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Information Technology Drives Army Acquisition Changes

August 17, 2009
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

 

U.S. Army soldiers fire their M-240B machine gun at night. The need to speed new information technologies to warfighters in Afghanistan and Iraq is changing the way the Army procures new equipment.

The network is the message as the Army learns communications architecture design on the move.

Building networks and speeding new information technologies into the field are changing U.S. Army acquisition permanently, according to a general tasked with maintaining connectivity among diverse forces. The need for commercial networking technologies and capabilities, along with the exigencies of warfighters facing unconventional combat, are impelling the Army to accelerate new technologies to the front and to change programs concurrently.

The effects are both immediate and far-reaching. Future communications infrastructure programs are likely to be built very differently from the current model. A baseline system that comprises existing technology will be improved incrementally by drawing from commercial and academic research innovations.

Despite the slowing of the progress of Moore’s Law, other innovative technologies will see their evolutionary changes accelerate. Miniaturization and component integration will have substantial effects on Army technologies, which in turn will enable game-changing capabilities—some of which have not yet been planned in Army architectures.

Maj. Gen. Nick Justice, USA, program executive officer–command, control, communications tactical (PEO–C3T), Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, is in the thick of incorporating new technologies into the force and helping design that force for the future. He describes his top priorities as support to deployed forces; support to deploying forces; support to transforming forces; and execution of his office’s Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) move from FortMonmouth to Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.

Warfighters currently deployed to Southwest Asia want information in the hands of on-site personnel who will be making life-or-death decisions, the general offers. This translates to networking individual soldiers rather than just organizations. It also calls for the ability to adapt architectures rapidly, which entails technologies such as virtualization. Linking and networking battlefield sensors also is important, as is networking everyday equipment to measure and track its readiness.

“Most of these demands trigger having a much more networked awareness of your people and your equipment,” he states.

Gen. Justice allows that much of PEO–C3T’s efforts involve sustainment of existing battle command and communications systems in the field, including training. “Most of my sustainers are also trainers,” he says. This becomes especially vital with the constant unit rotations that define personnel deployments to Southwest Asia. PEO–C3T experts also work to ensure that power generation equipment is employed efficiently both to ensure continued power and to save fuel.

PEO–C3T personnel also operate the Counter Rocket, Artillery and Mortar system, known as CRAM. The biggest challenge those experts face involves integrating CRAM operation into command centers to ensure that all the related systems interoperate to protect the force, Gen. Justice offers.

Continuing and evolving threat changes, coupled with new warfighting strategies entering Southwest Asia, are a constant challenge. “There always is a need to be modifying and changing the architectures, establishing new communication links to different units coming in and out of the force,” Gen. Justice says.

Avoiding new stovepipes while implementing these new technologies is a key element in acquisition reform, the general observes. “You start out with the vision that you want to network almost everything on the battlefield,” Gen. Justice says. “When you start out with that presumption, then you always want to output to a common set of standards and formats. When you develop or find new technologies, you can take a technology and insert it to solve a specific problem.

“You then have the ability to go in over a longer term and adjust and adapt it so that those outputs are connected and networked,” Gen. Justice continues. “That’s a framework of what you’ll see as changes and modifications in acquisition processes in the future. A lot of it is being driven by the demand in theater, and that demand actually makes us better at what we’re doing.”

He explains that, after the Army inserts new technologies and capabilities into systems, an iterative process allows experts to improve architectures along with the ability to move information further down the line. The result is a more powerful system with second- or third-order effects.

“The faster you get it out there, the faster you learn its value and the return on the investment on that procurement,” Gen. Justice declares.

He relates that PEO–C3T is working on a collection of technologies that he believes has the greatest potential to revolutionize Army command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR). One of these focuses on greater fidelity in network timing devices. Having more accurate timing devices, such as miniaturized chip-size atomic clocks, will help prevent disconnects and time-consuming reboots.

Also on the drawing board are new radio technologies that will use spectrum more efficiently. “The methods that we employ to utilize spectrum are almost a century old in a world where technology is just exploding,” he points out. “The demand for spectrum in the wireless world is growing at an astronomical pace, and finding new ways to use that spectrum and saturate it will allow everything to move over IP [Internet protocol].”

