WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army’s combat capabilities development team kicked off a monthslong experiment last week to test emerging technologies that could be added into the service’s tactical network.
The third annual Network Modernization Experiment at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey started July 20 and ends Oct. 2. NetModX provides an opportunity for the Combat Capabilities Development Command’s C5ISR Center — or Command, Control, Communication, Computers, Cyber, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Center — to perform field tests with emerging capabilities that have largely been tested in the lab.
Field tests with simulated threat environments, as opposed to lab tests, are important because technologies react in unexpected ways due to realities like different types of trees or terrain.
This year’s theme for NetModX is mission command and command-post survivability, which means participants will focus on technologies that could be fielded in the Army’s Integrated Tactical Network Capability Set ’23 and Capability Set ’25 — future iterations of network tools that the Army plans to deliver to soldiers every two years.
In this year’s test, the C5ISR Center is testing communications capabilities that allow for distributed mission command systems across the battlefield “and wider area,” said Michael Brownfield, chief of the future capabilities office at the C5ISR Center.
“We’ve learned by watching our enemies fight, and we know that to survive on the battlefield, No. 1, they can’t be able to see us,” Brownfield told C4ISRNET in an interview. “And No. 2, we have to distribute our systems across the battlefield to give them multiple targets and multiple dilemmas in order to survive.”
NetModX is also testing network resiliency capabilities that could be delivered as part of Capability Set ’23. Preliminary design review for the capability set is scheduled for April next year. To test the effectiveness of the resiliency projects the center developed in the lab, the C5ISR Center created a “state-of-the-art red cell” that attacks the network using enemy’s tactics, techniques and procedures, according to Brownfield. The goal is to make sure the technology can withstand electronic attacks and allow for continuous operations in contested environments when in the hands of deployed soldiers.
“What resiliency means to us is the network bends, it doesn’t break,” Brownfield said. “And the commanders have the information they need and the coordination that they need to fight the battle.”
A modular radio frequency system of systems is undergoing tests, and Brownfield says it will “revolutionize” the fight on the battlefield. The system automatically switches between primary, alternate, contingency and emergency, or PACE, radios by sensing if radio frequencies are being jammed. The system then responds by automatically switching radio channels to allow for seamless communications in a contested environment.
Currently, “it’s kind of hard to switch to alternate comms when the person you’re talking to is on their primary, not their alternative comms,” Brownfield said. “And the process is very slow. It’s human-driven.”
Now, the automatic PACE system senses the environment in milliseconds, he said. At last year’s experiment, which focused on network transport capabilities to support precision fires for multidomain operations, the center experimented with radios that could flip to new channels on their own, while launching brute force and other more sophisticated attacks against the radios to see how much stress they could handle before passing data became impossible.
This year will be a little different.
“This year, we’re pairing different radios together and see how they can work to actually change the type of modulation schemes that we use to maneuver in cyberspace around for continuous operations while under enemy attack and under contested electronic warfare conditions,” Brownfield said.
One of the top priorities for this year’s experiment is allowing for projects leaders to bring their technology into to the field, no matter what stage of development they are in, to be tested in an “operationally relevant environment,” Brownfield said. The team then collects data on how the technology performs and puts it into a database where it can be queried to answer specific performance questions.
“So we can ... ask the database questions like, ‘What was my latency with these two radios at this point in time,' and start to understand the true metrics of how the systems performed in the field,” Joshua Fischer, acting chief of systems engineering, architecture, modeling and simulation at the C5ISR Center, told C4ISRNET. He added that those involved are also looking at network throughput.
Andrew Eversden covers all things defense technology for C4ISRNET. He previously reported on federal IT and cybersecurity for Federal Times and Fifth Domain, and worked as a congressional reporting fellow for the Texas Tribune. He was also a Washington intern for the Durango Herald. Andrew is a graduate of American University.