CERDEC Sets Priorities as It Prepares for New Environments
Budgets and geographic locations influence future capabilities for soldiers.
Article updated December 3, 2014.
With a number of uncertainties coloring their activities, officials at the U.S. Army’s Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center are preparing their program objective memorandum, laying out several key projects and goals for the coming years. The leaders are calibrating efforts to align with expected congressional funding as well as with the capabilities soldiers require for mission success.
For fiscal year 2015, sequestration will not affect that budget timeline; however, fiscal year 2016 presents a different challenge, with possible large cuts to funding. The situation shadows the development of the program objective memorandum for fiscal years 2017 to 2021. Planning programs and budgets for the upcoming years involves making choices about what demands attention in an age of diminished resources and about where resources might remain viable. The autonomous systems command and control and sensing systems, or communications systems that might be on autonomous platforms, is one area of the portfolio undergoing adjustment. “That is something we’re going to have to go back and reinvestigate because there’s been an added incentive—though it’s not been finalized—through the various budgetary processes of re-emphasizing autonomous systems,” explains Robert Zanzalari, associate director, Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC). “That’s a business area that we think we’re going to have to try to go back into if there really is going to be a concerted effort to do more work at the platform level.”
CERDEC has nine strategic initiatives underway. They illustrate what the organization seeks to accomplish for warfighters from a science and technology perspective. They are not ranked in order of importance.
One of the initiatives looks at assured position, navigation and timing, or PNT, which Zanzalari says is a huge concern, especially as the military looks to operate in different theaters. To help address the issue, CERDEC is putting a renewed emphasis on the field. “We actually were fortunate to receive additional resources to jump-start this in anticipation of programs of record being established in the fiscal year 2016 time frame,” Zanzalari explains. Ongoing programs offer technology demonstrations or technology risk-reduction efforts that increase chances of success going forward.
Another initiative explores radio frequency (RF) convergence, a hardware-software convergence that looks at an architectural construct and concept to integrate more closely systems that work in the current RF domain. Experts are working to define an architecture, then design modules to fit into that architecture. Success would eliminate having to develop a box for each capability. The changes would address the problems of having to put RF devices for communications and RF for electronic warfare on platforms where they cause interference issues that reduce the functionality of both systems. Work on that effort has been underway for almost two years, with the first lab demonstration scheduled for the March time frame. Zanzalari says platform program managers have interest in the efforts because results will offer size, weight and power savings as well as potentially substantial cost savings.
A complementary initiative is spectrum agility and countermeasures. Most waveforms the Army employs cannot be deconstructed in a manner that makes them easily portable to other hardware devices. Under this initiative, personnel break down a waveform into its fundamental building blocks, understanding which of those the government can control and when a new one is needed. The building blocks will be simplified for creating unavailable waveforms. Currently, it could cost a billion dollars to develop and deliver one. “We can’t afford to stay in that environment … to provide additional communications capabilities to the forces,” Zanzalari states. “That’s a pretty strategic program.” CERDEC's Space and Terrestrial Communication Directorate leads that program with input from its Intelligence and Information Warfare Directorate to ensure electronic warfare waveforms are considered in the construct.
Another initiative involves work in degraded visual environments that affect ground and air operations, which are the number one cause of rotary wing crashes. The directorate examines various sensor modalities to make platforms more survivable in those environments.
The energy-informed operations initiative researches how to produce managed energy at posts, camps and stations, from larger, fixed-infrastructure, forward-deployed bases down to smaller outposts. It looks at not only energy technologies, but also at energy consumption and how to plan for that.
Next is mission command on the move, which Zanzalari calls “a huge one for us. The best way to describe that is the commander really wants to be in the fight.” Currently, commanders have to stay in vehicles or at command posts because those locations have the best situational awareness capabilities. The directorate’s efforts are aimed at making the same capabilities available in dismounted operations so leaders can be with their soldiers who are executing the fight.
Another directorate initiative has two focus areas. CERDEC’s Data to Decisions’ first line of work strives to bring more information sources into the mission command fold, helping to sort through data to make it more actionable. The complementary piece brings in big data, whether structured or unstructured, combing through that to present a better picture of red and unknown forces to the commander. “That’s really what’s going on in the intelligence community when you’re talking data to decisions,” Zanzalari explains. The work reflects the center's work over the past three years into solutions to bring operations and intelligence together from an integrated mission command perspective.
