NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Several years ago, the U.S. Army embarked on a journey to modernize its tactical network using a multiyear strategy involving the incremental development and delivery of new capabilities to its integrated tactical network. Those capability sets now provide technologies to units every two years, each building upon the previous delivery.

Capability Set ‘21 was primarily designed for infantry brigades; Capability Set ‘23 is focused on Stryker brigades; and Capability Set ‘25 is focused on armored brigades.

CS 21 was fielded to four infantry brigades in fiscal 2021 and will field to three more infantry brigades and a Stryker brigade in fiscal 2022. The Army is also concurrently conducting experiments for CS 23, with a critical design review scheduled for April, and building design goals for CS 25.

The Army’s network team consists of Program Executive Office Command, Control, Communications-Tactical, the Network Cross-Functional Team, and the Command, Control, Communication, Computers, Cyber, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Center. Officials met with C4ISRNET on Dec. 2 to discuss the state of each capability set and what soldiers can expect to receive.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

The Army is fielding CS 21, experimenting with C2 23 and building design goals for CS 25 — all simultaneously. What has that process been like?

Col. Greg Napoli, unified network lead at the Network CFT: The difference between now and five years ago is the partnership between the acquisition side of the house and the requirements enterprise. It seems to be a lot more flat, and it gives us the ability — without having separate stovepipes — to merge everybody together into one team and then churn.

There’s a whole lot of things happening at the same time, and if we’re not firing on all cylinders as a team, if we’re not talking together and building one big cylinder, it won’t work. It has forced us by necessity to collaborate in ways that I would argue are more efficient than have been in the past.

Col. Garth Winterle, program manager for tactical radios at PEO C3T: One of the many challenges is really how many people you have, how many assets you have and the many different locations you have to go to. At any time we have fielding events, we have the characterization going on with Stryker, the actual brigade event with [2nd Cavalry Regiment] is occurring at the exact same time we’re doing a different event with other Strykers at a different unit location.

In some cases, it’s a management of assets. But every single time we’ve been able to get a basic experiment or a basic event conducted without interrupting any kind of major activities like fielding. It’s worked out so far.

Matthew Maier, project manager for interoperability, integration and services at PEO C3T: Welcome to acquisition. That’s our job: Remain flexible in the face of risk applied. Resourcing — particularly when it comes to unit personnel or already fielded equipment — is very difficult to come by. As we’re trying to get the characterization event or soldier touchpoint or [combat training center] rotation with a particular unit, with particular kit, it’s really important to make sure that we keep to that schedule to the best extent possible.

The other challenge that I think we’re constantly faced with — and this is from a unit standpoint — is they’re constantly being pulled. Even if we schedule something with a given unit months in advance, if it’s going to be a test unit or using other types of processes in HQDA [Headquarters, Department of the Army], often those will change during the year. The unit will get pulled and we’ll have to come up with risk mitigation plans to use different units or different test threads or different time windows. We need to stay flexible.

How are you assessing what can be done through government science and technology projects versus the gaps you need industry to fill?

Donald Coulter, senior science and technology adviser at the Network CFT: That was one of the things we learned and are getting better at, even as we operate multiple capability sets at the same time. We see the lessons learned, we’re seeing the questions that we need to answer and the questions we need to ask earlier on, and we’re looking at those design goals and looking at all the potential things — whether it’s government off-the-shelf, whether it’s commercial off-the-shelf, whether it’s academia. We’re looking at all the potential sources and solutions and then saying: “How do those help us achieve that goal?”

We’ll continue to measure those out in regard to the experimentation plan. That allows us to quantify the effectiveness of different potential solutions as part of the solution.

Now that CS 21 is out, what would you have done differently and will now implement for experiments, critical design reviews and deliveries of future capability sets? What will you maintain from the CS 21 process?

Winterle: We’re fielding quite a few new capabilities all the time. It’s important to meet with brigade commanders and senior leaders in the brigade to drive home how important the training aspect is and learn these new systems, but also work with them around their schedule, the systems of systems integration-level training, which is crucial because it’s not enough to learn how to use your radio — it’s performing a data connection for something else. You have to know how that works.

We’ve totally revamped a lot of the training courses we started with in capability set fielding to the extent to where if that radio touches six things, those six things are in the room during the radio training.

You’re approaching the critical design review for CS 23. Where does the experimentation stand? What else must get done before the review?

Maier: There are a lot of run-up events for this particular design review. Between preliminary design review, which was April 2021, and critical design review, which is April 2022, there’s a whole series of touchpoints, soldier experimentation and test events.

