Information Systems Sculpt Army's Engagement Goals

April 2000
By Henry S. Kenyon

Advanced technology, doctrine and infrastructure changes reflect service’s transition to network-centric warfare.

The U.S. Army is on the verge of deploying technologies that will enhance and extend the scope of information-based warfare by linking all echelons together. These devices and systems are part of a larger effort to assure future warfighters battlefield superiority.

As envisioned by the Army’s Force XXI program and vision statement for 2010, ongoing programs are developing ways to make existing forces more agile, deploy with a short logistics tail, and be able to mass effects—not forces—to control the battlespace. This vision calls for robust connectivity for all participating forces and a substantial reach-back capability between forward forces and sustaining bases.

To achieve these goals, the Army is upgrading its digital infrastructure across the board, from installations to individual soldiers. A key part of this initiative is the warfighter information network, which will give tactical units an order of magnitude improvement in bandwidth. One aspect of the network is the tactical internet—an adaptation of the commercial Internet on a secure network—that exploits information technology to give commanders improved situational awareness.

However, care must be taken in implementing any new technological change, according to Lt. Gen. William H. Campbell, USA, director of information systems for command, control, communications and computers, U.S. Army. The service took steps to modify traditional acquisition and testing methods to deploy these new systems across a number of units. “We are not going to have a science fair or trade show,” the general says. “We are going to build military capabilities, and the C4I [command, control, communications, computers and intelligence] component must be interoperable with the C4I systems that we are fielding with the rest of the force.”

The progress of the 4th Infantry Division, which will be the Army’s first fully digitized division, exemplifies this thrust. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Gen. Campbell expects this group to be online by the end of this year. The 1st Cavalry Division will follow in 2003. It will be joined by interim brigades that are being formed at Fort Lewis, Washington. These units will share the same technical architecture, systems architecture and technology that is being developed for the 4th, he says.

A key piece of equipment shared by the digitized units will be the Force XXI battle command brigade and below (FBCB2) computer. These vehicle-based, ruggedized battlefield devices will provide an important link in the Army’s tactical internet, which the general describes as “Force XXI’s center of gravity.” The system provides warfighters with real-time situational awareness.

The computer executes battle command software and is linked to a global positioning system receiver and digital radios. It receives and sends data to create a collective picture of the battlefield that, in its most basic mode, lets commanders know their own location, the position of the enemy, and the location of friendly units.

The digitized divisions and brigades will be equipped with approximately 6,000 of these computers. A low-rate initial production plan will have two different manufacturers producing 1,000 devices a year for three years. This schedule was designed to ensure that the contractors all use the same hardware: a common chassis, cables and shielding. However, on the inside, the machines will have what the general describes as “then-year” technology.

“Today, you can go to providers of Wintel machines and buy 400-, 500-, 677-, 733-megahertz computers. Two years from now, those will not even be on the market because Moore’s Law will have delivered the next increment. We do not want to be stuck in 2002 or 2005 with year 2000 technology,” Gen. Campbell says. Instead, the goal is to insert “then-year” technology into a common chassis in each production year with the goal of modernizing through spare parts. For example, if a component breaks in 2003, it will be replaced with the current technology. By conducting this refreshment through maintenance, the Army gets out of the “garbage game” of stocking old technology that will be obsolete within a few years, he explains.

The Army also has worked with the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and the U.S. Congress to change procurement systems. Gen. Campbell notes that the Army has permission to buy sufficient numbers of FBCB2 computers prior to a full production order. This allows for the proper development of doctrine, tactics, procedures, training and other components in addition to the material prior to full-scale manufacturing. If just enough devices to supply a brigade or slices of other units had been purchased, he believes the Army would have been at risk of introducing a training distraction into a division with a warfighting mission.

“We would have subjected ourselves to the risk of having today’s analog tactics, techniques and procedures overlain on tomorrow’s digitized systems. To avoid that, we developed a strategy, which was approved by the OSD and Congress, to equip the first digitized division across the board, develop the tactics, techniques and procedures with the division, make it their norm, and then take it to an operational test after we had gone through a series of predecessor tests,” the general relates. He adds that the FBCB2 computer, tactical internet and Army battle command systems will be taken through a limited user and force development test this month.

The test is not associated with a milestone decision but instead is a pulse check on the latest version of the software that is operating on last year’s hardware. This equipment has not gone through the new production lines, but it shares the same architecture and will provide feedback on what works and what needs improvement, Gen. Campbell observes. Following the test, the new systems coming off the production lines will be matched with the next delivery of software and deployed to the 4th Infantry Division for training.

