Army Aims for Network Modernization
By Robert K. Ackerman of SIGNAL Magazine
The service’s CIO and G-6 charts a digital change in direction.
The U.S. Army is creating a new definition of communications on the move as it prepares to shift from past information systems. Without weakening operations, the land service looks to incorporate a state-of-the-art class of capabilities by overhauling its relationship with technology providers.
These new requirements owe their origins to innovative technologies as well as to international near-peer pressure. Emerging network capabilities offer more flexible and effective ways of operating just as potential rivals improve their own information warfare measures in ways that constitute broad-based threats to the Army.
The very nature of force command and control is changing both doctrinally and physically. Threat capabilities already demonstrated by potential adversaries in theater pose a significant challenge to Army operations, and many strike at the heart of network-enabled warfare.
Lt. Gen. Bruce T. Crawford, USA, Army chief information officer (CIO) and G-6, reports that the changes looming in Army tactical networking have been building over several months of review. Among the near-term conclusions is that the service’s network does not meet the requirements of operational commanders. “The network that we currently have is not the network we believe we need to fight and win against a peer adversary,” he declares, adding that the term “network” represents the Army’s full information enterprise. This includes the transport—the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T)—along with tactical radio strategies and mission command systems.
This enterprise is neither optimized nor mobile, and it is too complex, fragile and vulnerable, easy to detect and jam, and difficult to secure, the general explains. He says these conclusions lead to a defining question: “If the network that we have is not the network that we need, then what are the characteristics and attributes of the future state that we should build toward?”
First and foremost, that future state must feature a network that is survivable and protected, the general says. The network also must be intuitive, interoperable and sustainable as well as standards-based. And it must be highly mobile.
“If you’re not moving every hour on the battlefield, then it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to survive,” he warrants. “We’re moving into a new age where gone are the days when technology that allows you to orient, decide and act faster is tied to a fixed command post or office. Things are born mobile these days. The development from day one is armed with an assumption that this capability has to be mobile—which is a game changer in terms of our thinking going forward.”
The Army has a three-part strategy for addressing its network challenges. The first part is halting programs that do not meet new objectives. The second part is fixing the Army’s ability “to fight tonight,” he says, which identifies four priorities. Those include improving command post survivability and mobility; creating a universal transport layer for devices to select the right medium to send messages; developing a universal suite of mission command systems and applications; and adding air-to-ground integration to joint and coalition interoperability.
The third part ensures that the Army does not find itself in the same fix five years from now. This will require a pivot to a different method of acquiring equipment. “It’s not just what we buy. It’s a strategy that changes how we buy,” Gen. Crawford emphasizes. The Army must move away from activities such as overprescribing requirements to its industry partners and instead assume a position where it is articulating its intent. He describes this new process as “adapt and buy.”
The process enhances experimentation and demonstration on the front end, streamlining acquisition time, among other improvements. It would entail incorporating feedback from soldiers and commanders into what the Army buys. This would bring operators and industry developers closer so that the commercial sector would have better insight into how each user interfaces with products.
And the Army would shift away from a lowest price technically acceptable (LPTA) approach to more of a best-value method. “I do not believe LPTA should be a one-size-fits-all for every source-selection methodology when we get ready to buy something,” Gen. Crawford offers. “Given what we are looking for in terms of the quality of the product, I think we have to go best value in some of our source-selection methodologies. And to get to a best-value approach, the Army must really think through what we are really looking to pay more for in a best-value proposition.
“You can expect the Army to start behaving more like a customer instead of just a consumer—the way we have been approaching the delivery of capability in the past,” he warrants.
From this move, industry would gain the predictability it seeks to fulfill the Army’s needs, and the service would obtain the flexibility it wants. “Ultimately, what we are looking for is what’s the best return on investment for the Army,” he says. “The process that we currently have is not a road to lead us to getting that best return on investment.”
Having been in his position only a few months, Gen. Crawford emphasizes that he did not assume his billet with any agenda. He spent the first four months visiting many Defense Department and Army organizations and speaking with a range of personnel worldwide before his plans began to take shape. He tapped expert opinions from the monthslong review as well as the experience of technologists and operators.
His vision is an Army network that comprises four characteristics: flat architecture, speed, mobility and protection. He explains that the flat aspect meshes well with ongoing network convergence efforts in which more than 60 disparate Army networks are being consolidated. Network speed addresses Army battlefield requirements for fast action. Mobility acknowledges a change from static environments to combined arms maneuver and wide-area security against an evolving hybrid threat. And protection is the linkage to cybersecurity as well as the G-6 support to Army cyberspace operations.
The general says the Army is not near this vision yet. “There’s a lot of work that has to be done to achieve that objective state,” he says. “There will be more to follow as we unfurl this.”
Central to achieving this vision are several priorities. His top one is readiness: “the idea of fixing what we have to enable the current fight,” Gen. Crawford states. He offers that for the past 16 years of continuous combat, the force purchased a lot of information technology, and these acquisitions did not include actions that would generate an effective life-cycle sustainment process. For example, the Army lacked a structured, integrated technical architecture because of many contingency acquisitions.
The general’s second priority is to modernize the information technology acquisition process. He wants the Army to “influence, shape and leverage” the marketplace instead of reacting to it. Over the past 16 years, the Army neither was postured to understand what technology was available nor quickly integrated that technology into warfighting formations. This was nobody’s fault, he emphasizes, but the service must change. Developing an overarching plan for how to integrate new technology will require institutional change, the general states.