An indirect answer to your question: We just got done with our [second] lab-based risk reduction [effort]. On top of that, we have technical tests in January. On top of that, we have a couple of adversarial and cyber tests coming up.

There’s three or four major test events between now and the critical design review, and then a few more even after CDR just to make sure we’re good from a test strategy. While it’s important to get technology out to units as quickly as possible, it’s important to also overlay, make sure that we have that robust test and experimentation process. That ends up being very significant.

While we’re leaning forward on capability set ‘23 and getting ready for CDR, we’re also leaning forward on capability set ‘25. I have an armored brigade combat team characterization ongoing right now. We’re doing peer reviews with 3rd Infantry Division.

We have parallel tracks of events.

Where are you in the design phase for CS 25?

Coulter: We just had our capability set requirements review that laid out design goals and capabilities we’re looking at in ‘25, in ‘27 and beyond. We’re moving to a functional review next year.

A lot of the science and technology that’s going in, even at capability set ‘25 — we’ve already been executing S&T, we’ve already published where we want to go. Industry is tracking that, and they’re bringing things to experiments as well. We’re demonstrating some of that stuff at Project Convergence events. We’ve tested out some technical perspective and performance perspective things at like NetModX. We’re continuing to do that annually and evolve that.

We’re getting closer and closer and refining it, and the beauty of having these capability set requirements reviews and for future capability sets is we’re asking the same exact questions that we ask in the preliminary design reviews and the CDRs [so] we know exactly where we’re driving to and what the holes in our knowledge are that we need to get clarity on as we continue forward.

When will experimentation for CS 25 take place? Is the characterization event part of experimentation?

Winterle: The first major one is a battalion-level armored brigade combat team characterization using prototyped systems. That is in the fourth quarter of 2021. It’s earlier than what we would normally do, it’s slightly earlier than what we did for the Strkyers. Typically it takes six to nine months just to get the equipment ready to start one of those events. We’re starting a little earlier based on what we learned on Strykers and the same kind of mounted systems, what we learned in CS 21 characterization. We’re able to cheat forward and start that event a little earlier.

That’s really the first field experiment, if you will, if you don’t count the [brigade combat team communications] on-the-move [pilot] and the things that we’ve already done, which you could really say translates to or is more along the lines of capability set ‘25.

Maier: I think one of the reasons for starting that armored brigade combat team characterization early is they had something like seven or eight different armored platforms up in PEO Ground Combat Systems, and we have to make sure the kit works with a few variants of Strykers. Really looking at making sure we get each of the different variants scheduled, available [and ready for] training. I think a lot of that takes a lot of extra coordination, so that early engagement helps.

Col. Shane Taylor, project manager for tactical network at PEO C3T: But the early start to that will have kit on the ground in January down at Fort Stewart in Georgia.

It’s difficult to forecast what you need ahead of time. Is there a more efficient model for predicting what you need, as opposed to having to make predictions in a three- to five-year budgeting cycle?

Maier: Getting that early user feedback definitely helped not only inform the design but also maybe in some cases inform the requirements. We have a very close partnership with the Army capability managers that write all the requirements. In many cases, they’re going back and doing revisions or updates to the requirements. We can coordinate with HQDA and say: “Hey, [this might have to change because] this unit gave us feedback.”

It seems the network is delivering capabilities that provide an incremental upgrade to what forces previously had. There’s a lot of active experimentation throughout this entire integrated tactical network process. How would you rate your progress in terms of capabilities, timeliness, funding and resources?

Taylor: It’s kind of driven by the nature of the network. If you look at what we do for a living, the network in and of itself is going to be iterative, whether we want it to be or not. I think that process that the team applied to this is necessitated by the fact that our kit only lasts so long based on obsolescence and things like near-peer cyber opportunities and things like that. I think it lends itself to this kind of construct to begin with, or else you end up with systems in the field long beyond their effectiveness.

Winterle: It’s also just the very nature of technology. We designed CS 21 around a modular concept.

I have a capability gap. I don’t care when a vendor solution shows up to the table: They’re all going to be evaluated against each other in a competitive fashion, and the best of breed gets plugged in and integrated. In a year from now, a different capability [might] meet that — it is either cheaper, better, “fill in the blank.”

Most of these things can be reprogrammed and integrated in a modular fashion fairly quickly, unlike putting a new weapon system on a helicopter or an unmanned vehicle. They’re also a lot less expensive, if you’re talking radios — they’re a lot less expensive than a weapon system.

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

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