The glue holding together individual digitized units will be the tactical internet, which is formed by integrating tactical digital radios, combat network radios and commercial Internet technology. Its main components are the single channel ground and airborne radio system (SINCGARS) used in a data mode, the near-term digital radio, and the enhanced position location reporting system (EPLRS) that provide a self-healing terrestrial networked architecture. If a node is lost, the EPLRS will compensate by retransmitting messages through other unit computers.

Because speedy delivery is critically important and the radios only have a limited bandwidth, a special type of message formatting was developed for the tactical internet. Instead of transmitting kilobytes of information, key terms are broken down to bit-oriented messages. When this string of digits is received, they are keyed to specific reference tables. “When I receive a message in a short burst of bits, the radio passes it to the computer that then looks up the words or the meaning based on the bit-specific positions in that transmission. For example, four ones in the eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth bit position might be equated to a T-72 tank if it were reporting a target. But rather than putting out a message that has all the bytes we would have to use to describe a T-72, we just use four bits or one-half of a byte to send that information,” Gen. Campbell explains.

Bandwidth, however, continues to be an issue that reaches beyond portable tactical computers. “Megahertz are easy, megabits are not. I can buy top-of-the-line machines for a relatively small cost, but the long-haul and tactical data pipe infrastructure are where we need rapid gains to maintain our advantage and leverage commercial technology,” he says.

Two major programs addressing this issue are the installation information infrastructure modernization program (I3MP) and the warfighter information network. The goal of I3MP is to update existing Army facilities by installing fiber optics and high-capacity switches, while the warfighter information network uses commercial technology to replace current mobile subscriber equipment. The Army already is moving its tactical packet network from 16 kilobits per second to 512 kilobits per second. The warfighter information network will add onto this, increasing bandwidth to an order of magnitude beyond 512 kilobits, Gen. Campbell notes.

Once these networks are in place, they must be protected. In a post-year-2000 bug environment, information assurance has become the Army’s number one focus. The general notes that computer security incidents tripled from just over 900 in fiscal year 1998 to almost 3,000 in 1999. It is the inherent vulnerability of open systems and active code that are a major cause for concern. Gen. Campbell believes that if systems are left open to active code, this asymmetrical vulnerability could be exploited by hostile forces. At the same time, active code is fundamentally important to applications such as distance learning, where there is a need for interaction between a trainer and trainees.

The Army is constantly monitoring for cyberthreats. It works with groups such as the Software Engineering Institute and CERT Coordination Center emergency response teams at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the Computer Network Defense Joint Task Force to share information and present a unified defense. By working closely with private industry, the Army has access to the latest updates to firewalls, intrusion detection systems, World Wide Web-based security awareness and more secure forms of identification and authentication such as biometrics. Additionally, a servicewide notification system has been implemented. In the event of an attack on an Army network, key personnel are alerted to conduct investigations, assessments and configuration management. All of these efforts and a concentrated training program continue to be an integral part of the Army’s security efforts, Gen. Campbell maintains.

This work merges with the Army’s vision plan for 2010, which stresses dominant maneuver, precision engagement, focused logistics and full-dimensional protection—all of which rely on first attaining and maintaining information superiority. “As history has proven time and time again, to ignore technology advances with respect to national defense is folly. The Internet explosion and global connectivity bring a plethora of concerns, which include other countries actively using this connectivity as an offensive weapon as well as planning for the defense of their own networks. … The idea that we must set aside any tools of engagement for fear of retaliation is naïve—development would continue through the bright minds of the world, and we would be left behind and put at a severe disadvantage,” the general concludes.

Computer Forms Key Link to Battlefield Information Networks

The U.S. Army’s new Force XXI battle command brigade and below (FBCB2) computers that will equip the units of the first digitized division are a mixture of commercial and ruggedized military technology. Though hardened for battlefield use, they include a host of civilian applications, including the chip set, storage medium, the display, a sealed keyboard and soldier-machine interface.

The computer has a standard display, but is made of high-end commercial glass that allows the screen to be read in sunlight and viewed without distortion from a composite 160-degree viewing angle. A series of buttons along the base of the display activates specific functions without entering commands on the keyboard, increasing the ease-of-use factor for warfighters wearing protective nuclear, biological and chemical gear.

The computer interfaces with existing digital radios and the global positioning system (GPS) and features software that allows it to transmit short bursts of bit-oriented messages. It generates and transmits position location reports and distributes them to friendly forces across the battlefield. The computer receives similar reports from other FBCB2-equipped units and posts them on a digital situation map in each platform or facility. The system also sends and receives spot reports on the enemy as well as logistics and command and control messages.

Radio and GPS connectivity provide warfighters on any platform equipped with this technology a picture of the battlefield showing their location as well as the positions of allies and adversaries. By clicking on any of the screen icons describing those battlefield entities, the operator views a pop-up window identifying the unit, noting its position, when it was last located there, and its speed and heading.

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