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Army Sharpens The Tip of the Spear

April 2001
By Henry S. Kenyon

Highly mobile units foreshadow future network-centric operations.

Fast, agile units employing advanced sensors and situational awareness suites will soon become the U.S. Army’s vanguard rapid deployment forces. Currently mustering and training at Fort Lewis, Washington, these interim brigade combat teams will rely on a variety of wireless communication and information technologies to detect, outmaneuver and engage more heavily armed opponents.

Superior command and control, coupled with accurate intelligence about an adversary’s location and movements, has been a major contributing factor to successful military operations. Advanced information gathering and data processing systems now offer commanders a real-time, dynamic picture of the battlefield that their predecessors could only dream of. The addition of computerized devices and procedures to existing units sheds light on a possible future in which interconnected forces move with digital precision across the battlefield.

The Army’s interim brigade combat teams reflect the service’s efforts to make this vision a reality. Based on a directive by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, USA, the units can deploy in 96 hours to anywhere in the world. Unlike light airborne forces, the brigade combat teams will possess enough armored vehicles and fire support to engage with a more heavily armed enemy force. However, an important factor contributing to the force’s rapid deployment is its primary armored fighting vehicles, which can be airlifted on a C-130 Hercules, the U.S. Air Force’s most common transport aircraft. Because the brigade’s combat vehicles will be much lighter than a standard battle tank, their mobility, detection, and command and control are as important to survival and victory as precision-guided weapons.

The program began in October 1999, when Gen. Shinseki outlined his transformation plan for the Army. In the wake of the Kosovo conflict, which included extreme logistical difficulties in moving heavy tank units to the battle area, the new plan calls for the creation of up to eight air-deployable medium-sized brigades. The first interim brigade combat team, the 3rd Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division, began converting to its new role in April 2000. The second interim brigade combat team, the 1st Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division, began fitting out in December 2000. According to Col. Peter Cole, USA, director of the Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) Special Projects Office, Brigade Combat Team, Fort Lewis, the units’ operational debut is temporarily on hold until issues concerning the selection of the interim armored vehicle are resolved.

Brig. Gen. Michael Mazzucchi, USA, director, Communications-Electronics Command (CECOM) Systems Management Center, Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, explains that a major part of the interim brigade combat team’s situational awareness suite is the Force XXI battle command brigade and below (FBCB2) computer (SIGNAL, April 2000, page 33). Because communications plays a vital role in maintaining contact between all of the brigades’ elements, the new units’ vehicles are being fitted with equipment such as the single channel ground and airborne radio system, or SINCGARS, and the enhanced position location reporting system, or EPLRS.

A platoon of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is also attached to each brigade. These units are currently equipped with the Hunter UAV but will soon acquire the Shadow UAV. Col. Cole indicates that this type of reconnaissance asset has never been used to specifically support units at this echelon.

These organic reconnaissance assets, coupled with other sensor systems, provide interim brigade commanders with a bigger, clearer picture of their immediate surroundings. Currently, an Army division is in a 25-kilometer by 25-kilometer situational awareness box, the colonel explains. The interim brigades will have a 50-kilometer by 50-kilometer surveillance radius, and the future objective force units of the 2020s will be able to detect and react to any activity within 100 kilometers.

An important feature of the new situational awareness technology is that it is vehicle independent. Although some question remains about what shape the brigades’ interim armored vehicle will take, the situational awareness system will fit into whatever is chosen, Col. Cole says. He is confident about the system’s adaptability because the selection trials involved a variety of vehicles from around the world. C4ISR systems were installed in all of them.

“We created interoperability here,” Col. Cole warrants, explaining that he was told it was impossible to make the vehicles’ mix of communications and sensor equipment fully interoperable. However, compatibility was achieved by replacing and installing only specific equipment and components. “If you ask if you can now do this in an Italian or German vehicle, they would tell you it couldn’t be done. But we did it.” This cross-adaptation has potential benefits beyond the brigade combat teams, he says.

Among the technologies being fitted into the interim brigades’ vehicles are the FBCB2, the maneuver control system, the advanced field artillery tactical data system, the air defense airspace coordination cell, the multipurpose integrated chemical agent detector, the digital topographic support system, the ground surveillance radar AN/PPS-5, the combat service support automated information system interface, the movement tracking system and the medical communication for combat casualty care system.

Satellite communications are provided by secure mobile antijam reliable tactical terminal (SMART-T) units. The system was slated to enter service in 2007, but it was given priority to equip the two new brigades, Col. Cole explains. The second interim brigade will also use the AN/PSC-5 Spitfire manportable satellite communications terminal.

