Enable breadcrumbs token at /includes/pageheader.html.twig

Senior Officers Tout Digital Development

The Signal Regiment faces daunting challenges in providing and maintaining an always-on network for widely scattered U.S. Army forces. Commercial Internet protocol for voice, data, video and network operations is essential to both combat prowess and the Army’s transformation into an expeditionary force.
By Clarence A. Robinson, Jr., SIGNAL Magazine


Lt. Gen. Steven W. Boutelle, USA (Ret.), Army chief information officer (CIO)/G-6, looks over Kabul, Afghanistan, from a plateau above the city.

Clear battlefield picture emerges from modern information technology for audio, visual, data.

(This article is part of SIGNAL's special coverage of the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Signal Corps.)

The Signal Regiment faces daunting challenges in providing and maintaining an always-on network for widely scattered U.S. Army forces. Commercial Internet protocol for voice, data, video and network operations is essential to both combat prowess and the Army’s transformation into an expeditionary force.

The modern-day history of the Signal Corps, as seen through the eyes of senior Signal officers, reflects the wave of digital technology advances washing over the Army and U.S. industry alike.

Moreover, innovative approaches and the human element can be harnessed to provide situational awareness that is so critical for successful battlefield operations, according to Lt. Gen. Steven W. Boutelle, USA (Ret.). A nation at war marked his tenure as the Army’s chief information officer (CIO)/G-6 from July 2003 to July 2007. “This climate presented many opportunities to get things done at an accelerated pace,” he observes. “Many of the senior general staff officers had an established rapport and credibility. Never overlook the importance of the human element,” the general cautions. “We all had a history together and we were extremely focused after 9/11.”

Earlier proof-of-principle efforts were followed by demonstrations at the Army Training Center to determine digital system interoperability and investment strategy, Gen. Boutelle reveals. “The 4th Infantry Division [ID] was already being digitized, when Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki called for acceleration of digitization. He also ordered operationalizing Army Knowledge Online [AKO] within a year, with both Internet protocol [IP]  router and nonclassified IP router networks. Gen. Shinseki wanted AKO access for every soldier. Encrypted e-mail was added later.”

When the 3rd ID went into Baghdad, communications systems included mobile subscriber equipment (MSE), tri-service tactical (TRI-TAC) “and anything else we could pull together,” Gen. Boutelle explains. “However, on the next rotation in Iraq, the new 3rd ID commander told us MSE did not meet his requirements, issuing an operational needs statement. Convergence on a commercial IP backbone network soon followed.”

The joint communications support element (JCSE), the unit first to deploy for any contingency, and a Signal battalion in the 82nd Airborne Division offered equipment models. The JCSE’s initial entry package is essentially a command and control system in a box, giving commanders Internet access and a small satellite dish to connect to Defense Department networks, Gen. Boutelle continues.

These models were the genesis of the joint network node (JNN). “However, the JNN was a commercial package and a lot of support was necessary to meet 3rd ID requirements, moving high-speed, high-capacity IP to division, brigade and battalion,” the general maintains. “We really stretched in following the models. The JNN was made available in Iraq within six months, but it was not a full production item. While there were technical issues, the division was willing to work with us. General Dynamics, Cisco and other contractors helped clean up and modify the system in Iraq while in use,” the general points out.

Using lessons learned from Iraq, the next JNN iteration went to the National Guard and Army Reserve, which by now were part of the operational force rotating into Iraq just as regular Army units. This required the Signal Corps to upgrade equipment compatible with systems converging on voice, data and video over IP. In Afghanistan, Blackhawk helicopter-transportable small point-of-presence and JNN loads were lifted to command posts.

Northrop Grumman blue force tracking (BFT) also emerged from earlier demonstrations and was in high demand after fratricide incidents in Southwest Asia. The chief of staff ordered this capability across the entire Army using Force XXI battle command brigade and below (FBCB2) equipment over satellite for BFT. MITRE Corporation provided a script allowing the use of approximately 55,000 BFT sets now deployed. “If we had built the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical [WIN-T] in one year, the model would have rolled out of BFT and JNN,” Gen. Boutelle asserts.

Lt. Gen. Peter M. Cuviello, USA (Ret.), served as chief of signal from 1998 to 2000 and, subsequently, became the CIO/G-6. While at Fort Gordon, he was heavily involved in developing WIN-T and Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) requirements. An architecture also rapidly evolved toward an enterprise system encompassing WIN-T and JTRS.

