U.S. Army Taking Huge Steps Toward Interoperability
New systems and policies push the service forward on a decades-old problem.
Engaged in a concerted modernization effort, the U.S. Army is making strides in overcoming a persistent challenge—interoperability, according to Maj. Gen. David Bassett, the Army’s program executive officer for command, control and communications-tactical.
The Army’s network modernization plan and strategy calls specifically for officials to “define and develop the Mission Partner Environment to improve network joint interoperability and coalition accessibility.” Simply defined, interoperability is the ability to effectively communicate or share data with international partners and allies or even with other U.S. military services.
On that effort, Gen. Bassett partners closely with Maj. Gen. Peter Gallagher, who leads the Army’s network modernization cross-function team. Gen. Bassett has worked on interoperability issues since he was a part of the European Command staff in the late 1990s. One of the things he learned, he said during at interview at the AFCEA TechNet Augusta 2019 conference, is that much of the problem with sharing information with other nations comes down to classification levels. Every nation has its own way of classifying or declassifying information, and even when willing to share may not always be able to because the information technology systems are incompatible.
“One of the first steps in interoperability is making sure you’re at a common classification level and that the systems can meet,” Gen. Bassett offers. “We’ve taken huge steps forward in our ability to share with our allies.”
Among other changes, the Army is working toward shifting its primary warfighting network to a “secret releasable network” capable of sharing with international partners as well as a “secure but unclassified network at the lowest tactical echelon,” Gen. Bassett explains. “Those kinds of security boundary changes have the potential so that we can really integrate those coalition partners and multinational partners directly into our networks.”
The tools for accomplishing that goal include a command, control, communications and computer software suite known as SITAWARE, which is produced by Systematic Inc. The company website says the software provides all essential command and control and battle management capabilities right out of the box, including “interoperability capabilities that allow nations to exchange battlespace information with coalition partners.”
The Army originally decided to use SITAWARE temporarily as a “gateway system” to use in its Command Post Computing Environment because it had been requested by some European partners. Ultimately, officials were happy with the product and fully adopted it. “The tool we adopted was adopted for no small reason because it had the interoperability libraries with our NATO partners. With the adoption of this commercial tool inside the Command Post Computing Environment, we got those interoperability libraries and an extensive amount of commonality because some of our allies have adopted the same kind of tool,” Gen. Bassett notes.
The predecessor to the Command Post Computing Environment—the somewhat ironically named Command Post of the Future—did not have those libraries, making it nearly impossible to provide coalition warfighters with a common operating picture (COP). “We started with exercises where we could never bring up a joint COP with our coalition partners, and now it comes up the first day. We’ve done that over multiple warfighter exercises,” Gen. Bassett reports. “I’m encouraged by that. We’re going to really have the tools to talk over those tactical networks.”
The Command Post Computing Environment is one of the six computing environments that make up the U.S. Army's Common Operating Environment. It brings stovepiped systems onto a common foundation and allows the Army to deliver warfighting capabilities as software applications, according to an Army website.
One remaining challenge, the general notes, is determining what information remains available only to U.S. forces. “As we move toward a secret releasable primary warfighting network—and we’re coordinating with the Mission Command Center of Excellence out at Fort Leavenworth on that plan—we need to make sure we’re thinking about what things remain U.S.-only on the other side of the security boundary, whether that’s fires or intel,” he says.
In addition, the Army’s capability set approach will help improve interoperability with the other U.S. military services. Officials are rolling out a series of improvements to tactical network capabilities to provide operational units with expeditionary network systems that are more mobile and hardened, and easier to operate. Through 2028, the service will provide a biannual scheduled release of capability sets while making continuous enhancements to the network through the insertion of new technologies.
Capability Set 21—the network package to be delivered in 2021—will include greater access to Link 16, a military tactical data exchange network commonly used by the Navy and Air Force but not so much by the Army, until now. Handheld Link 16 radios and a Link 16 Gateway kit have proven valuable to Security Force Assistance Brigades operating in Afghanistan and will be made more widely available.
“The Capability Set 21 network includes Link 16 capability in our Infantry Brigade Combat Team formations that wasn’t previously there. It gives us a common transport with the folks in the air and the ability to exchange an air and ground picture over those tactical Link 16 radios,” Gen. Bassett observes. “We’re still working through the details of how many radios, but again, that gives us significant steps forward on interoperability with the joint force.”
Army leaders will have to work out concepts of operation for using the capability. “Link 16 is a pretty popular, congested capability. We have to make sure the Army requirements for that are reflected in the joint planning, and we’re well on our way to doing that,” he reported.
He also cites the multidomain command and control concept as an interoperability enabler. “The other thing, which is really kicking off just now, is this concept of joint multidomain command and control. We’ve been working alongside the Air Force to really develop understanding of how we’ll conduct command and control multi-domain operations. The Army’s been a participant in that at top levels but that’s just now getting established,” he said.
Interoperability between the Army’s ground forces and its own aircraft also has been a challenge. The Joint Tactical Radio System was supposed to address the issue, but it was a troubled program that took so much time and money to develop that it was ultimately scrapped. Instead, beginning around 2021, Army leaders intend to begin integrating land radios into airframes. The radios will provide a waveform developed by TrellisWare.
Despite the significant progress, interoperability will likely always be a challenge to some degree, Gen. Bassett indicates. “Interoperability is something you work on continuously because our joint partners and coalition partners are constantly modernizing. Even if we said we got to the finish line on interoperability, the finish line would move the next day. But I do think we’ve made significant progress,” he concludes.