Shaping the force is Gen. Crawford’s third priority. Both uniformed and civilian information technology personnel must be properly aligned in size, scope and responsibility across the service, he imparts.
The general’s fourth priority involves cybersecurity policy. As Army CIO, he is responsible for cybersecurity, which is a critical enabler for the operational commander in cyberspace. This cyber policy must move from a compliance focus to a readiness focus, Gen. Crawford states. The Army must articulate cybersecurity’s importance to cyberspace operations, and doctrine, tactics, techniques and procedures must reflect this.
Fixing Army tactical networking is only part of the battle. Enterprise initiatives face similar challenges, such as network flattening, and these are the general’s fifth priority. Establishing baselines for enterprise initiatives would help the Army leverage the initiatives to increase force lethality, Gen. Crawford says.
The final priority he names to realize a more modern network is to optimize information technology resourcing to reduce risk and increase operational effectiveness.
That is a tall order, but the biggest challenge confronting Army information technology is keeping pace with the ever-evolving threat. The new networking plan is “threat-informed,” the general declares. “We’ve had an opportunity to closely monitor and study the actual threat to our network,” he explains. “It’s not just the cyberthreat; there are electronic warfare threats.”
Tactics, techniques and procedures have played out from the Russian New Generation Warfare Study, a recent paper that examined how soldiers will meet threats between 2020 and 2040, he continues. “What Russia was able to do on the cheap was to tie sensor to shooter using very cheap drones and cellphone technologies for direct and indirect fires and virtually decimate immobile command posts,” Gen. Crawford says.
He points out that the Army also must extend the range of its line-of-sight capabilities without operating at full power all the time on the battlefield—a perfect scenario for detection by a hostile power.
A related problem is that the electromagnetic signatures emitted by command posts reduce their survivability in the electronic warfare (EW)-kinetic environment. Traditional doctrine has called for cutting the emissions put out by each box in the command center, but the new approach is to allow command posts to hide in plain sight among ambient noise, Gen. Crawford states. This does not entail raising the noise level to hide signals, he emphasizes, but simply camouflaging command post emissions among everyday noise. “We’ve advanced technology to the point where we ought to be able to leverage that capability,” he asserts. “It reduces the risk of emitting electromagnetic signatures on the battlefield in our command posts, and ultimately, it is a game-changing technology.”
He notes that the Army is asking industry to invest in this approach.
The general adds that the Army is putting Wi-Fi in its command posts, and it is looking at Li-Fi, a wireless optical networking technology that uses light-emitting diodes (LEDs) for data transmission. The technology switches LEDs on and off quickly for signal linkage, which would prove more difficult to detect by an adversary that is not inside a command center. Gen. Crawford says the two wireless technologies can coexist.
Another concern is the lack of an antijam satellite communications capability. The past 16 years have seen the Army become overly reliant on satellite communications, but the service’s operational systems are not antijam. The only antijam capability the Army has is in the 278 legacy Secure Mobile Antijam Reliable Tactical Terminal (SMART-T) units in the inventory the service is striving to modernize. Gen. Crawford stresses the need for industry to come up with the next generation of antijam satellite waveforms.
Among the other challenges the Army must overcome to improve its networking are internal cultural issues. The service needs to remove its risk-averse mindset and replace it with a test-faster, more experimental and demonstration-oriented mindset, Gen. Crawford posits. This mindset must say, “We’re going to take risks in the development and integration of commercial technologies,” he emphasizes. Commercial investments in networking made over the past few years are bearing fruit, but this is happening much faster than the Army’s current processes will allow it to harvest them.
At the same time, challenges bring opportunities, and Gen. Crawford sees several inherent in the new networking approach. First, the Army can have a closer partnership with the commercial sector. “We cannot achieve the objective state without commercial industry really understanding what we are trying to accomplish,” he says. In meetings with industry leaders, the general asks them, “What policy changes are required to achieve the objective state?” He emphasizes that the Army’s networking goals cannot be realized without fundamental policy changes, and he seeks industry’s input on those changes. Debate over LPTA versus best value surfaces frequently, he notes.
Gen. Crawford also asks industry leaders how the commercial sector can be brought closer to users to gain a better understanding of how operators interact with products. The difference between simply fulfilling a requirement and learning what the user actually needs manifests itself in complexity that confronts the user in the field, he offers.
Above all, the Army wants the best potential technologies from industry. “What we really need is industry showing us not just what technologies are available today, but helping us paint the picture of what’s in the art of the possible,” Gen. Crawford states.
In addition to antijam waveforms and reduced electromagnetic signatures on the battlefield, several other technologies can help Army networking, the general says. At the top of the list are artificial intelligence and machine learning, which allow personnel to automate activities and make decisions faster—both in delivering capability and operating on the battlefield, he notes. Advances in these areas “will allow us to better see ourselves and take stock of the various pieces of software that are out there,” he says.
The Army also needs technologies to automate information sharing and analysis, Gen. Crawford continues. “Data has almost become a new currency: the ability to protect it, the sharing of data, the interest in analyzing it,” he declares.
Advances in robotics continue to drive innovative thinking about their use, especially in the evolution of autonomous vehicles on the battlefield. “As I look at autonomous vehicles, I think about the network being flat, being fast, being mobile and being protected,” Gen. Crawford offers. “What network do I need to put in place to be able to allow autonomous vehicles to operate on the battlefield? You’re literally moving from autonomous vehicles to weaponized autonomous vehicles that can be remotely controlled.”