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How Army network modernization efforts ensure equipment works with allies

A critical piece of the U.S. Army’s network modernization push is ensuring its systems work with allies. In future battles, the Army will not fight alone; it will be joined by coalition partners, as well as other U.S. services. As the Army moves to improve its integrated tactical network, it must ensure that its network tools work with coalition and service partners.

The Army recently completed a critical design review of Capability Set ’21 a set of new network tools that will be delivered to soldiers next year. The service is in the first phase of procuring the new capabilities.

A “key factor” involved in delivery to soldiers at the battalion level and below is a move to a 75 percent “secure but unclassified” network that provides improved communication between coalition partners, said Col. Garth Winterle, project manager for tactical radios at the Army’s Program Executive Office Command, Control, Communications-Tactical.

“We’re moving off of an all-secret network to one that’s a lot more flexible and actually encourages coalition interoperability,” Winterle said.

One opportunity to test interoperability was Defender Europe 2020, which was meant to be one of the largest European exercises involving both the U.S. Army and NATO allies, but had to be scaled down due to the coronavirus pandemic. Still, the Army was able to test interoperability.

There were a series of pre-Defender Europe exercises to assess capabilities “to inform future network design,” according to Justine Ruggio, director of communications for the Network Cross-Functional Team at Army Futures Command.

These assessments included several pieces of Capability Set ’21, including communications exercises and validation exercises with the Army’s fielded Command Post Computing Environment software, Tactical Server Infrastructure and Commercial Coalition Equipment “to enable the use of the Mission Partner Environment, which allowed all participants to share classified information during the exercise, including the Polish and U.K.,” Ruggio said.

During the pre-Defender Europe tests, “we were able to bridge the Polish and U.K. unit into an integrated command structure using our secret releasable network and create that common command-and-control picture,” Col. Lesley Kipling, the mission command lead and Army National Guard liaison officer to the Network CFT, said in an interview with C4ISRNET.

Secret but releasable information is classified at the secret level and can be released to certain coalition partners who have sufficient clearance from their home country.

An exercise scheduled for next year, called Warfighter 21-4, will allow for additional interoperability assessments with U.K. and French forces. According to Ruggio, one focus area will be on interoperability using the Network CFT’s DevOps model to iterate the Command Post Computing Environment, continue to assess Commercial Coalition Equipment and evaluate the Mission Partner Environment. The event will be aligned with Capability Set ’23, the next iteration of network tools.

Kipling added that the cross-functional team and its partners are “continuing” to work on policies and training for properly connecting to a coalition network “so that it’s not learning on the fly, but that these procedures and policies are codified in a way that they can be standardized and any user can execute whenever they’re put in a situation,” she said.

Brig. Gen. Joseph Papenfus, chief Information officer and deputy chief of staff of the G6 of U.S. Army Europe, said that the scaled-back nature of Defender Europe did affect network interoperability testing because soldiers were unable to come over from the United States. That means that U.S. Army Europe will focus heavily on European partners during the smaller exercises, Papenfus said, including validating network integration and establishing a secret but releasable network with NATO.

“Every opportunity that we have to see how a piece of equipment works within the larger set of the network, we take advantage of that,” Ruggio said.

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