Army Marches Toward Coalition Interoperability
Multinational exercises facilitate information sharing among allies.
The U.S. Army has partnered with NATO and other coalition nations to enhance operational readiness in a series of multinational exercises this year focused on interoperability. The drills enable national militaries to assess and adjust the interoperability of their capabilities long before meeting adversaries in the battlespace.
“Establishing and maintaining military coalition interoperability takes more than just software applications, hardware standards and a network capable of transferring data among partner nations,” says Mary Woods, Army deputy program executive officer for Command, Control and Communications–Tactical (PEO C3T). “True success is a byproduct of each country’s planning efforts, technical expertise and coordination behind the scenes months before any equipment ever touches the ground in an operational setting.”
The Army is not alone in grappling with the issue of interoperability with coalition partners, both from technical and operational standpoints. However, many of the Army’s issues were brought to the forefront during the service’s comprehensive network review last year. The review identified challenges that will be a main focus of its network modernization efforts.
Transforming the service’s network and command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities is a team effort. Materiel developers, requirements experts, research and development scientists, industry allies and coalition partner countries seek software applications, waveforms, gateways and other solutions that enable and simplify joint and coalition interoperability at the initial stages of design. The United States and its coalition partners envision that these new solutions, combined with improved training, techniques and procedures, will contribute to more effective mission command in congested and contested environments.
Last year’s network review underscored the importance of battlefield commanders possessing a network capability that can fuse data and share it across coalition operating systems to form a common operational picture. The Army’s participation in the multinational exercises will enable the service to examine solutions and explore options. The exercises will help form capability requirements, integration needs and doctrine to improve interoperability while simplifying information sharing.
Behind these exercises are materiel developers, integrators and field support experts who are laser-focused on bringing integration and interoperability solutions to the field. Many of the participants reside at program offices within the PEO C3T office, which is the materiel developer of the service’s tactical communications network.
The office has been supporting multinational exercises since 2000, when digital systems were introduced during contingencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Joint and coalition training exercises offer realistic operational environments to tear down the walls blocking critical free-flowing data sharing among partners. Army developers and cross-functional team members will incorporate lessons learned from past events into planning for current and future activities.
Among this year’s exercises, the Multinational Forces Interoperability Warfighting Exercise will be conducted next month at three locations simultaneously: Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Fort Carson, Colorado; and Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
The Joint Warfighting Assessment will take place later this spring in Germany on a larger scale. It aligns with Air Combat Command’s Blue Flag 18 exercise and provides a combined joint task force structure to establish the underpinnings of multidomain battle conditions and to facilitate employment of joint cross-domain fires. The assessment will assist the Army as it evaluates emerging concepts, integrates new technologies and promotes interoperability with the other services and allies.
The lack of a single coalition network or standard has been a longtime challenge. Multiple coalitions and mission partner environments have different requirements, baselines and standards to suit each partner nation’s various demands, missions and capabilities.
To improve internal tactical network interoperability, the Army continues to develop network baselines and standards that are simplifying the integration of new technologies as its network evolves.
“In some exercises or real-world operational environments, this makes the establishment of an interoperable network very challenging,” says Tim Selph, the PEO C3T’s technical management division coalition lead. “Additionally, in the capability design phase, engineers and staff creating new network capabilities are often mistakenly asked for them to be interoperable with a coalition as if there was a single standard, but there is not.”
Establishing an effective architecture for partners to communicate and share data demands the examination and resolution of variables and challenges in coalition networks well ahead of real-world contingencies. Realistic exercises that fully stress the network reveal technical issues and enable coalition forces to address capability gaps and more rapidly improve network simplicity.
“Not only is every coalition partner’s approach to command and control different, but these partners may bring a variety of applications and hardware to each mission or exercise, which our team needs to deconflict before anything touches the functioning network,” says Mark Guillemette, the PEO C3T’s lead digital systems engineer for European operations.
In addition, each coalition country has its own unique transport network that connects to the combined coalition network. This enables countries to share information at their discretion to collaborate and improve the common operational picture.
