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Army Communicators Receive New Signals

September 2003
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

 

A soldier with the 159th Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, sets up an antenna for communications between range control and helicopters in Iraq. U.S. Army signal units will be adapting new configurations while concurrently adopting new technologies over the next few years

Change is in the airwaves.

U.S. Army signal experts may become as mobile as the information they send zipping around cyberspace if the service’s new chief information officer has his way. Future signal units may move from force to force in battle to ensure that the service has the connectivity it needs to prevail in a network-centric battlespace.

Other changes are on the near horizon as, flush with experience gleaned from successes in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Army looks to incorporate new technologies to serve emerging capabilities. Satellite communications face significant improvements, and related innovations must be developed to enable their effective use. Mundane items such as software and even batteries loom large in plans for Army network architectures. The Army also will be networked more closely with specialized units such as special operations forces.

Lt. Gen. Steven W. Boutelle, USA, is the chief information officer, G-6, of the Army. The G-6 is the principal adviser to the Army acquisition executive, whereas in the past the G-6 was responsible for acquisition. Program executive officers responsible for command, control, communications and computers worked for the G-6. Now, however, the G-6 office serves an advisory role, pressing materiel developers to build equipment and systems that leverage all the new capabilities that are being implemented.

One of the most far-reaching of Gen. Boutelle’s goals is to reshape signal forces in the Army. He believes that signal forces should not be limited to operating in support of a single parent combat unit. Instead of being designed around this type of habitual relationship, signal units would be multipurpose “plug and play” organizations that could support different types of units.

“I don’t think the habitual relationship of having a signal battalion of certain types of companies tied to a division is our model of the past that we need to use in the future,” he states. “They are tied to specific missions of a division. We need to start looking at how that signal unit [not only] supports that division but also supports other things and breaks away from a continual relationship.

“They may be part of that relationship, but they must be able to do other things and other missions.”

Hybrid signal units now are providing communications for non-Iraq theaters such as Afghanistan. Gen. Boutelle notes that the success of this approach is serving as the basis for examining integrated theater signal battalions for ways to reshape these units and equip them to support different types of organizations and missions.

Specialized signal units, such as the 501st Signal Battalion that serves the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), would still be associated with that unit to serve its unique needs, the general allows. However, the signal battalion also would be able to undertake other missions. “It’s not that we don’t want a division to have a signal battalion,” he emphasizes. “As long as we have divisions, we’ll have signal battalions associated with them. But it’s the capabilities especially in the echelons above division and corps that must be multipurpose.”

A key is to take control of the networks rather than the communications, he explains. “This is no longer about just radios and communications—it’s about radios and networks.

“We need to adjust the units,” the general continues. “They can’t be the same type of units that we needed in the Cold War because we don’t fight those fights anymore.”

Gen. Boutelle allows that he has discussed this approach with Maj. Gen. Jan Hicks, USA, chief of signal at Fort Gordon, Georgia. Training at Fort Gordon will have to be adjusted to accommodate the changes that these forces will undergo, he notes.

The Army also needs to embrace special operations forces, the general allows. The Special Operations Command (SOCOM) now is a supported command, and it will continue to be involved in future military operations as it was in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Army must develop a much closer relationship with these forces, he states.

Because conventional forces now may be task-organized to special operations forces, the Army must examine the groups’ respective information systems to ensure that it can provide the necessary support. The general adds that SOCOM has done excellent work enhancing existing systems and building others.

For example, SOCOM enhanced the Army’s PSC-5 ultrahigh frequency tactical satellite radio to the PSC-5D version, which has considerably more capability than the original version. When the Army works with special operations forces and both elements are using that system, they have a degree of commonality that is countered by a mismatch caused by the improvements inherent in the PSC-5D. That incongruity must be addressed, as must other differences in all the systems that both groups would bring to the battlespace.

