As technical capabilities for soldiers

such as reliable tactical communications for expeditionary forces, cyber defense and electronic maneuvers

become more important as adversaries look to deny capabilities, Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) aims to provide war fighters with the tools they need to succeed on the battlefield.

C4ISRNET Reporter Mark Pomerleau caught up with John Willison, director of the space terrestrial communications directorate at CERDEC, to discuss his office's role in combating advanced threats and ensuring technical success.

C4ISRNET: Can you provide a brief overview of what your office is working on to help the war fighter?

Willison:

We’re a research, development and engineering organization. We’re currently at about 400 government engineers and scientists and another equal number of on-site contractors that augment our staff. Our mission is twofold: One [part] is we do research and development. The other is we provide engineering support into program executive offices and program management offices. That engineering support, while it’s not our core mission group, presents between two-thirds and three quarters of what we do on a year-to-year basis.

From a science and technology (S&T) or a research and development (R&D) perspective our R&D budget is typically somewhere between $50 and $60 million a year, and we break that R&D work into four specific areas.

The first one is cyber and our emphasis within cyber is cyber defense, cyber situational awareness – one of our sister organizations does the offensive cyber portion. Within that space we worry about cyber defense tools, network analysis tools for if an intruder in the network, how do we alert people to what’s going on within the network so that the network can be as well defended as possible when someone does get in, [and] what tools do we have to figure out what to do about that.

The second space is uninterrupted communications. Between cyber and uninterrupted, it’s really kind of two parts of the same problem. From a cyber [perspective] we’re worried about cyber threats. From an uninterrupted communications we’re worried about either electronic warfare threats or limitations caused by the environment.

So the way we break that down is we’re worried about contested environments – and that’s an EW threat to our environment from an enemy, it is congested environments and so that can be just how do we more effectively and efficiently use the spectrum that we have access to? And it’s degraded environments where we could be somewhere where communications and networks propagation is challenged by the environment. So between those two, that’s the bulk of our S&T investments right now.

The third part of our portfolio is expeditionary networking, and here we’re heavily leveraging commercial technologies and adapting them to the Army-unique space. So we get into things like how do you apply cellular on a battlefield, how do we apply broadband or ultralight band to allow soldiers to have less wires on them and be more wireless, unique networking or routing protocol or cognitive networking to really get after that first 40 hours from an early entry operations, or from an expeditionary maneuver operation before an infrastructure is laid in from an Army perspective. How do you enable folks to do what they need to do in that first 40 hours?

The final space – and it’s a small space for us but it’s an important space – is model and simulation, other capabilities that are enabling for infrastructure, test capabilities to enable the other three.

C4ISRNET: What are the threats the Army is facing in this space?

Willison:

Cyber is a lot harder to pin down the threat, but we have categories of threats. The insider threat is one category we’re worried about. Cyberattacks are obviously another category that we’re worried about. And depending on which category of threats we’re worried about to the network and depending on where we’re operating, we then look at different technologies or employing different tools to help the network operators, to help network defenders within that space.

The uninterrupted is a little different. The threat doesn’t necessarily evolve as quickly, so EW threats don’t change as quickly as the cyber threats change, so we get an opportunity to do a more deliberate engineering assessment of what the threats are. But it’s still a relatively complex space because you’ve got to worry about all the variables of what we’ve deployed into what regions, what capabilities does an enemy have that we understand and how have they deployed them in different regions and that’s going to differ region to region, that’s going to differ type of conflict by type of conflict, and that’s going to differ from what forces of ours have we deployed and what forces have they deployed.

C4ISRNET: Everyone thinks of Russia as the top threat in EMS and EW. Who are some of the other threat actors in this space with significant capabilities?

Willison:

From our perspective we think about threats in a couple of different ways. One is when you say Russia is a threat, really what we’re talking about is a couple of things. One is their technical capabilities and then the way they fight. Their technical capabilities aren’t limited to them because they’ll sell those technical capabilities to someone else as will China as will other folks. We’ve got to factor that in that those capabilities won’t be limited.

