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Signal Evolves From Enabler to Domain

The digitization of the force has moved information systems from a supporting role to a co-star in the battlespace.

This is the first in a series of interviews with signaleers, one for each of SIGNAL Magazine's seven decades, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of AFCEA International.

The period of 2006 to 2015 saw a transition in signal from largely analog communications to digital networking. This transition changed information systems from simply being a force multiplier to serving as an indispensable part of the force that enables speed of execution. Signal now provides U.S. forces with an operational advantage over adversaries to the degree that cyberspace is a full-fledged warfighting domain. Accordingly, Signal units must defend networks against increasing cyberthreats.

These points represent the perspective of Col. Paul H. Fredenburgh III, USA, division chief for the LandWarNet Integration and Space Division, U.S. Army CIO/G-6. At the beginning of this time period, then-Lt. Col. Fredenburgh worked on the Joint Staff as an action officer in the J-6, having served in the Iraq War as the executive officer in the 101st Airborne Division’s 501st Signal Battalion.

Overall, significant changes have taken place in signal over the past 10 years. When the U.S. Army entered the Global War on Terrorism and the wars in Southwest Asia, Col. Fredenburgh notes, its tactical signal structure was division-centered. An embedded battalion would train and equip the Signal force, which in turn would be task-organized down to lower echelons to provide communications support during deployment. 

When the Army transitioned to a brigade combat team approach, Signal support shifted to smaller teams that were assigned directly to the brigades and battalion-size units they supported. This suited the conflicts facing the United States at the time. Now, training today’s dispersed forces in highly technical skills requires a different strategy.

Col. Fredenburgh points out that during this 10-year time frame, military communications followed the technology trends of the commercial sector. “As communicators, we try to apply the latest and greatest technology to enable warfighting functions,” he says. “We’ve continued to increase capacity, mobility and resiliency of our networks, and we’ve extended that network to lower levels.”

Ten years ago, this effort was hampered by limited mobility and insufficient bandwidth. A bottom-up approach then was replaced by a top-down tactic with open standards. The move to cloud-based computing came because integrating disparate networks proved too difficult. 

Now, the strategic infrastructure can provide access to enterprise services to the edge. Even voice services are Internet protocol (IP)-based, Col. Fredenburgh notes. IP-based systems automatically can reroute as needed, which improves reliability. 

In 2006, the Army had digital connectivity down to the brigade level. Single-channel voice communications largely provided the link further down the chain. Now, digital capabilities extend all the way to the platoon level, the colonel illustrates. The Nett Warrior system, which comprises a commercial off-the-shelf cellphone tied to a Rifleman radio, allows dismounted soldiers to view their positions on maps.

Another key transition has been from a terrestrial-based network to a satellite-based backbone, which adds mobility and flexibility. Now, command posts can be moved around the battlefield at will.

Col. Fredenburgh emphasizes that the Army has exploited the Global Positioning System (GPS) to a much greater degree over the past 10 years. The Army really began leveraging GPS in 2006, which greatly helped maneuver operations in Southwest Asia. Now, Blue Force Tracking employs GPS and satellite connectivity in mounted platforms, and information is shared across the force.

Ten years ago, few would have envisioned the services’ separate communications networks coming together in a joint realm. Now, the Joint Information Environment (JIE) provides a service-neutral networking environment, and the services share a common email. 

And the boundaries between the tactical and strategic parts of the network are blurring. The move to the JIE and cloud computing are vanguards of an integrated network, which also will improve training and readiness, the colonel says.

The result is that, over the past 10 years, information technology has become an integral part of every warfighting function, Col. Fredenburgh declares. Many Signal soldier functions have changed over that time. Instead of merely ensuring that the network operates, these soldiers now must establish connectivity, integrate service and defend the network. “We’ve gained efficiencies with our engineering, maintaining and repair,” he states. These developments in turn have allowed signaleers to focus on today’s security challenges.

Accordingly, the core of training has shifted from network operations to defense. Specific military occupational specialties (MOSs) have reorganized the work force to include a concentration on network defense. 

“The information technology functions are so ingrained in everything we do now, we really are past the point of going back to the old analog ways,” the colonel offers. “It would slow down our operations so much that we would lose the advantage we have with our adversaries.”

Next month: a look at the 1996-2005 period.