The coming of IPv6 also will provide new network capabilities, he adds. It will enable many more devices to be “networkable.”

Integration is the name of the game. “The computer won’t be a separate device,” Gen. Justice offers. “Everything will contain a computer.” That also holds true for sensors and network attachments. Accordingly, the integration of C4ISR into everything that PEO–C3T does is the area that his office must address. No road map exists yet—“We have some fuzzy sketches,” the general allows—but his office does have some draft architectures taking shape for the future networked force.

 

Two soldiers test their communication gear before departing their base. Technologies under development in Army laboratories will shrink the size of soldier radios and increase the amount of bandwidth they can use.

For example, future Army vehicles will not be simply transportation devices. They must have networks within them, and those networks must be extended to incorporate any device that would be attached to that network as part of the vehicle.

Gen. Justice says that PEO–C3T has done some planning in the greater local network enterprise, and now it is looking at vehicle enterprises and command post enterprises. The focus is on how to integrate C4ISR better than currently achieved.

Some military requirements, particularly classification levels for security, restrict the Army’s ability to use commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) equipment that has “tremendous capabilities,” Gen. Justice relates. The Army increasingly is turning to COTS for rapid response to battlefield needs, but then it must accommodate requirements for security classification and information assurance.

For the most part, the Army tries to adapt COTS items to meet these requirements. If a COTS technology or capability is going to be a long-term concern, then the Army will try to work with the manufacturer to integrate security requirements into the COTS system.

Support to deploying forces often entails working with soldiers during their training cycle. Gen. Justice relates that his office will work with a deploying unit to adjust its schedule to accommodate new equipment that it will be fielding. PEO–C3T personnel work closely with the unit in both its individual and collective training cycles. This ensures that unit soldiers can use their new equipment effectively and efficiently.

The general adds that, by being part of this process, PEO–C3T understands the problems that deploying units have with their equipment early in the cycle. These lessons also can be applied to equipment already in the field.

Whether forces are deploying or are remaining at their U.S. bases, PEO–C3T is busy with the Army’s transformation to an expeditionary force. Describing these as “fundamental changes in the support structure” that the organization needs to provide, Gen. Justice explains that PEO–C3T also must transform the infrastructure to enable this expeditionary transformation.

For example, forces undergoing deployment should be able to continue to use their command and control systems throughout training en route to their destination. This requires major changes, which in turn offer opportunities for PEO–C3T to exercise its expertise.

The Global Network Enterprise Construct (GNEC) may play a role in this solution. Gen. Justice notes that a complex process in place with the GNEC would build its infrastructure out so that forces can exploit it when deploying from home stations.

GNEC aims to integrate several ongoing network enterprise programs and new initiatives into a single strategy under one network manager. At the heart of GNEC strategy are the Army’s network service centers (SIGNAL Magazine, August 2008).

Pushing the network down the line increases the importance of communications on the move, which is challenging because of the need for greater bandwidth to carry data-rich messages. The laws of physics prevent boosting bandwidth easily, so PEO–C3T instead is aiming to reduce the amount of bandwidth necessary for delivering information. These measures may include having warfighters prioritize their critical information for rapid delivery, for example. Another option is to have systems that operate using data formats and waveforms that deliver data more effectively.

PEO–C3T also is looking at the approach of examining operational demands to offer options. For example, if one user requests full-motion video, the bandwidth supplier would want to know when that user needs it and at what resolution. Other variables can be addressed to meet the user’s demand while reducing the amount of bandwidth employed.

Even new architecture configurations, particularly information node locations, can reduce bandwidth demands. The general notes that if processing centers are placed closer to major communication nodes, then information can flow more freely and can be accessible to more people at greater distances.

But networking the individual soldier is the next great challenge, Gen. Justice maintains. The equipment power and weight footprint on a soldier using mobile communications devices can be smaller if more functions and capabilities are located at information nodes. This extends far beyond the battlefield: If direct broadcast satellites are more powerful, then their ground-based receiving units and antennas can be smaller.

As network capabilities are extended further down to the individual warfighter, power becomes a significant issue. Needs include portability, efficiency and, above all, quality.

Gen. Justice says that experts in the Project Manager for Mobile Electric Power office have “energized” efforts in that area. One thrust is to improve the fuel efficiency of electrical generators. This may entail improving internal combustion performance to improve the generators’ mileage, the general offers.

