FORT POLK, La. — Marking a paradigm shift in how the Army procures, fields and updates equipment, a full brigade for the first time is testing modernized radios, tactical cell phones and network gear this month in the one of service’s most operationally realistic environments.

The exercise is a culmination of three years of work to build a baseline for a modernized network, while incorporating more soldier feedback on communications equipment and speed up fielding.

Soldiers of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne division now have the most advanced networking and communications gear in the Army, and they are putting it through the paces during their rotation at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk.

The site and its companion National Training Center at Fort Irwin provide a dedicated opposing force with tailored scenarios based upon a particular region of the world. Units battle over a two-week simulated campaign facing a raft of attacks from kinetic to electronic.

The gear is part of the Army’s Integrated Tactical Network (ITN). Specifically, the soldiers tested equipment as part of the network’s Capability Set ’21, a combination of radios, new waveforms and tactical cell phones that pinpoint troops’ location, along with network extension equipment and cross-domain technologies that allow communication with units and coalition partners.

Soldiers lauded what’s known as the individual soldier kit, fielded to team leaders. It includes a two-channel radio paired with a hardened cell phone attached to a soldier’s chest; provides unprecedented situational awareness, including solider location on the battlefield; and allows seamless text chat and voice communications up and down echelons.

Under the Army’s network modernization approach, it plans incremental delivery of new gear every two years under capability sets.

The Army is fielding the ITN equipment to the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Europe and plans to field four infantry bridges in fiscal 2021, with four more and a Stryker brigade in 2022. Lessons learned from the rotation at Fort Polk will factor into those other units’ fielding.

“We’ll be looking for either feedback to determine are the quantities about right or what adjustments should we make based on this large-scale force on force rotation, which we haven’t had the luxury of having in the past,” Maj. Gen. Peter Gallagher, director of the Army Network Cross-Functional Team, said in a secluded field in the middle of the vast training range, the site of a major command post the day prior. “Our decisions have been made without having this kind of feedback, so this will be important going forward.”

The event wasn’t a special exercise that was network focused, but rather part of this brigade’s training schedule. The team now owns this network gear, and its rotation at the Joint Training Readiness Center provided the opportunity for the Army’s test and program community to take some valuable lessons with the first full brigade exercise using the new network design.

Officials explained the modernized equipment provides units with speed and range needed to defeat advanced adversaries in a multidomain battlefield.

“I think this is all about speed and range. You start getting after what we want to do for decisive operations, decisive decision-making. We want to get after sensor-to-shooter,” said Brig. Gen. Robert Collins, program executive officer for command, control, communications-tactical. “How do we do that quickly at speed, how do we extend the range … I think this fundamentally is a game-changer and allowing this airborne unit to be able to extend across those areas of speed and range.”

Officials and soldiers also explained the essence of the modernized network is to provide multiple, resilient communications options to commanders. Previously, if communications failed or were jammed, there were limited alternatives. Now forces have multiple paths of communications with hardened waveforms.

“We’re trying to provide them much … more resilient capability,” Gallagher said.

Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.

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