Logistics is an important issue because the brigades’ vehicles are smaller. An effort is underway at Fort Lewis to make as much of the gear as manportable as possible. “Why put it on a vehicle?” Col. Cole asks. “If you started designing it around soldiers, then you don’t have to worry about weight.” The colonel notes that special operations forces have redesigned much of their equipment for portability. Systems such as night vision goggles and body armor have been made more lightweight and effective. Interim brigade troops look a lot like special operations forces because of their lightweight kit, he adds.

The soldier intercom is an important portable piece of communications equipment. The lightweight device is designed to be worn on a soldier’s vest. It allows personnel to communicate with each other and brigade vehicles. By putting the equipment on a soldier, the force can cut its footprint down to the size of a pair of combat boots, Col. Cole explains.

Wireless and satellite communications are essential to create interim units with a small logistical footprint. According to Dr. Louis Marquet, director of the CECOM Research, Development and Engineering Center, one advantage of direct links to support bases is that support personnel do not have to go to the theater of operations. Telemaintenance is one example of this reach-back capability. Mechanical and electronics systems experts are stationed outside of the battlespace while generically trained technicians are sent into the field. Though smaller in number than in traditional deployments, these battlefield personnel can access specialists at support bases directly. This connectivity allows the technicians to support a wider range of maintenance and repair requirements. “Every time you take a soldier off the battlefield, you reduce the amount of food, water and support the unit requires,” Marquet explains.

The interim brigade program also is emphasizing the development of wireless technologies for use in tactical environments. While the goal is to use commercial technologies wherever possible, Marquet notes that some applications must be specifically designed for military use. “We try to build our programs on commercial technologies, but to a large extent, the commercial world is not developing the kinds of capabilities necessary for use in the harsh environment of a battlefield,” he says.

By combining a variety of technologies into a single system, the traditional time frame for planning and executing an operation collapses into an almost simultaneous communication between commanders, Marquet says. This can only be achieved by connecting decision makers at all echelons. Combined with automated tools, this collaborative planning can take place on what he describes as a synchronization matrix, which allows forces to operate together on an attack or withdrawal by identifying each unit’s location and estimated time to destination. Computers running the matrix in parallel with the planning process will update it continuously. If a unit is not where it is supposed to be or is behind schedule, this information can be relayed to the commander, and the matrix can be recalibrated to synchronize all of the units.

Automated systems like the synchronization matrix have numerous uses, Gen. Mazzucchi remarks. He offers the example of what traditionally happens immediately after a unit takes an objective. First, the commander takes stock of the situation by determining casualties, counting ammunition, checking fuel levels, and then arranging for re-equipping. “With the systems that we are putting out now, this is done in real time,” the general says. As a unit expends fuel and ammunition, fresh supplies are being shipped to the unit’s next position. Such flexibility means that a unit does not have to wait to re-engage the enemy because the commander knows where the supply shipment will be when it is needed, the general says.

A driving principle behind this process is to move away from the traditional, episodic method of planning and execution, Marquet explains. The advantage of this approach is the ability to be continually on the move, catching an enemy off balance and exploiting any openings created.

Because the interim brigades and the future objective force will require vast amounts of bandwidth, the Army is investigating the possibility of treating communications as a type of supply, Gen. Mazzucchi says. When units are deployed, the communications priority may first go to points of embarkation and debarkation, with less emphasis on forward units. As the force moves inland toward an actual combat situation, the communications capabilities will then focus primarily on engaged units rather than on reach-back.

The ability to assign bandwidth quickly in a battlefield situation will involve a major change in the Army’s culture, Marquet says. Rather than the current method of doling out a fixed amount of bandwidth to each unit and echelon, bandwidth allocation will have to be dynamic—prioritized and then allocated—an approach that will require new communications protocols.

Marquet admits that the Army cannot currently reallocate bandwidth in this manner, but it is moving to solve this issue with the multifunctional, on-the-move, secure, adaptive, integrated communications (MOSAIC) advanced technology demonstration (SIGNAL, July 2000, page 53). MOSAIC’s key objective is to provide the protocols for bandwidth on demand and service quality based on the battlefield situation. Designed to be flexible, the protocol will flip bandwidth back and forth among units that need it the most, he says. The first demonstration is planned to take place in 2004. A relatively small unit will be supported by simulated forces that represent a larger unit to determine whether the protocols and waveforms can sustain this dynamic approach.

By 2010, Marquet expects that while a number of units will be geared for network-centric warfare, they will not represent the entire Army. Instead, a task force may consist of a variety of units such as the brigade combat teams, legacy units, perhaps a special operations unit and the new more agile combat system. In joint operations, the challenge will be to connect all of these groups into a single command and control framework. “From a technology standpoint, the real challenge is going to be keeping those units synchronized in an information and command and control structure,” Marquet says.