Now the way they fight is a different perspective and the theater is a different perspective as well. And so we’ve looked at this as kind of multidimensional whether it’s Pacific, Pacific in general  and what are the capabilities that exist out there from a technical system and then how do they fight or how are they deployed, and then from Europe. So it’s more from our perspective kind of regional as opposed to picking that country, that adversary, because there’s a lot that comes with it – to include on our side coalition. And how we think about, you know, we never anywhere alone. So what is the threat environment?

When a lot of people talk about threats they talk about box on box – we’ve got a box and they’ve got a box; good starting point. How are those boxes deployed, what’s the quantity, what other things do they work with? And then the third part we’ve layered in is what do we do with that? So instead of just saying my radio doesn’t work, we can say ,well I can’t do a medevac call. That’s more significant now than the folks that make the trade space, so we’ve broadened it to try and look at just not one theater, obviously that one theater is getting a lot of press, a lot of attention.

C4ISRNET: While most people talk about how the threat is multi-domain, it seems, especially the way Russia is employing capabilities, that the land domain is the big focus in terms of where the threat actually is.

Willison:

From an Army perspective, land – Pacific, now you’re talking about a different threat and a different construct from an Army – you start talking about A2/AD.

C4ISRNET: With your engineering, S&T and R&D mission set, how do you work to transition the tools and capabilities within the three areas mentioned above – cyber, uninterrupted communications and expeditionary networking – into programs of record and tools that the war fighter can actually use in theater?

Willison:

With our S&T investments we typically take a three-step approach. We start where we can with model and simulation activity, so that allows us before we invest very heavily into building capabilities within S&T that we’ve based that on our modeling and simulation work, and importantly that it’s not modeling and simulating, only one specific capability. It’s embedding that in our ability to model and simulate the overall network environment.

So [almost] every capability we’re introducing into the Army ... has an effect on the network. You’re falling in on a network that already has other people on that network competing for network capability, competing for spectrum usage. So importantly when we look at individual capabilities, we look at individual capabilities as modeled within the broader overall Army, joint or coalition environment.

From modeling and simulation, we then move into doing S&T once we get a prototype capability. The second step is going into lab-based risk reduction. So we bring that into our own federated network of labs so that we can take the capability that we’ve prototyped and embed that, integrate that into the overall environments so that gives us some sense of is it meeting the performance requirements that we’ve outlined? Are those performance requirements we’ve outlined then yielding the operational capability that we’re interested in?

Once that gets sufficiently mature, the last step is we go into field-based production. For us, CERDEC overall, we’ve got two specific field-based risk reduction venues – both are up in New Jersey. Both are at Joint Base McGuire–Dix–Lakehurst. What we’ve got there is the ability to take our technology up to those different ranges. Those ranges are in turn networked back to our labs here, and so we’re able to then try out the technology within those different operational environments, preferably exposing the capability to soldiers who are going to use them to give us feedback ... so that once we’ve done the modeling and simulation, once we’ve done the lab-based risk reduction, then we ultimately do field-based risk reduction, we’re able to mature the capability sufficiently enough then we’ve brought down the risk of transitioning it to a program of record.

C4ISRNET: What are the biggest tactical and strategic challenges you and your staff are facing right now?

Willison:

Look at our three different portfolios. It really reflects what we believe are the three different, most significant operational challenges.

With expeditionary and early entry operations, given contested environments in contested regions, the ability to get expeditionary [capabilities] without compromising too much of the network capability we have is a huge challenge. Obviously some of the things we’re looking at there are wireless command post, wireless soldiers, the ability to share data locally. The quicker you can get in with the least amount of setup and the least amount of infrastructure, then that’s a huge challenge from an Army perspective.

Uninterrupted communications: So this is an area we’ve shifted more investment into to reflect a greater appreciation for the EW threats that exist. So countering those EW threats is first understanding what threats we’re encountering, then being able to manage the network given those threats, and then hopefully being able to maneuver around within the network given those threats is another significant operational challenge for us.

The third one, of course, is cyber. With everything that is going on relative to cyber and everyone trying to use that as they – both operational advantage and an operational entry point, that will continue to be a significant challenge.

There, the additional challenges, the relative immaturity of that space and so it’s not only what technical challenges are there, but how do we bring the operators up to speed, how do we hone new skill sets for new operators to be able to operate effectively in that cyberspace?

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

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