Also near the top of Gen. Boutelle’s list are activities based on the Army Knowledge Management memo signed by the secretary of the Army. This effort develops the knowledge-based, information-based Army, and a key to this effort is to develop an enterprise architecture. It initially will be a network that is global and pervasive in nature, the general offers. This network would comprise existing networks such as the defense information system network and the secret Internet protocol router network, and it would add the GuardNet with its 3,300 sites nationwide and the ReserveNet. These all would come together as a single managed network as an enterprise, he emphasizes.

This network would be leveraged for warfighters with the U.S. Defense Department enterprise that expands on the Global Information Grid. This expansion will provide much higher bandwidth capabilities both within and outside the continental United States. Global broadcast system sites in Europe, Hawaii and Virginia will be integrated into this network, along with new satellite constellations under development—the wideband gap filler and the transformational communications system, or TCS (SIGNAL, February, page 25). Step sites that are being transitioned into teleports will increase bandwidth availability while adding commercial and military satellite capabilities.

“If you take that entire constellation, then what you have done is you’ve provided a global pervasive network for warfighters wherever they are,” Gen. Boutelle says. “That is the infrastructure for the enterprise network.”

 

Special operations forces use the PCS-5D radio to establish satellite links from remote locations on the battlefied. The modifications that they have made to this tactical satellite radio not only have improved its capabilities but also have created incongruities with the Army-issue PSC-5 units. Differences such as these must be ironed out as the Army will be operating more closely with special operations forces in the future. 

This network is only half of the solution, however. The other half is to facilitate the warfighter’s operation within that network. That warfighter could encompass heavy and light divisions or brigades, the general notes. And, the Army’s vital Future Combat Systems (FCS) program must capture all of these capabilities to provide the necessary action information to the commander.

At the heart of the Army’s transformation effort is FCS (SIGNAL, November, page 39), and at the heart of FCS lies information systems. This info-centric program cannot succeed without sensors networked to provide actionable information to commanders, the general notes. “We have really, in some cases, traded off significant amounts of steel and armor for information and early warning,” he observes.

All the aspects of FCS rely on networks. FCS has been aligned with Warfighter Information Network–Tactical (WIN–T), the Joint Tactical Radio System and the first launches of the TCS satellites, the general continues.

The biggest command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I) challenge facing the Army is to bring those architectures, whether joint or Defense Department, together with the materiel development community to ensure full interoperability, the general declares. One of these efforts will involve the WIN–T program. As the Army evolves from mobile subscriber equipment, enhanced with the Army Common User Modernization Program, into the WIN–T, the mobile network will have to capture and leverage all the aspects of the Defense Department enterprise. This will be a significant and expensive challenge, Gen. Boutelle says.

“It moves us from a static network like we use in the North German plain or the Korean peninsula to a mobile network globally deployable—as we needed in Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq,” he explains.

However, until WIN–T and the rest of the new systems are in place—about six to 10 years away—the G-6 must be able to serve Army warfighters with existing gear and commercial systems such as those that were used in Afghanistan and the Iraq War (SIGNAL, July, page 31). This effort also will feature the employment of hitherto unused commercial systems, the general notes.

Several commercial technologies can play vital roles in this interim period, he continues. For example, in Southwest Asia, roughly 70 percent to 80 percent of the satellite networks used by the Army were commercial. This required deployment of significant numbers of commercial satellite terminals in the months leading up to the start of operation Iraqi Freedom. When the 11th Signal Brigade was removed from Kosovo and Afghanistan to support Iraq operations, commercial satellite terminals were used to backfill in those regions. Gen. Boutelle allows that this is not the ideal approach.

“It should be the other way around,” he states. “I would like to have the commercial capability on hand until such time as we get all of the green vehicles and satellite terminals in the out years that we need.

“As we look at this next six to 10 years, we need to look very closely at what industry can do for us to provide us with capabilities in the satellite world—in new satellite constellations that are being launched or are launched in the next few years that give us increased satellite capacity in the commercial world.

