WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Defense’s weapons tester recommended that the Army delay fielding decisions for radios and other communications gear from its most recent integrated tactical network toolset until a brigade has a chance to test them fully in March.
The Army team modernizing the tactical network hasn’t sufficiently evaluated the “operational effectiveness, suitability or survivability” of the current network tools, known as Capability Set ’21, according to an annual report released Jan. 14 by the director of operational test and evaluation. The success of the tactical network is critical to enabling multidomain operations and connecting sensors and shooters across domains, a major push across all services.
The first brigade combat team of the 82nd Airborne Division serves as the experimentation unit for the effort. But the full brigade couldn’t test the capabilities last year for several reasons: a surprise deployment to Kuwait after the U.S. killed a top Iranian general, disruptions from COVID-19 pandemic, and a deployment to Washington, D.C., during protests last summer.
The postponed tests led the DOT&E to recommend that the tactical network team wait to field capabilities until a Joint Readiness Training Center rotation in March provides insight on how the integrated tactical network configuration performs during a brigade-level exercise.
“This delay will allow the Army to decide on the first operational fielding of the ITN based on the experiences of a full brigade using the equipment, as well as complete analysis from the technical test. This may allow for determination of operational effectiveness, suitability and survivability,” the report stated.
The Army is fielding Capability Set ’21 to soldiers in four infantry brigade combat teams after the new tools, including tactical servers and satellite communications capabilities, passed critical design review last spring. The tactical network modernization team, made up of the Network Cross-Functional Team and its acquisition counterpart Program Executive Office Command, Control, Communications-Tactical, delivers new capability sets every two years.
According to the report, the Army doesn’t plan to do an official operational test, but expects to use the previous series of soldier touchpoints and exercises to satisfy operational test requirements. Though the program office has completed tests for various parts of the ITN in the last year, DOT&E wants a full brigade test. The weapons tester said the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) training rotation would be the first time the that a brigade-level ITN will be fielded.
Paul Mehney, communications director for PEO C3T, defended the Army’s approach to fielding, telling C4ISRNET that the tactical network modernization team is making those decisions based on data collected from several assessments, including the review last spring when it finalized network design.
“We have used operational and instrumented data from numerous assessments to inform capability set design milestones as we solidified Capability Set ’21,” he said. “Design decision points informed by instrumented assessments and operational experimentation assessments included both a preliminary and final design review prior to authorization of procurement of Capability Set ’21 and its integrated tactical network.”
The Army is using a DevOps process as it adds new tools to its tactical network, continually evaluating and adjusting its configuration based on technical and soldier feedback to ensure the network works and to speed up the deployment process. DOT&E urged that this process continue in its report.
Part of that DevOps process was a weeklong exercise with the 82nd Airborne’s first brigade combat team at Fort Bragg, N.C., that served as a soldier touchpoint event. As previously reported by C4ISRNET, the major takeaway for top tactical network leadership in attendance was that the technology worked, but the tools were not intuitive and the training program required an overhaul. During that effort, a vendor fixed a software issue in the field for a device that improves soldiers’ situational awareness, highlighting the success of the DevOps process the Army uses to modernize its tactical network.
“Our obligation is very simple: We have to make this work,” Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, said at Fort Bragg at the September event. “And if it doesn’t, MDO, all-domain and everything else is a pipe dream.”
The DOT&E report also specifically evaluated the Command Post Computing Environment, an ITN technology that allows commanders from the battalion to corps level to plan, prepare, execute and continually assess missions. Last year, the computing environment’s increment zero — the first version of the new system — improved its mapping, messaging and network load, though testing found issues under stress and insufficient ability to scale to the intended number of users. DOT&E recommended that the Army improve hardware and software shortfalls.
“The program office has worked with test community partners to continue to improve CPCE hardware and software capability through lab-based developmental testing and numerous operational assessments,” Mehney said. “CPCE is an iterative software capability, which is designed to be continuously improved through feedback from operational use, emerging requirements and threat based analysis.”
PEO C3T has fielded CPCE software to 87 operational units and training organizations, Mehney said, including multiple Mission Training Complexes and centers of excellence (CoE), such as fires, cyber and aviation.
Mehney also added that Capability Set ’23, which will undergo preliminary design review in April, will improve performance.
“To improve system performance and to mitigate unnecessary data flow over constrained tactical network transport bandwidth, program managers and developers are working to address underlying data analytics, data dissemination and federation associated with the use of CPCE,” Mehney said.
Soldiers in four operational units use CPCE increment one and provide feedback on its capabilities, he said. Using war-fighter exercises, the tactical network team receives feedback from soldiers. At an exercise last October, the XVIII Airborne Corps, 82nd Airborne Division and 1st Cavalry Division units trained on the latest CPCE version.
“As an example of real-time DevOps, soldiers indicated the need for feeds from unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to enhance the commander’s command post purview, as well as the ability for the unit’s G6 network manager to remove a CPCE user if needed,” Mehney said. “Once users identified the need for these improvements, the product office immediately addressed the UAS request and incorporated that change for future software improvements.”
The next major operational assessment for CPCE will be Joint Warfighter ’21 in June, where the 4th Infantry Division will serve as the division headquarters.
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.