A nation at war after 9/11: From experiment to experience
John Sklinar, a senior manager in an elite Army communications division, got a new job the day airplanes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The orders would not typically have come down so quickly from senior military leaders, but the day’s events instantly put the Defense Department on a new footing.
At the time of the attacks, Sklinar was deputy chief of systems engineering and integration at the Army’s Program Executive Office for Command, Control and Communications Tactical. PEO-C3T provided soldiers with computer systems, radios and communications networks they could take directly onto the battlefield. Sklinar’s job was to get soldiers what they needed so they could function digitally and seamlessly.
“At the time that the first impact occurred [on the World Trade Center], everybody was in shock,” Sklinar said. “They weren’t sure what was going on. When the Pentagon was impacted, we realized it was an act of terrorism.”
“All of us in PEO realized that our mission would change drastically,” he added.
Not long after the attacks, the United States went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq — two regions with no communications hubs to tie signals to, said Sklinar, who’s now division manager for tactical operations and homeland security at CACI.
Fortunately, the Army had been experimenting with ways to deal with such situations in case the country was forced to fight in remote parts of the world someday.
Sklinar was program manager and architect of the Joint Contingency Force Advanced Warfighting Experiment, which ran from 1996 to 1998. The Army evaluated the latest digital communications technology and learned how to make it interoperable so soldiers could stay in contact despite the geography.
Sklinar was also a leader of the Millennium Challenge Experiment from 1998 to 2000, a joint military operation that advanced digital and satellite communications.
Therefore, Army officials had a good idea of how to address the communications challenges they would face in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“From the experiments that were conducted, we knew the infrastructure that we had to bring — from a radio, a computer and a satellite communications perspective — to be able to be self-sufficient on the battlefield,” Sklinar said.
Given the circumstances, Maj. Gen. Steven Boutelle, the Army’s CIO at the time, went to where he knew the experts were. He went to Sklinar.
In three months, Sklinar created the Special Projects Office and assembled a 40-person core team and 90 software trainers and installers to carry out the effort. He managed the updates of 12 systems, oversaw the 300 PEO-C3T personnel deployed and coordinated the training of 1,700 soldiers.
In 2003, Sklinar coordinated the integration of 12 command and control systems so U.S. and coalition forces could communicate digitally during operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.
"The work was truly rewarding, although harsh to deal with," he said.
Read more of Remembering Sept. 11: Disaster and response.
Matthew Weigelt is a former FCW senior writer who covered acquisition and procurement.