IT and Networks

Army makes big leap in command post Wi-Fi

In its ongoing efforts to speed deployment of communications at the front, the U.S. Army has selected Aruba of Sunnyvale, California, to supply command post Wi-Fi at Army, Army National Guard and Army Reserve tactical units worldwide.

The wireless networks would replace the cumbersome and costly wired-line connectivity that has long been the norm.

"Soldiers are dependent on their networks, and the longer they are out of contact, the more danger that puts them in. This will increase their situational awareness, it will increase the connectivity that they depend on," said Jon Green, senior director of security architecture for Aruba. The company plans to initially deploy 200 Wi-Fi units.

The Army has not disclosed the full number of units or the budget for their Wi-Fi initiative. In the near term, the Army said its intent is to field this capability to all Joint Network Nodes (JNNs) in the Army over the next few years. The long-term plan for wireless capability is to proliferate wireless capability across WIN-T.

The primary impetus for the Wi-Fi deployment is how quickly it can be speed of set -up. Traditionally it can take upwards of eight hours to stand up command post communications. The effort can require a thousand of feet of cable weighing over 250 pounds, as well as special flooring meant to safely encase wires while keeping them out of the way.

"By going wireless, command post set up and tear down times are reduced by hours," said Paul Mehney, director of public communications for the Program Executive Office Command, Control, Communications-Tactical, based in Aberdeen, Maryland, which leads the Army’s Wi-Fi efforts. "Units can leverage the full extent of their network mission command and communications capabilities much faster as command posts are set up."

He noted that Wi-Fi also can cut down on troubleshooting time while also providing flexibility in how the command post is configured.

In addition to indoor and outdoor Wi-Fi access points, Aruba will provide a 6-inch by 19-inch mobility controller that will act as a central management device for all network traffic and will be encrypted at the secret level, which will be encrypted at the secret level. By creating a single flow-through point for data, the system minimizes the likelihood that an enemy could tap into communications via an access point, Green said.

In announcing the Aruba program, Army leaders said Wi-Fi could give fighters a strategic edge. In an increasingly complex expeditionary environment, "command post Wi-Fi increases speed of maneuver while reducing soldier burden and cost," Mehney said.

This latest move toward command post Wi-Fi comes on the heels of a number of recent Army efforts to demonstrate the validity of wireless connectivity for forward operating bases.

At the May 2015 Network Integration Evaluation 15.2, or NIE 15.2, in Fort Bliss, Texas, the Army demonstrated an unclassified wireless command post with a battalion-sized element. At the time, Army leaders said Wi-Fi could give combatants a strategic edge in efforts to outmaneuver enemy combatants.

"Unit agility is a key component in achieving overmatch against increasingly capable enemies," said COLCol. Edward Swanson, the former project manager for Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T), in announcing the demonstration. Swanson is now chief of staff for Army PEO Intelligence, Electronic Warfare & Sensors.

"Providing Wi-Fi to the command post reduces the time and cost to deploy Army units while increasing their agility and versatility to conduct full-spectrum operations," he said.

The services followed this demonstration with another in the fall aAt NIE 16.1, held Sept. 25 through Oct. 8, In that instance the Army demonstrated its security capabilities with Wi-Fi networks bearing National Security Agency-accredited unclassified and classified solutions with a full brigade command post.

LTCLt. Col. Mark Henderson, product manager for WIN-T Increment 1, reiterated the point that Wi-Fi driven communications will prove a strategic advantage. "It increases the speed of maneuver, reduces lots of cables and saves soldiers time. The more agile our force, the more important it will be to spend time on the mission and not packing and unpacking the cables," he said in announcing the demonstration.

Aruba has had its Army solution in development for three years, waiting in part for Wi-Fi standards to emerge that could deliver the speed and security needed to support a battlefield network. With the latest Wi-Fi standards approaching gigabit-per-second speeds, "now we are getting to the point where you can really talk about wired network replacement," Green said.

Hewlett-Packard purchased Aruba Networks in March, in an effort to build up its wireless networking business. HP offered $24.67 per share, giving Aruba a $3 billion value. The deal was worth a reported $2.7 billion taking into account Aruba's debt and cash.

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