Next on the initiatives list is cyber, which incorporates defensive and offensive cyber operations and cyber situational awareness. Directorate personnel are the leads for the situational awareness piece. “It’s really understanding what is being done to other networks at a specific time and how to best take advantage of what’s available to us from a spectrum utilization perspective,” Zanzalari says. The effort includes both the network side and the application side because cyber crosses these two boundaries.
A final initiative focuses on pervasive sensing. It started out performing integrated sensor architecture but now includes the development of actual sensing technology. “We’ve kind of morphed into being more holistic, where the integrated sensor architecture, which is what we were featuring in our initial strategic initiative, is now really a subset of omniscient sensing,” Zanzalari explains. Researchers are exploring pervasive sensing technologies that know all and see all.
Covering all that work is a relatively modest amount of money. CERDEC had approximately $331 million for fiscal year 2014 to perform its core science and technology mission. The money is spread across four directorates: the Space and Terrestrial Communications Directorate; the Intelligence and Information Warfare Directorate; the Command, Power and Integration Directorate; and the Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate.
Adding complexity is the interrelation of many of the efforts not only to each other, but also across other parts of CERDEC or outside groups. Zanzalari says that it can be difficult to grasp all the interrelationships and the second- and third-order effects that may come to fruition when people fail to understand the integration across portfolios and platforms. Making budget and program decisions is not as cut and dry as choosing one item and not another. Even decomposing programs to fundamental pieces or tasks is difficult, and removing one could have a substantial impact on another capability or product the center wants to deliver.
CERDEC looks at priorities from the Defense Department, including the research and technology leaders, to understand where they are concentrating. The center is engaged with the Army’s direction led by the Force 2025 and Beyond guidance from the service’s chief of staff.
Developers also have to consider the pivot to the Asia-Pacific region. In addition to the increased focus on PNT, they have to rethink communications strategies because satellite communications is an issue in a heavy foliage environment. Zanzalari foresees a re-architecting of the network with the understanding that the capability may be unavailable in the region. Also of concern is a more sophisticated adversary, especially from the cyber and electronic warfare viewpoints. Considerations go back to protecting the network on mission command systems.
Meeting the demands of the workload and changing priorities calls for the right work force. Some areas require reshaping, such as growing cyberprofessionals or redirecting power and energy personnel to shift from concentrating on supplying power to understanding demands for it. The latter means a change to understanding microgrids and grid technology, which requires more software orientation than physical-science orientation.
Zanzalari says there has been no decrease in the government’s call for engineering support and services; in some cases, more government support is requested. “We’re having a very difficult time working through that at this point because we’re under some hiring restrictions … but the general position is that the acquisition community, and even to some degree the sustainment community, are asking for more government labor than we can provide. We’re in the process of having to provide that support using the contractor industry.” The result is that the government loses out on the chance to recruit some of the best employees, who go to the private sector when jobs are available. For engineers, demand remains relatively high.
Adding to CERDEC’s science and technology human-capital challenge is the loss of 10 to 15 people a month because of retirement. The center is prevented from replacing them, but it also misses the opportunity to have the institutional knowledge these experts possess transfer to new work force members. Enough subject matter experts remain now to conduct business, but Zanzalari says soon the center will reach a point where business areas fail because of the lack of the necessary knowledge transfer. Leadership knew the most difficult period would span 2015 to 2017. A lot of retirements also occurred when CERDEC moved from Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, to its new home at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, but the organization hired 1,000 new people while still at its former location, allowing time for them to learn from more experienced personnel.
In its work with industry, CERDEC has evolved to embrace small business as a source for innovative technology while continuing to conduct business with traditional partners. Zanzalari believes industry at large has a greater appreciation of the value of partnering with CERDEC for several reasons, including as a systems integrator. The facilities at the center allow for testing in an open environment to see how it fits into the network. The lab- and field-based risk reductions result in a partnership that allows the private sector to showcase their technologies and enables the military to communicate back how those capabilities likely will fare in the larger network construct. CERDEC also benefits from interacting with technology providers it would have missed had it remained with a singular lead systems integrator.