The Army wants to converge its multiple networks into a single architecture that offers the potential to reduce complexity and lead to more efficient battlefield communications. An upcoming exercise focuses on advancing this initiative with the ultimate goal of collapsing the service's many small and mid-sized networks into one.
Over the years, the Army has developed a variety of networks to support communications and command and control, explains Col. Mark Elliott, USA, director of the Army’s LandWarNet Mission Command. For example, Army intelligence and logistics forces operate their own networks to meet their specific mission needs. “All of these networks have grown up over time.”
The Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) exercise scheduled to take place in Fort Bliss, Texas, October 22 through November 11, will begin this data transport convergence process in a controlled environment. The first phase, which kicks off in the upcoming NIE 14.1, will collapse Army intelligence networks into the service’s communications infrastructure and work out the details and issues as they arise, he explains.
Col. Elliott is sanguine about the Army’s prospects for successfully merging its various networks because by working through the NIE, there is no need to push the process unnecessarily. “You don’t have to rush to failure,” he says. During the NIE, the Army will set up the various operational networks needed to support a deployed force, such as its intelligence capabilities. The service will examine how intelligence traffic can be moved onto the broader Army network, and then it will take metrics and make adjustments to make the process work smoothly. The Army has extensive intelligence systems with many specific mission requirements, so it will take time to determine if all or only some of those functions can be moved to the broader service network, he says.
In addition to transport convergence, the Army is looking at new technologies to incorporate into the upcoming capability sets—packages of new gear and software that will be issued to units as they go through their refit cycles. It also will be reviewing existing capabilities that were rushed into service to meet urgent operational requirements to see if they fully meet the service’s expectations.
One such technology is the Command Post Computing Environment (CPCE), which is a software-based system designed to make sharing intelligence data in operations centers more efficient. The CPCE is a Web-based system that allows users in tactical operations centers to choose a variety of software tools and widgets to make their jobs more efficient. The CPCE was first tested in the previous NIE (13.2) and will be undergoing additional testing in the upcoming event. Col. Elliott describes the capability as “the wave of the future” but adds that it is too complex in its current form to support field operations efficiently.
To make it more useful and to keep with the overall theme of transport convergence, the CPCE’s capabilities will be collapsed from its own individual network into the larger battalion and brigade network architecture.
The CPCE is a server-based system with a Web-based interface. Users in a tactical operations center can access CPCE services via their unit’s communications backbones, which connect to the Army’s network infrastructure. Because it can reside in a server located far from the operating theater, one of the advantages of the CPCE is that multiple units of varying sizes can access the system as long as they are able to connect into the Army’s network, Col. Elliott says.
The colonel praises the CPCE as an example of the Army’s efforts to develop cloud-based systems. The system is still server-based, but he notes that future versions will probably be accessible directly from tablets or an individual soldier’s handheld computer.
The Army also will continue work on the aerial layer extension of its communications networks during the upcoming NIE. This part of the network consists of using radios installed on manned and unmanned aircraft to extend the range of ground units’ radios. Besides extending the range of radios in ground vehicles, the airborne AN/PRC-152A and AN/PRC-177G radios will be used to provide additional connectivity to the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) network, which forms the communications backbone for the event.
With forces spread out across miles of desert, the aerial layer provides vital additional connectivity and a bridge between multiple Army networks, says Terry Edwards, director, Office of the Chief Systems Engineer, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology. He notes that the aerial layer has been a feature of almost every NIE, and with each event its ability to connect a variety of systems improves. The Army is now working on an architecture for the aerial layer that will allow it to be both fielded operationally and to integrate fully with the service’s networks.
