As Army leaders develop a new approach to the tactical network, which allows soldiers on the battlefield to communicate with their commanders, officials are deviating from past practices as a way to improve connectivity, bolster resiliency and keep pace with technology.
They said the easiest way to think of the integrated tactical network — which is not a new network — is as a mix of existing programs of record and commercial off the shelf capabilities that allows a unit to communicate in congested environments and provide situational awareness. This approach is different than years past in that it is relies more on commercial systems — and a variety of them strung together — and a DevOps model that allows the Army to continuously iterate.
Three of the main benefits of the ITN that didn’t previously exist are the redundancy in communications, unprecedented situational awareness for units and a secure but unclassified capability for lower echelons unburdening units and allowing for greater information sharing with coalition partners. This detailed vision of the network, one of the Army’s top acquisition priorities, has emerged through several interviews with service leaders and visits to industry days and exercises over multiple months.
“The ITN is not a new or separate network but rather a concept that incorporates the Army’s current tactical network environment (applications, devices, gateways and network transport) with commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) components and transport capabilities to enable communications in denied, intermittent and limited bandwidth (DIL) environments,” a pamphlet provided to reporters at the Oct. 30, 2018 Network Integration Evaluation, stated.
By merging systems, Army leaders have said the new approach will allow forces to be more expeditionary and mobile, a key attribute in future conflict. It will also allow for more opportunities for connectivity and allow the Army to keep pace with frequent commercial advances.
These systems include advanced networking waveforms, Android tablets that the Army calls “end user devices,” small aperture satellite communications, tactical data centers and data link gateways. It also includes the individual soldier kit, which is a two-channel leader radio and the end user device that provides geolocation services and chat.
By constantly leveraging and re-competing technologies associated with the network, Army leaders have said this will allow commanders to stay ahead of threats and give the service the ability to insert new capabilities when needed. In this scenario, the network will no longer be married to one system or vendor.
“One of the things we know for sure is if we were to sit down today and try to write a requirement for the network of 2028, we’d get it wrong because the technology is changing too fast, the available systems are changing too fast," Maj. Gen. Dave Bassett, program executive officer for Command, Control, Communications-Tactical, said during a recent industry presentation in February. "The direction that we were given was to not even try to write a 2028 requirement, but rather to talk about using experimentation to inform requirements and capabilities over time and to deliver an integrated tactical network in capability sets over time starting in FY21.”
This has led to the other primary change in approach from years past: the Army wants constant feedback from troops through ongoing experimentation.
The program office working with the network cross functional team has worked with multiple units, at multiple training events and even taken advantage of operational deployments to refine the first set of capabilities, which is slated to be delivered to four infantry brigade combat teams and expeditionary signal battalions in 2021. Following that, Stryker and armored brigade combat teams will likely receive capabilities beginning in 2022, Bassett and Maj. Gen. Peter Gallagher, director of the network cross functional team, told C4ISRNET.
The two generals have said that new capabilities will arrive about every two years from 2021 until 2028, which is the Army’s timeline for its overall modernization efforts.
The Army is looking to the newly established advise-and-assist brigade that's headed to Afghanistan to help inform modernization efforts associated with communications gear for conventional units.
This constant feedback loop between the units and the Army material side, as well as the network cross functional team, has led to tweaks in capability and approach, in some cases in real time. The experimentation includes fielding a portion of the kit to the Security Force Assistance Brigade in Afghanistan as well as working with the 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, at combat training center rotations, battalion training events and operational deployments the last two years.
“Every iteration we’ve executed we’ve attempted to introduce a new capability, we built on what we’ve deployed by turning lessons learned very quickly and working … to gin up some options and test many times to the point of breaking it – not physically but breaking the capability – [but] surpassing its own capability during a training exercise,” Maj. John Intile, executive officer for 1-508th, told C4ISRNET during a recent visit to Camp Atterbury for a battalion exercise in which the unit was using the kit.
“I would deploy with [the kit] now the way that it’s configured now,” Intile said of the individual soldier kit. That setup includes the two channel radio and end user device. He said this is the most developed part of the ITN.
Unlike the tactical networks of years past, the modernization provides units and commanders with multiple pathways of communication, which in turn allows for greater customization.
“It’s capable of operating in an environment where [if] the TSM waveform was all you need, you’d be fine. If you need TSM waveform and a satellite shot in order to provide services, that’s great. If you’re in a satellite denied environment … TSM waveform would work to help mission command in fighting formation and we’ve got [high-frequency] capability. If we’re in an environment where it’s permissive enough to use local 4G LTE network, then we could do that as well,” Intile said. TSM is a waveform from TrellisWare.
The end user device also allows units to share and receive location data from the individual soldier on the battlefield to a vehicle back to the command post, improving situational awareness.
“Both commanders I’ve worked for, previous and current, I think would say without a doubt that it has provided a more robust and complete situational awareness tool to them that has rapidly allowed them to see the battlefield, have appreciation for what risks they can assume and make decisions much more quickly,” Intile said.
This secure, but still unclassified path to transfer data, not only relieves stress on units in terms of checking security clearances and providing highly classified systems, but it also allows for greater information sharing in a coalition environment.
“If we have a coalition partner that we’re operating with, we can now hand them a radio and they can see the same ground [common operational picture] that we do because it’s secure but unclassified for that coalition,” Bassett said during an industry presentation in February.
“In addition, because we’re not using Type 1 encryption on our radios and we’re using this mobile ad hoc network, if we end up in an area that we know we need additional coverage … we can drop a radio in a position of advantage because it’s not Type 1 encrypted, we don’t have to leave a soldier with it. We can monitor it over the network and we can use that to connect in ways we never could have before.”