“I would like to see us reverse that percentage” of commercial satellite use, he continues. “When we get to wideband gap filler and TCS, we should be 80 to 90 percent [usage] on the military satellite world and 10 to 20 percent on the commercial world. We are at the opposite now because we are underinvested in the satellite constellations, which take significant periods of time to plan, design, launch and put on station. So, we are going to need the commercial world to help us come up with an architecture to carry us through the next six to 10 years.”

Satellites played a key role in the Iraq War, and many of the lessons learned in that war covered familiar areas. There remains “an insatiable demand for bandwidth,” Gen. Boutelle relates. Ironically, the move toward more commercial applications and operating systems has driven the demand for bandwidth higher. Higher resolution imagery has required much more bandwidth than needed by lower resolution imagery of even five years ago. Streaming video from unmanned aerial vehicles, for example, dramatically increased the need for bandwidth.

What changed with the Iraq War was how that bandwidth was delivered. The rapid drive by coalition forces to Baghdad highlighted the need for bandwidth on the move. Existing technology cannot fully exploit the frequency spectrum that is needed to move large amounts of data rapidly, Gen. Boutelle explains. “You cannot operate today in those frequency spectrums that you want to operate in to get large bandwidth on the move,” he says. “Satellite—or particularly, antenna—technology is not there; and if it is there, it is far too expensive to buy for the masses.”

The issue of bandwidth will continue to confront Army planners, especially as data-rich information such as imagery proliferates throughout the battlespace. “You never have enough bandwidth to meet all the needs,” the general says.

However, he feels that the Army is reaching a point where it can access much more bandwidth than currently is available. He likens this process to alternating between steep upward slopes and plateaus. While the force may be at a plateau now, a sharp upward growth in bandwidth availability looms in the near future. “We are about to get to a point where we can have significantly more bandwidth than we have today on the battlefield on the move,” he predicts.

This will be achieved over the next six to 10 years by leveraging commercial assets such as satellites. While this will mark a substantial improvement over the capacity available during the Iraq War, it will be eclipsed by the wideband gap filler and TCS military satellite constellations slated for launch.

However, the Army needs a coherent satellite terminal program to address the changes that will take place before the next generation of military satellites is lofted. Gen. Boutelle allows that he is “very uncomfortable” with the current satellite terminal program, both for commercial technology and for upcoming military systems. “We need to lay that out, address it and fund it,” he declares.

Improvements in antenna technology are key to Army C4I efforts, the general maintains. The Army needs antennas that allow it to operate on the move, and cost is a major factor in that challenge. The Army needs antenna technology that it can buy by the thousands, instead of today’s extremely expensive units that also consume a lot of power. “The next leap in technology must be small, lightweight antennas that operate on the move in the very high frequency spectrum to give us the extremely high bandwidth that we need,” Gen. Boutelle declares.

Battery technology also needs improvement. Battery consumption increased exponentially during the Iraq War as regular forces took part in more dismounted and night operations. For example, forces embarking on a night operation will install fresh batteries in their equipment even if the replaced batteries still have some power left—the troops do not want to have to switch batteries in the heat of a nighttime firefight. With ground forces engaging in more dismounted operations than they do in training, the result is that both the Army and the U.S. Marine Corps are consuming several hundred thousand batteries per month. Describing this as “the hard one that we haven’t solved yet,” Gen. Boutelle adds that no solution currently is in sight.

“We tend to invest in things we know and understand,” the general states. “We’re not investing adequate amounts of dollars in the technologies that we have a difficult time with—such as antennas, but also at the application level. We need to invest in what we don’t know and what we are not doing well.

“Smart software that helps the commander dig out the actionable information also is needed. It used to be called artificial intelligence; sometimes it’s called smart agents. There is a whole family that we need to start focusing on to write a generic requirement so our science and technology and research and develop communities can turn on. We have a real void in the intelligence community and the command and control community in helping us sort those gigabits of data dumping on us.”