During this period, virtual training became a priority so soldiers did not have to return to the classroom to upgrade with the newest technologies. This effort also enabled federated training, as opposed to local command schools at places like Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Fort Hood, Texas; Fort Huachuca, Arizona; Europe and Korea. Many of these information technology schools involved computer and network training, the general explains. Training programs were also put online so each location could download them for soldier refresher courses with specific pieces of equipment or military occupational specialties.

Originally assigned to the Pentagon as the director, information systems for command, control, communications and computers (DISC4), Gen. Cuviello reported to the secretary of the Army. Seeing a clear need to be part of the Army staff, he convinced both the Army secretary and the chief of staff to create a billet aligned with the Army general staff, reporting to both the secretariat and the chief of staff.

The terrorist attack on the Pentagon “was right in our work spaces. We brought ourselves back together and went full-scale in preparing for combat, supporting the buildup in Kuwait, maintaining command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance [C4ISR] on the move in Iraq. This took a lot of effort by some great folks with the ability to be flexible, tailorable, adjustable and malleable—all the adjectives one might use. This was a very different kind of war, and it took a lot of initiative, innovation and imagination by our soldiers to move forward with combat forces and maintain constant communications. This period was also stressful from the standpoint of doctrine, training and implementation,” Gen. Cuviello reports.

The general also created an architecture group to interface with user commands at corps, division and brigade levels and visited Iraq and Afghanistan in concert with this effort. Simultaneously, AKO, in a developmental stage with 30,000 users, was expanded to become the Army’s portal. Army knowledge management became inclusive of AKO, architectures and communications under one umbrella.

Lt. Gen. Peter A. Kind, USA (Ret.), spent three tours at the Signal Center in four different assignments before becoming the chief of Signal and commander of Fort Gordon in 1990. He became the commander after serving as the program executive officer for command and control systems at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, providing experience as both a material developer and requirements commander. He previously served as Signal Center deputy and as acting commander in 1985 to 1986 as a brigadier general, when the commanding general was assigned for a year to lead MSE source selection at Fort Monmouth.

The Signal Regiment was established during this period and, in a formal ceremony, inductions began for second lieutenants in the basic course. This took place only after a rigorous field exercise involving both Signal operations and unit-level tactics. Lieutenants signed the regimental roster atop a 60-foot tower that they were required to climb as a final part of physical testing.

A month into his chief of Signal tenure, the buildup began for the first Gulf War, mobilizing 27 units and deploying most of them along with two active Fort Gordon units. Reserve components also were processed at the installation. A new military occupational specialty was created for tactical computer operations and maintenance.

Gen. Kind was DISC4 from 1992 to 1996, reversing the downward budget spiral for Army core information technology when technology changes were urgently needed. He spearheaded the development of enterprise operational capabilities, creating a vision, goals and framework for discussion. The chief of staff signed the enterprise architecture, and within a year the Army technical architecture became the joint technical architecture with only a few words changed. Tactical, steerable satellite antennas were quickly pushed forward from engineering development for convoy support in Bosnia. The DISC4 also influenced telecommunications switches and e-mail for Somalia operations. Twelve software development metrics became mandatory throughout the Army.

With a strong airborne background and the use of lightweight satellite communications equipment, Lt. Gen. Robert E. Gray, USA (Ret.), brought experience to Fort Gordon as commanding general and chief of Signal, from 1991 to 1994. His earlier involvement with MSE as a colonel and director of C3I for the combined arms development activity, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, proved an advantage. MSE was being fielded at Fort Hood and involved a significant training base requirement. “MSE allowed the Army to move away from static command posts and move more rapidly across the battlefield to provide communications, keeping pace with the battle,” Gen. Gray states.

The Signal Center was key to MSE training and fielding. Enhanced simulation for various technical courses proved realistic and was employed in the Fort Gordon schools. Heavy use for MSE was important, but simulation also proved beneficial in other signal courses.

Another priority involved the Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System (SINCGARS) being readied for fielding; however, the system could not meet the required 2,500-hour mean time between failure (MTBF) rate. Both the Signal Center and the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) were prepared to halt the program unless the contractor could meet the threshold. The equipment had to be reengineered, but SINCGARS then exceeded MTBF requirements.

As Signal officer for XVIII Airborne Corps, Gen. Gray introduced satellite communications; however, Fort Gordon had yet to make use of the capability. The Signal Center introduced changes to the Army’s table of organization and equipment, ensuring satellite radios were in place. This became a distinct advantage during Desert Storm for control of small units dispersed across the battlefield. Multichannel satellite radio communications from operational areas anywhere in the world to the United States were distributed via military and commercial networks. This capability exists today without large amounts of communications equipment in a theater. Satellite radios later became a hub-and-spoke arrangement for the entire Army and were institutionalized as doctrine, the general notes.