During past joint and coalition exercises, the Army successfully used its new expeditionary Commercial Coalition Equipment (CCE) enclave to connect to the coalition network. The small-form-factor transit case makes deployment easy, and the equipment offers more capability than the large legacy server stack now providing the gateway to the coalition network. Equipment can be reconfigured rapidly to yield secure tactical access to coalition or commercial networks for both civilian and military operations.
The CCE also features a radio-bridging and voice cross-banding capability that allows radios on different frequencies or different equipment, such as cellphones or Voice over Internet Protocol phones, to communicate seamlessly. These capabilities are essential in coalition operations where different countries and organizations bring their own equipment.
The Army will use the CCE during both the Multinational Forces Interoperability Warfighting Exercise and the Joint Warfighting Assessment to obtain soldier feedback for further capability enhancement before fielding. In the former exercise, the goal is to create a mission partner environment so multinational partners can freely exchange data in the same virtual room. The traditional CCE was designed to support a battalion, but Army officials will demonstrate the CCE-Heavy during this exercise. This larger version uses the same software and can support an entire corps.
To reduce manual collection of common operational picture data, to collapse legacy warfighting systems and to shrink the technical and physical footprint of the command post, the Army also is developing the Command Post Computing Environment (CP CE). The environment consolidates mission command systems and applications into a single user interface, enabling commanders to see the same common operational picture and better share data throughout the unit. It will undergo operational tests and achieve initial operational capability next fiscal year.
Several combatant commands and operational units want a coalition interoperability solution or a scalable common operational picture for forcewide fielding before the CP CE will be available. The PEO C3T and industry are working toward potential bridge solutions to fill that operational need.
During last summer’s Saber Guardian, an annual exercise with U.S. Army Europe and more than 20 coalition nations, the PEO C3T’s mission command project manager assessed the ability to link to and communicate with the Romanian and Slovenian armies using the Army Coalition Interoperability Solution (ACIS). This is a modernized spinoff of the Multilateral Interoperability Programme (MIP). The United States and 26 countries, most of which belong to NATO, make up a consortium that uses MIP software to enable allies to share and receive critical, timely information on the battlefield.
Also last year, the program manager worked with U.S. Army Europe’s Mission Command Support Division to test and evaluate the ACIS. Simulated and live mission-command data feeds supported a U.S. Army Europe operational needs statement for multinational interoperability.
Kim Reid, product director for Strategic Mission Command, PEO C3T, explains that the effort brings nations together to agree upon standards. “What data do we want to share, and how do we want to share it? Each country then develops its own implementation of MIP to meet those standards. The U.S. can then place its mission command data into this standard, and another country can pull that data into its system and vice versa,” she says.
A significant obstacle in the MIP partnership is that, over the years, countries have not upgraded to the latest standards. Three program versions now exist among the 27-member group. As a result, compatibility issues arise as different militaries try to share information during exercises, or worse, real-world contingencies.
The ACIS will provide backward compatibility among all versions of the current U.S. MIP gateway and a single interface for user tools to facilitate coalition data exchange. At the Blue Flag exercise, the ACIS will be assessed as a replacement for the MIP gateway.
“We’re making sure soldiers and commanders are getting the information they need when they need it,” Reid says. “With ACIS, we have the opportunity to dramatically improve coalition interoperability and lay the groundwork for the Army’s Command Post Computing Environment.”
During Blue Flag, the solution will enable compatibility, enhancing information sharing across U.S. and NATO coalition networks. If exercise use is positive, the ACIS will then be provided to U.S. Army Europe and other Army units taking part in coalition exercises.
“By participating in the 2018 Warfighter Exercises and the Joint Warfighting Assessment, our developers and program managers will work across organizations to build strong partnerships that will inform coalition C4ISR requirements,” Woods states. “We are looking forward to assessing the results of the events as we structure network interoperability modernization efforts going forward.”
Paul D. Mehney is the director of communications and congressional affairs for the PEO C3T, which develops, acquires, fields and supports the Army’s mission command network to ensure force readiness.