WASHINGTON — U.S. Army officials tasked with revamping the service’s networks and information-sharing tools are tackling a question intrinsic to the Pentagon’s preparations for possible conflicts against both China and Russia: how to ensure communications are reliable and secure in radically different environments.

To simultaneously provide critical links across the Indo-Pacific and challenge an increasingly dynamic Beijing while keeping a belligerent Moscow in check across Europe, the Army is emphasizing flexibility — a core set of equipment that can be tailored to whatever a commander needs, wherever he or she may be.

“It’s a big army,” Nicholaus Saacks, the deputy program executive officer for command, control and communications-tactical, or PEO C3T, said in an interview. “We have to be prepared to fight in a lot of different places.”

Island chains, watery expanses, verdant jungles, cities, valleys and mountains all impose their own difficulties on military chatter. Extreme distances inherent to the Indo-Pacific, often considered an Air Force and Navy domain, will strain connection between ground units. And towering buildings, mountains and foliage can impede signals, complicating even close-range coordination.

PEO C3T, Army Future Command’s Network Cross-Functional Team and other groups must consider it all when executing their work, improving data sharing, hardening lines of communication and making troops more mobile and less discoverable.

“There’s a thought of a common operating picture, but any two commanders will want to look at their operating picture a little bit differently. So we aren’t as concerned that the screen looks exactly the same, because they’re going to tailor it,” Saacks said. “They might want the icons a certain way. Or, this one is not as interested in that part, this one’s more interested in that part, based on where they are in the world.”

“But the ability to tailor it, and then the data that underlies it, is what we’re after,” he continued. “We want that data to be common and accessible, and then give them the tools where they can tailor it to their mission.”

Army organizations dedicated to the network and its modernization are using feedback from across different areas of operation as well as different echelons to shape their products.

PEO C3T, specifically, is working closely with the I Corps and other elements on the West Coast to understand what data centricity and distributed command and control might look like.

The I Corps is an Army headquarters that manages more than 44,000 soldiers stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord and across the Pacific, including Hawaii and Alaska. Earlier this year, it flew four Stryker combat vehicles and approximately 20 personnel to Guam to test integration with Navy systems and to see how a smaller, more-independent force would fare in a nautical setting.

“They’ve got to be truly distributed,” Maj. Gen. Jeth Rey, the director of the Network Cross-Functional Team, said in an interview. “And they need to truly find out how they communicate in that distributed environment.”

PEO C3T also collected feedback this summer about Stryker-mounted communication tools from the 3rd Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment, at Grafenwohr Training Area, Germany.

A man stands in front of a poster showcasing networking equipment at a Delaware National Guard event on Aug. 9, 2022.

The evaluation precedes a second, larger event months down the road. But together, the results will inform what are known as capability sets, compounding technological upgrades rolled out every two years.

“In the Pacific, there are different challenges than there are in Europe, just based on the way the geography looks,” Saacks said. “If I’m commanding a brigade in the European theater, based on whatever my mission is, I might need to look at that data a little bit differently than if I’m in a similar brigade in the Pacific theater.”

A bigger JADC2 picture

The Army’s considerations come as the Defense Department pushes for seamless connectivity across land, air, sea, space and cyber — what’s known as Joint All-Domain Command and Control, or JADC2.

Such ambitious networking, U.S. officials say, is motivated by technologically advanced adversaries, namely China and Russia, and will provide a leg up. Both countries are expected to interfere with or intercept American communications and data should a fight break out.

“If you take a look at the global security environment, it is growing increasingly complex every single day. And it will continue to be more complex with rapid advancements in technologies, along with the rise of our near-peer competitors,” Lt. Gen. Maria Gervais, the deputy commanding general at Army Training and Doctrine Command, said Aug. 16 at the AFCEA TechNet Augusta conference. “The current operating environment represents a significant challenge to the United States Army and the joint force, along with our allies.”

Senators this year in a draft of the National Defense Authorization Act recommended spending an additional $245 million on JADC2 as well as creating a related headquarters alongside U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, based in Hawaii. They also sought at least one realistic demonstration of JADC2 capabilities per quarter beginning in fiscal 2023.

By doing so, the lawmakers looked past the current bloodbath in Ukraine, favoring development of fully integrated responses to the longer-term hazards posed by Beijing.

In separate statements, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee — Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, respectively — said the annual defense legislation supports what is needed to ensure continued U.S. dominance.

“This bill was developed with the input of all senators to meet this critical moment,” Inhofe said in July. “With the Chinese Communist Party accelerating the already historic modernization of its military, Russia continuing to destabilize security in Europe, and record-high inflation jeopardizing our buying power, Congress must do everything we can to give our military every advantage on the battlefield.”

The worldwide digital domain

The network is one of six modernization priorities laid out by the Army as it sets its sights on multi-domain operations, the ability to deter and defeat an enemy, with help from partners and allies, in any environment. Other priorities include long-range precision fires, future vertical lift and air-and-missile defense.

Lt. Gen. Maria Barrett, the leader of Army Cyber Command, on Aug. 17 described the network as “the weapon system of the 21st century Army.” The data that the likes of Saacks and Rey are attempting to securely shuttle across the world, she said, are “the precision ammunition for that weapon system.”

“It’s fair to say that our networks and cyber systems are no longer additive to our ability to wage war,” Barrett said at TechNet Augusta, “but are the center of gravity and key vulnerability in the U.S. ability to wage war with our partners and allies.”

The command over the next year and a half plans to transform one of its regional cyber centers into a hub that can effectively coordinate digital operations across the world.

Five centers, focal points for cyber resources and responsibilities in various theaters, currently exist. Two are in the U.S., in Arizona and Hawaii. Three are abroad, in Germany, Kuwait and South Korea.

“Our adversaries don’t know any boundaries. They operate across the globe. So we all come at these things with a trans-regional look at what it is we can do and put together to compete,” Barrett said. “We know that by putting our capabilities together, we can end up with an effect that is greater than the parts.”

The multi-domain operations philosophy also influences what weapons and equipment the Army purchases, where and when soldiers are needed, and what training they receive.

Under the leadership of Army Secretary Christine Wormuth and Under Secretary Gabe Camarillo, the service is coordinating with other branches to spend wisely and avoid overlap, according to Rey, who in the past emphasized that operating alone is no longer relevant.

“We’re not duplicating efforts across the services, we’re actually talking to the Marines and Navy and Air Force. We know they have their unique requirements, but are the capabilities equal?” he said. “It’s this shared modernization environment that we have.”

Colin Demarest was a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covered military networks, cyber and IT. Colin had previously covered the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration — namely Cold War cleanup and nuclear weapons development — for a daily newspaper in South Carolina. Colin is also an award-winning photographer.

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