Modernization is a top priority for the U.S. Army, with prototypes of both next-generation combat vehicles and futuristic helicopters expected in a few short years. But revamping the network, if not as high-profile as those items, is still a priority for Secretary Mark Esper’s Army renaissance.

He spoke recently with C4ISRNET’s Jill Aitoro about the challenges the Army faces.

C4ISRNET: The network has run into trouble in the past. What do you hope to accomplish in the next two to three years?

MARK ESPER: The network is hard and different. It’s different because, unlike the Next-Generation Combat Vehicle or [Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System] or Long-Range Precision Fires, the most capable and most advanced technologies will likely be found in the commercial sector. So, we’re faced with chasing technologies that likely will change every year or 18 months.

The challenge is to make sure we can build a network that is — you know the buzzwords — reliable and mobile and has all the capabilities we need, using commercial products, mainly software over hardware. That’s not something I think that you’ll ever see a big major rollout for. There’s never going be [the equivalent of] a Next-Generation Combat Vehicle [rollout], where we pull away the curtain, and there it is — and “ta-da,” we name it after somebody, and everybody says, “Ah, that’s it!”

The network is something that would grow and mature and evolve over time as we pull technologies from the private sector into the Army. I’ve seen that already. As I’ve visited units, they’re using tactical radios. I have seen it in command posts where we used to have server stacks that were like a refrigerator-and-a-half high, and they’re now down to the size of DVRs. I can see it in terms of technology getting smaller, more mobile and more capable. You’re not going see one big bang, where it comes out as a system reveal.

C4ISRNET: In a sense, the Army tried that with WIN-T.

ESPER: You know, WIN-T kind of gets put in a category sometimes, like [Future Combat Systems] or Comanche, but it’s really not. WIN-T is a great system if you’re at a mobile stationary base fighting, I don’t know, the Taliban. But it’s too big and bulky and clunky, and it’s too easily intercepted and everything else, if you have to fight a near-field threat.

C4ISRNET: Traditional players will always be involved in a tactical network. How have you engaged with non-traditional players?

ESPER: I’ve engaged with them all. I do dinners every week with industry. We have a lot of conversations. So we find innovations coming from them. I find innovation coming from the field, where soldiers are getting rid of this, and getting free of that, and putting stuff on trailers. And they’re finding solutions. And when this comes up with soldiers at town halls, I try to tell them, “Look, in my day, the radio I used in Ranger school was the same radio I had eight years, nine years later as a company commander in Italy.” That’s not going to be the case. I tell them, “At any one point in time, you will use different radios in your units, and when you go to your next unit a few years later, you’re going to have different radios, and you’re just going to have to get used to that.”

C4ISRNET: They’re used to upgrading their iPhone every year.

ESPER: Yes, this generation — they have a great deal of versatility in terms of understanding technology and adapting, so I think it’ll be less of a challenge for them than it was for my generation.

Jill Aitoro is editor of Defense News. She is also executive editor of Sightline Media's Business-to-Government group, including Defense News, C4ISRNET, Federal Times and Fifth Domain. She brings over 15 years’ experience in editing and reporting on defense and federal programs, policy, procurement, and technology.

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