Another related technology to be tested at NIE 14.1 is the Aerial Command, Control, Communications, Computer, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Payload Suite (ACPS). Deployable on both manned and unmanned aircraft, the ACPS is a scalable, modular system that provides an airborne networking capability that can be reconfigured to meet commanders’ mission needs and available aerial platforms. The ACPS can support network communications across several radio bands (cross-banding) and serve as a relay to extend radio ranges to support line-of-sight radio networks. According to the Army, the ACPS hosts the Highband Networking Waveform, the Advanced Networking Wideband Waveform and the Soldier Radio Waveform to provide deployed units and dismounted soldiers with adaptable and dynamic networking options. Two ACPS payloads will be deployed for NIE 14.1, one aboard a Beechcraft C-12 Huron transport aircraft and another on an aerostat.
Key to helping the Army collapse all of its various networks into one is the Common Operations Environment (COE). The COE is designed on a common software baseline—any new systems acquired must be built to this standard to operate on in the environment and interoperate with the other systems running on it. While the Army is just beginning the process of transport convergence, Col. Elliott sees the COE as a means to achieving the service’s goal.
While merging multiple networks remains the overriding theme of the event, the NIE also is working on providing additional connectivity to dismounted troops at the very tip of the spear. In the last NIE, soldiers were equipped with Rifleman Radios and Nett Warrior devices to improve their situational awareness. The use of these advanced radios with networking features also greatly increased soldiers’ communications ability. While individual radios had a limited range, as long as they were within line of sight of another network radio, soldiers could communicate with their commanders many miles away using the radios’ automated networking capabilities, Edwards says. He adds that the aerial layer extension will help to provide a major range boost to the ground communications network.
In addition to testing out new technologies, the Army is using NIE 14.1 to take another look at systems that were moved quickly into the field to meet urgent operational needs. The upcoming event will look at two systems in particular, the AN/PRC-117G tactical radio and the Command Post of the Future (CPOF) command and control system. The AN/PRC-117G is now the workhorse radio for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. But while it has been proven in the field, Col. Elliott explains that it never really was tested in a full Army network sense. So the radio will be evaluated to validate its original operational requirements and to see that it fully matches the Army’s needs. In a similar vein, the CPOF will undergo formal network testing and evaluation to ensure that it meets the service’s original goals when it acquired the system, he says.
NIE also will test and approve equipment that will be part of the Army’s capability sets. Capability Set 13 is the first set rolling out to Army forces this year. Much of it was tested and approved over the past several NIEs. For Capability Sets 14 and 15, the Army is looking at existing programs of record and incorporating them into the testing cycle. In addition to testing hardware, the colonel notes, another important part of NIE is working out the logistics, doctrine and training behind using the new gear, things that often are overlooked in the push to roll out new systems. “We tend to look at these things as a material solution first and apply those other things [doctrine and training] later,” he says.
Previous NIEs have made use of the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, which is located near Fort Bliss. For NIE 14.1, more emphasis will be put on using modeling and simulation to conduct the event in a distributed manner, Col. Elliott says. The goal of this approach is to see if the same results can be provided by using fewer physical elements in the field, such as using simulated vehicles in place of real ones. An Army battalion still will operate in the desert around Fort Bliss conducting field evaluations, but he adds that most of the forces involved in the event will remain in garrison on the base or in their command centers.
An ongoing pattern for NIEs is for the current event to address gaps in services and capabilities identified in the previous event. One of the issues identified in NIE 13.2 is complexity, Col. Elliott notes. This complexity manifests itself in the form of information overload for human users. Cutting the cognitive load for soldiers and commanders to process during stressful situations is a challenge because military networks can produce torrents of data.
One way the Army will try to address this is through task reorganization, which uses software to reorganize dynamically operational tasking for brigade combat teams. Another related goal is to allow newly upgraded units to interoperate with forces that are not equipped with the same capability set, the colonel adds. Interoperation between units can be done now, but it requires programs, program offices and industry to coordinate and agree on the underlying software and equipment baselines, which is very labor intensive, he admits.
Interfaces are needed that allow unit tasking to be managed automatically, managing the flow of information through software-based systems, Col. Elliott explains. Previous NIEs used existing programs to try to address these issues, but the results were not very dynamic. The Army will be working on and looking for new technologies to address these issues in future NIEs, he says.