After seven tours of duty in Army divisions, including serving as the 9th ID’s assistant commander, Lt. Gen. Bruce R. Harris, USA (Ret.), served as commanding general, Army Signal Center from 1986 to 1988. “When I came to Fort Gordon, we were preparing to field the next-generation tactical communications equipment, SINCGARS, the enhanced position location reporting system [EPLRS], MSE and other command, control and intelligence systems,” the general explains.

Gen. Harris’ emphasis at Fort Gordon was on tactical communications—especially SINCGARS. Also an aviator in fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft, he remarks that, “SINCGARS was my most important initiative because soldiers would use it to fight. The other systems we had were for staff and senior commanders and didn’t reach down to brigade. EPLRS and SINCGARS became the backbone of the tactical network and some of this equipment is still in the field today.”

The MSE source selection came shortly before his Fort Gordon assignment, and Gen. Harris had the task of moving all the training associated with MSE into Signal Center classrooms. “The MSE fielding schedule was very ambitious, and we had to put together field training teams in concert with procurement people. Training quickly took place on-site at Fort Hood; Fort Stewart, Georgia; and in Europe, where equipment would be issued first. MSE was a five-year fielding program. Meanwhile, development continued with EPLRS and SINCGARS,” Gen. Harris reveals.

Proponency for automation was finalized, and the general set out to convince the Army to move the computer science school from Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, to Fort Gordon. Automation was already embedded in equipment such as TRI-TAC switches and MSE. The school moved from batch processing and mainframe orientation to a small desktop personal computer environment, Gen. Harris states.

Moving up to become the DISC4, Gen. Harris soon learned MSE switch operators had not acquired necessary skills. The follow-on test and evaluation was halted to identify shortfalls. Then Brig. Gen. Alfred J. Mallette, USA, who had been the 7th Signal Brigade commander in Europe, went to Fort Hood to identify problems and solutions.

Army requirements for operational concepts were being developed; however, MSE and other systems were never designed to advance 100 kilometers a day, as the Army did in Iraq.

Lt. Gen. Clarence E. McKnight, USA (Ret.), headed both tactical and strategic communications commands before becoming deputy commandant and commandant of the Signal Training Center and commanding general of Fort Gordon in 1976. After 18 months, he became the first three-star commander of the Army Communications Command, Fort Huachuca, with more than 33,000 soldiers and civilians spread throughout 14 countries. At Fort Gordon, he witnessed the merger of tactical and strategic communications. There was a huge gap in tactical equipment, which had to be procured incrementally and had become bulky and plagued with interoperability problems, Gen. McKnight explains.

Also at the Signal Center, Gen. McKnight was appalled to find many soldiers lacking mathematical and reading skills. The self-paced curriculum mandated remedial study. His next assignment was commander, 5th Signal Command in Europe and deputy chief of staff for communications-electronics, U.S. Army Europe. Again, he witnessed the merging of tactical and strategic equipment. SINCGARS was in the pipeline and MSE was in source selection. He became the J-6, director of command, control and communications in the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Army was moving toward the regimental system, and Gen. McKnight strongly supported the concept, making the Signal Corps a single regiment. He was inducted in 1990 as a distinguished member of the Signal Regiment.

Network Access Follows Signal Chiefs’ Pathway

Historians would be hard pressed to find better-qualified experts with greater experience, technical acumen and educational backgrounds than three former chiefs of Signal. These flag officers presided over an era that saw rampant advances in digitization, miniaturization and transformation to network warfare.

The Army Signal Corps became more versatile, responsive and focused on providing top-notch network communications to soldiers in the field during their watches. Their command experience helped lay the groundwork for Army-wide strategy, leading to Land Warfare Network, a conversion from many loosely affiliated independent networks.

The transition from analog to digital technology involved Maj. Gen. Leo M. Childs, USA (Ret.), chief of Signal from 1988 to 1990. He reports that the biggest impact during his tenure was the Army’s shift to tri-service tactical (TRI-TAC), very heavy gear that was part analog and part digital, to interface with legacy equipment. The Army could not afford all-new digital equipment. Gen. Childs also served as the Signal Center’s chief of staff and deputy commanding general before becoming commanding general and chief of Signal.

