to do these other 20 percent.” Do we need to buy software? Do we need to buy some small modifications? Do we need to go buy a new comms on the move dish to support them? Because now they have a different mission set they’re being tasked to do.
We have a really good feedback loop based off that unique challenge of the environment that we’re in specifically. And frankly, we look at how we can hand it over to the Army and help, especially with the security force assistance brigades because they’re starting to do, or they are doing, similar stuff to some of the SOF training of partner nations.
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.