• Soldiers from the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, recently trained using network-equipped vehicles at the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) at Fort Polk, Louisiana.
     Soldiers from the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, recently trained using network-equipped vehicles at the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) at Fort Polk, Louisiana.

Speaking With One Voice

July 1, 2016
By Capt. Kyle D. Barrett, USA

The U.S. Army synchronizes operational priorities with technological imperatives via a road map for network modernization.

While today’s U.S. Army tactical network provides commanders with voice and data capabilities to connect soldiers at the lowest echelon, it is pieced together with myriad mismatched systems that were not designed to work well together. The solution, born of necessity, increases the number and size of communication platforms for soldiers and introduces a great deal of complexity to how they interact with networks.

Tomorrow’s tactical network, however, is expected to provide robust communications that are rapidly deployable, versatile and scaled to fit many mission types, offering a “decentralized, distributed and integrated” platform, according to the Army’s Force 2025 and Beyond strategy to ensure joint force readiness. The Program Executive Office for Command, Control, Communications–Tactical (PEO C3T) has created a Network Modernization Roadmap to transform the service’s tactical network into a system capable of supporting future operations. 

Presently, Army concepts and doctrine focus on combined arms maneuvers, wide-area security and special operations. The complex operational environments the future force will face dictate that the Army operate instead as decentralized, mission-tailored units that address specific tasks in varying conditions. Advances in science and technology will let maneuver elements be even more agile and rapidly deployable than they already are, leaders prognosticate. “Picture a landscape in which soldiers can start up a wireless command post at the push of a button, a quick voice command can summon and interpret a wealth of operational data, and a digital map looks the same from smartphone to tablet to vehicle-mounted touchscreen,” said now-Maj. Gen. Daniel P. Hughes, USA, in 2014, when he led the PEO C3T. 

With the Force 2025 and Beyond strategy as their guide, the Army Signal Corps and the PEO C3T are implementing the Network Modernization Roadmap, synchronizing operational priorities such as versatility, mobility and security with technological imperatives and program-of-record objectives. Over the last five years, the Army has fielded portions of Warfighter Information Network–Tactical (WIN-T) Increment 2 through capability sets (CSs) as an initial step toward network modernization. WIN-T Increment 2 introduces on-the-move satellite communication capabilities that provide persistent situational awareness for company commanders and platoon leaders, even when they are far from command posts. While CS 2014 proved complicated and intimidating for some operators—primarily commanders who use the Soldier Network Extension (SNE) and Point of Presence (PoP) vehicle-mounted platforms—follow-on rollouts were smoother. CS 16 is now being fielded. 

Jennifer Zbozny, chief engineer at the PEO C3T, reports that simplified versions of the SNE and the PoP will be included in Network 2.0, the next-generation effort that offers a simplified user interface and provides commanders and engineers with enhanced command and control capabilities and communication platforms. Rapid task organization for Force 2025 is imperative. Network 2.0 technology would let commanders simply look at a battle command screen and drag and drop a unit icon at its intended location instead of building new mission plans—an impossible task, given the number of battle units conducting continuous operations. Network 2.0 increasingly provides software-based network management tools with the same drag-and-drop simplicity for reconfiguring network nodes. Simply put, Network 2.0 bridges the Army’s current technology with the lightweight and highly capable Simplified Tactical Army Reliable Network, or STARNet.

Now, officials seek to develop STARNet apps that use less spectrum, a finite and dwindling resource, so that by 2020, advancements in waveform technology will let operators communicate as they jam enemy operations. STARNet’s streamlined equipment requires less power and decreases the overall footprint of future maneuver forces. The footprint is much smaller than the current brigade-level network, which requires 20 laptops, in addition to servers. As such, the Network Operations (NetOps) Center will shrink in size. STARNet also facilitates the increased use of virtualization through virtual local area networks (VLANs), virtual private networks (VPNs) and automated node management, decreasing the number of devices required for NetOps. And the Army-wide network convergence will provide cloud computing so that strategic-level echelons can take over some of the services once provided at the tactical level.

Network after Next, or NaN, is the final part of the modernization road map. NaN aims to untether technical devices from radios using fourth-generation long-term evolution (4G LTE) wireless technology so that troops can communicate more seamlessly. A key component of NaN will be the ability of data and voice transmissions to take a different path if an existing route has moved or is jammed. The network will include solutions “to have our equipment adapt to different missions and challenges that we’re going to face no matter where we are,” Zbozny shared with SIGNAL Magazine in August 2014, page 18. Part of that adaptability likely will include a human-machine interface similar to Apple’s Siri technology. With “digital tactical butlers” inside mission command systems helping commanders on the battlefield, the Army will deliver software-defined radios that communicate with smartphone-type devices. The upgrade will make mission objectives more transparent to higher commands by providing accurate position location information, text messaging, photo sharing and full-motion video feeds. 

The PEO C3T and the Communications–Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) have joined forces to develop a single tactical computing environment to provide a seamless user experience, from handheld devices to vehicle platforms and command posts. Force 2025 will operate in a tactical realm, delivering standardized maps, messages and icons that are intuitive to operate and reduce the training load. Such a standardized operating environment facilitates the Army’s transition from stand-alone mission command systems to integrated warfighting system with user-friendly apps.

STARNet and the Joint Battle Command–Platform—the Army’s next-generation friendly force-tracking system that provides a faster satellite network, data encryption and advanced logistics—form a multitiered, joint communications infrastructure. But none of these advancements will matter if communications cannot be protected from enemies. “One thing we can be sure of in our next fight is that our adversaries will be more sophisticated in cyber warfare,” Gen. Hughes declared. “It is critical that the Army is just as vigilant about protecting the tactical network as it is for the enterprise.”

As cyber attacks increase in frequency and sophistication, communication security becomes more important to national defense. Current tactical communication devices require strong passwords, but even the most complex password is only a single-factor form of authentication. NaN systems employ simplified authentication mechanisms that eliminate the need for multiple passwords to access networks, increasing cybersecurity using biometric identification methods. Future warfighters can expect to provide advanced multifactor authentication, including facial recognition and iris scans coupled with one-time passwords or tokens. Additionally, NaN systems communicate via protected satellites using antijamming technology, with key encryption as the primary means to secure satellite transmissions. Future satellites resemble Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) types that employ a spread-spectrum approach called adaptive nulling, in which signals hop in pseudo-random fashion from frequency to frequency within an assigned bandwidth. 

Leaders across the operational force will experience a steep learning curve as they bid farewell to the equipment they trained on and used for a decade of combat operations. Missions in Iraq and Afghanistan produced tactically tested warfighters who now lead the Army’s maneuver forces. These leaders are comfortable with combat-net radios. Training entrenched in the modernization road map must yield a high level of comfort among brigade and battalion leaders to prevent them from dusting off their old single-channel FM radios and reverting to the old way of operating.

Clearly, the Army has committed a great amount of time and resources toward updating its tactical communication architecture, but teaming with the tacticians developing the 2025 force structure is the service’s most valuable initiative. The tactical network’s purpose remains constant—a means through which commanders exercise immediate and personal control over their forces.

Capt. Kyle D. Barrett, USA, is the small-group leader instructor for the Signal Captains Career Course at the U.S. Army Cyber Center of Excellence at Fort Gordon, Georgia. The views expressed here are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Army or the U.S. government.

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