The office also is working with solar power to supplement generators. This solar power would need to be stored so that it could be used during night hours. Some small satellite terminals have been run on solar power, and researchers are looking to broaden that usage footprint.

Gen. Justice notes that this could provide fuel savings for both generator usage and for transportation of the fuel itself to remote forward operating bases, such as in Afghanistan—and it offers other benefits. “Every gallon of fuel that can be saved is a tremendous savings in cost as well as in safety,” he points out, citing the improvised explosive device threat to fuel tankers on the road.

Another research thrust is to develop a group of technologies to improve power reliability. For example, one goal for generators would be to increase the number of hours between major maintenance.

A third area involves changing the nature of power delivery to the deployed force. Instead of giving each piece of equipment its own generator, the Army would establish a power grid in the field. This grid would require fewer small generators to be run and instead would rely on larger, more efficient generators to supply power across the force. The total amount of power generated would be less than if every piece of electrical gear had its own generator. Also, instead of having to shut down a vital piece of technology when its generator goes down, soldiers would be able to rely on a power grid, as does a city.

Commercial technologies will continue to play a significant role in current and future Army systems, but that role may be changing. The general states that the value of industry lies not just in the product it provides, but also in that product’s adaptability, extensibility and capability to be integrated into the larger military information infrastructure. “I see us more and more buying products that are required to fit into a large global infrastructure,” he predicts. That infrastructure will require some common standards, he adds.

“If you limit your product to only meeting an explicit need and not fitting into the larger infrastructure, so all those talented soldiers out there can find new ways of using it, then you have a very limited value for the service,” the general declares. “Supporting that larger infrastructure and the extensibility to solve other problems is critical to what I need.”

This will require significant changes in the way that government works with the defense industry, he continues. “We need to be able to re-look at our business model so that we can much more quickly adapt the latest technologies in there.”

And this effort is not confined to existing large contractors. “We’re looking for innovative technologies from many of the smaller companies and research units—whether they are industry or universities—so that we can rapidly pick up that technology and insert it into our existing long-term infrastructure programs and modernize them over time,” Gen. Justice maintains.

Future large communications programs will be incremental in nature, he predicts. They will be linked to each other so that larger infrastructure components will be modernized through smaller programs of record. This will extend the capability of that infrastructure to be more innovative, he notes.

In this incremental approach, the first increment should not be a high-risk venture, the general continues. It should be a clearly defined capability—not a technology challenge—that could go to build quickly. Later increments would draw from new technologies emerging from the commercial communications and information technology arena.

“You would modernize your infrastructure at a different rate over time than you modernize your endpoint capabilities,” he points out. “Infrastructure changes more slowly than end devices can change and modernize. Working those out always will be a challenge.”

Looking ahead to 2020, Gen. Justice predicts that the wireless realm will dominate Army C4ISR. Miniaturization will govern that arena, as systems and equipment will be much smaller and require far less power than current versions.

Available bandwidth will increase along the lines of computing power. In effect, there will be a Moore’s Law for bandwidth growth, he forecasts. “What was measured in kilobits will be available in megabits,” he says, adding that this will be fed by new commercial capabilities. “Everything—equipment and people—will be networked.”

Base Realignment Will Change PEO–C3T

The PEO–C3T is moving from Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, to Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, as part of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC). Maj. Gen.NickJustice, USA, program executive officer–command, control, communications tactical (PEO–C3T), believes that opportunities will outweigh challenges.

“Every individual in my organization is going to be affected by BRAC,” Gen. Justice declares. “Some of those folks will decide to leave government service earlier than they normally would have done so.”

On the other hand, those who remain will be able to move up to more responsible positions than they would have, had the original personnel remained in place. This includes movement across disciplines, the general adds, and it may lead to new approaches to problem solving.

The new facilities at Aberdeen will help PEO–C3T develop and integrate new technologies into the force. A new C4ISR center under construction at Aberdeen will provide more access to different parts of the work force, Gen. Justice says. It also will enable better collaboration among personnel who had been dispersed among different locations in FortMonmouth. Ultimately, the Aberdeen area will develop more of a high-technology nature, which will benefit the local community, the general predicts.