Army calls for better communications

Army officials will soon announce a major information technology procurement that will help soldiers communicate more efficiently on the battlefield.

The multimillion-dollar IT initiative includes the purchase of secure and nonsecure voice and data systems and bulk commercial satellite communications, according to Army officials. The five-year effort also involves adding a new communications headquarters to existing Army command centers, so service leaders can more easily share information with military and coalition commanders and systems.

The planned IT acquisition would fill the gap for battlefield communications through the decade, when the service rolls out the $10 billion Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) system.

The new program comes almost a year after major combat operations ended in Iraq, where Army officials pieced together a mobile communications network for U.S. and coalition forces, and six months after the service studied its ability to share data internally, among the other military services and agencies, and with allies as they moved out of sight on the battlefield.

"This procurement is of high importance," said Lt. Gen. Joe Yakovac, military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology. "We're joint and interoperable now. We need to be able to share and leverage knowledge."

The service's top acquisition officer spoke this month at the Association of the U.S. Army's annual winter conference in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

The warfighting IT acquisition shows that the Army learned a lesson in Iraq, said Dan Goure, a senior defense analyst at the Lexington Institute. "The Army took its lesson to heart by putting together a mobile communications system until it fields WIN-T," said Goure, who specializes in Army and land warfare matters for the defense think tank, located in Arlington, Va.

WIN-T represents a multiyear, multibillion-dollar effort to develop, test and field a mobile communications network using ground, air and space systems. General Dynamics Corp. and Lockheed Martin Corp. are developing prototype WIN-T systems, and service officials will choose the best one in 2005.

Commercial satellite communications providers welcomed the proposed IT procurement. "We're delighted the Army embraced the industry's recommendation of a comprehensive communications strategy that will get the service where it needs to be," said Leslie Blaker, director of business development at Americom Government Services Inc.'s federal office in McLean, Va.

Blaker said representatives from the commercial satellite communications industry met last fall with Army officials to discuss buying bulk transponder time. She said they met again March 4 to discuss the issue with Peter Teets, undersecretary of the Air Force and director of the National Reconnaissance Office; Air Force Lt. Gen. Harry Raduege, director of the Defense Information Systems Agency; and Army Gen. Larry Ellis, commanding general of Army Forces Command.

Meanwhile, Army leaders continue to review recommendations the Task Force Network made last November for the new warfighting IT acquisition. They must approve the group's plan before issuing a request for proposals to buy mobile communications hardware, software and services.

Gen. Peter Schoomaker, Army chief of staff, formed the task force last September to review the service's ability to share information with U.S. and coalition systems. The 45-person, militarywide group found that most Army networks were not built with joint operations in mind, said Brig. Gen. Jan Hicks, commanding general of the Army Signal Center and Fort Gordon, Ga. She led the task force and briefed its findings to Schoomaker.

The procurement would upgrade network capabilities with a mix of old and new hardware and software and rely on both commercial and military satellite services.

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A time for change

Realizing that current battlefield communications systems do not meet their needs, Army officials plan to buy an array of new hardware and software. Their communications priorities during the next five years include:

2004-2005: Equip forces going to Iraq and buy bulk commercial satellite communications.

2006-2008: Deploy the Joint Network Node, Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) and military satellites, and update installations.

2009-beyond: Field the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical system, the Future Combat Systems, and more JTRS devices and military satellites.

Source: Army Brig. Gen. Jan Hicks, commanding general of the Army Signal Center and Fort Gordon, Ga.

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