The Signal Center contracted with GTE Corporation, the TRI-TAC vendor, for schools and training at Fort Gordon, Georgia. Instructors were mostly retired officers and noncommissioned officers, who understood the requirements of an Army in the field, Gen. Childs explains. “TRI-TAC functioned well but was cumbersome. Continuing the move from analog to digital, the Army selected mobile subscriber equipment [MSE], and my top priority became fielding this new system and converting the TRI-TAC school to an MSE school, still run by GTE, also the MSE contractor.”

With the Defense Department’s acceptance of Internet protocol (IP) as the basis for data transport, the services rapidly converged on digital commercial off-the-shelf equipment. “Signal Corps soldiers could no longer remain technically proficient in communications skills only, but had to know ever-evolving information technologies, especially computer networking,” Gen. Childs notes. During this era, he also started the Signal Corps Noncommissioned Officer (NCO) Academy, with a sergeant major as commandant and run entirely by NCOs. Today, this academy is considered the foremost in the Army. Fort Gordon’s responsibility also included Army area contingency missions for a rapid reaction force in support of the nearby Savannah Nuclear Power Plant. Mobilization of Army National Guard and Reserve units also took place at Fort Gordon.

In an effort to stimulate junior high school student interest in science and mathematics, a national science center was built at Fort Gordon along with a joint Army and civilian science museum. Arriving soldiers often required remedial education before beginning 50-week technical courses. The center’s concept involved interactive displays to generate enthusiasm in science and technology early enough so students would pursue mathematics and science in high school. An offshoot involved transmitting course materials via satellite so educators could download and use the material in teaching, Gen. Childs relates.

The Army needed soldiers completing technical training and arriving in the field faster when Maj. Gen. John “Pat” Cavanaugh, USA (Ret.), became chief of Signal from 2000 to 2002. “Soldiers also required training to a higher standard, causing a close look at technology to determine what might be accomplished in a virtual setting. Simulation included realistic equipment displays with an amazing look, feel and sound of actual hardware, allowing self-paced study. Many soldiers were computer literate, and this approach cut weeks off training. Students soon became more interested in learning, trained to a higher standard, and retention rates rapidly increased,” the general states. “Virtual environments, also available on compact discs, were forwarded to the field to continue instruction.”

Facing reduced budgets and increasing pressure from combat arms organizations to accelerate equipment and system deployments, Gen. Cavanaugh drew upon his experience heading the 5th Signal Command to provide much greater bandwidth and service using smaller packages. “Switches and routers via satellite communications required only six or seven Signal soldiers to operate smaller rigs and provide greater bandwidth, while increasing service,” the general points out. “The service was similar to the type employed in garrison but was now available in the field environment. We could build off that to employ larger switches or satellite dishes for a headquarters, with a smaller footprint and higher-quality service for the warrior.”

Technical advances also allowed downsizing equipment and the number of signalers while achieving an exponential increase in bandwidth for deployed warriors. “Changes in technology also meant we were looking at network-centric warfare. We were in the midst of developing techniques to handle technology advances when 9/11 hit. Priorities immediately shifted to protecting the installation and people—high-value targets. The Signal Center quickly turned attention toward supporting deployments for actual combat operations,” Gen. Cavanaugh emphasizes.

Maj. Gen. Janet A. Hicks, USA (Ret.), Signal chief and commanding general from 2002 to 2006, hosted a global network summit at Fort Gordon. “This summit led up to the Global Network Enterprise Construct [GNEC]. The conference brought in all the constituents from Training and Doctrine Command, corps and division units that could lay claim to existing bandwidth,” the general states.

“The conference helped us figure out where we needed to allocate bandwidth, where it could be increased, and where it could be reduced, based on mission requirements. This was perhaps the only time when we could get that many constituents around a table. We were able to follow the string back to the person who answers the phone, who the caller needed to speak with, and how soon it must take place. This was a real eye-opening look at network use and what would be necessary to satisfy bandwidth requirements,” Gen. Hicks reveals. “Many flag officers attended the final debriefing.”

Standing up the joint network node (JNN) training and fielding the system became priorities for Gen. Hicks and the Signal Center. “JNN became a cradle-to-grave program, the way divisions integrated their communications between brigades. This program presented a new way of doing business with a lasting impact on the Signal Corps. Industry helped with all aspects, including fielding and instruction in the schoolhouse,” she maintains.

JNN, a rapidly deployable system, is a joint communications package allowing the warfighter to use advanced networking capabilities. The system, mounted in a shelter on a high-mobility multipurpose-wheeled vehicle, provides a suite of voice, video and data communications from division down to battalion command posts. JNN is a high-speed and high-capacity backbone network.