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Army Turns Bases Into System Docking Stations

May 24, 2012
By Rita Boland, SIGNAL Online Exclusive
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The U.S. Army is making good on the mantra "train as you fight" by connecting units in garrison with the same mission command systems they use during deployments. Breaking through the bureaucracy inherent in putting these tactical technologies on a strategic network means that soldiers will be better prepared for their work in theater.

Previously, the cumbersome requirements necessary to create the connections precluded units from having the time or energy to carry out the tasks. The result was a noticeable loss of proficiency between deployments. "The skills to maintain these mission command systems are very perishable," Bill Lasher, the Army Forces Command (FORSCOM) G-6, explains. "They're very complex systems." In addition, the systems were not in ready states because regular updates had not been completed.  

Last August, FORSCOM, in conjunction with partners such as the Network Enterprise Technology Command, the 7th Signal Command (Theater), the 43rd Sustainment Brigade and the Army G-6, launched a pilot for the Installation as a Docking Station. The name stems from the idea that a post becomes a docking station for the Army systems just as laptops can plug into docking stations for other networks. The program—which is aimed particularly at the brigade level—also engages the acquisition community, so members can produce mission command systems that can be updated automatically similar to the process for personal computers.

Tim Powers, automation branch chief of the Tactical C4 Division of the FORSCOM G-6, says Fort Carson has run a similar program for several years, but at the FORSCOM level, personnel had to understand connection challenges, accreditation issues, patching problems, manning situations and other concerns. Groups around FORSCOM now are being connected via the program. The various units have their own battlefield mission command systems; by placing these on the Army networks, the different systems can connect among each other. Soldiers stateside also potentially can see the same active information as their compatriots across the planet.

During the pilot, troops proved the importance of the Installation as a Docking Station concept. When two separate units attended their culminating training events, personnel in the one without the capability required several days to have their systems up and running. In contrast, a young noncommissioned officer from the unit that did employ the capability beforehand had the Battle Command Common Services server stacks ready in approximately 80 minutes. He did it without the presence of any field service representatives, who Lasher says represent potential liabilities on the battlefield.  

Lasher emphasizes the importance of the program for readiness and preparedness, especially in the case of an immediate-response deployment. Units not finished with their exercises will be equipped with the necessary skills to operate the systems in-theater because they have worked with them all along back home. "As an individual soldier, I can now retain my proficiency ... at the highest possible level," Lasher states. "Anyone wants to maintain proficiency, especially if they're going to war."

Moving forward, personnel involved with the effort are working to institutionalize the Installation as a Docking Station within the Army. Members of the 7th Signal Command (Theater) have written a plan for such uniformity that has been endorsed by the Army's certification authority. Powers says the document will be improved over time but is helping to standardize the efforts at installations now.

The mission command systems in the docking station initiative currently can operate on U.S. classified networks only. Work is underway to connect to any enclave or type of network, including those created by and for multinational coalitions. Future plans also include interconnection among more echelons and to enable units to train together without all travelling physically to a location. Creating high-fidelity training rapidly and at lower costs should become increasingly important in the impending defense environment.