C4ISR mission remains unchanged despite upheaval

DOD's effort to rapidly collect information that warfighters can use in the field has evolved with changes to program structure

When the Army’s Future Combat System (FCS) was canceled in 2009, so was the vision of the U.S. military fighting conventional wars against states such as China and Russia. FCS' replacement, Brigade Combat Team Modernization (BCTM), instead focuses on a versatile mix of brigade combat teams that can be assembled in whatever configurations are needed to fit the need.

Along with that also comes a change in how Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) is implemented. Although FCS was to be anchored by a comprehensive battlefield network that would provide information and data to the fighting brigades, BCTM instead shines the spotlight on the individual soldier.

The network is still the centerpiece of the Army’s modernization, but the direction in which information needs to flow has changed. The old model, in which the senior commanders handled the collection and analysis of the information and then pushed that down to their subordinates as they felt was needed, has been stood on its head.

“The pyramid has been inverted,” said Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army’s vice chief of staff. “The majority of information is collected by soldiers at the unit level, the same guys and gals making the majority of the ‘game-changing’ decisions [and] we’ve had to figure out how to accommodate this change.”

Speaking in early 2011 to a meeting of the Association of the United States Army’s Institute of Land Warfare, Chiarelli said the future success of the Army rests with the ability to empower leaders and soldiers at the small unit level. The squad or the platoon “has become the decisive element of our formation,” Chiarelli said.

Ultimately, the intent is for soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines at all levels, at every echelon of command, to be provided with the right information quickly and seamlessly. But a major focus now is on the tip of the spear, and how to get information to and from the dismounted soldier.

The goal is to develop the ability for individual soldiers to acquire, tailor and prioritize information they need to complete their mission, and for them to be able to relay information they collect on the ground back to the network so that others can take advantage of it.

And that’s not the same as simply providing as wide a communications pipe as possible to the dismounted soldier, which was the prevailing concern for the old top down approach where the intent was to push information to the warfighters.

“If all you do is get a pipe to the soldier and it can’t carry information that can be harvested from the broader tactical command network in a way that’s usable to that soldier, or what the soldier is doing can’t be exploited back onto that network, then you really haven’t accomplished much,” said Joe Taylor, vice president, ground combat systems at Northrop Grumman Corp.

Providing a mobile phone or other device to soldiers and pushing a photograph or other piece of data down to them is not the same as them being connected to the tactical battle command network, he said.

Meanwhile, elements of the broader network are coming together. The Army approved the fielding of the next generation Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below (FBCB2) system, named Joint Capabilities Release (JCR), early in 2011. And Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) increment 2, which for the first time will take mobile communications down to the company level warfighter, is expected to be operational with the first unit by the end of 2012.

FBCB2 is a fully digital command and control system that provides both battle command and situational awareness from the brigade level down to the individual soldier. It includes Blue Force Tracking, a network used to identify friendly forces on the battlefield. The upgrades included in JCR provide for a substantial increase in network bandwidth that can update information to a much greater number of people in seconds rather than minutes.

The next iteration of FBCB2, the Joint Battle Command-Platform, will introduce at the individual user level capabilities that commercial smart phones and tablets are bringing to the consumer market, such as a Google Earth-like interface for searching pictures and texts, drag-and-drop icons, touch-and-zoom maps, and the ability to collaborate with each other through chat and text.

The question is how to deliver connectivity to the dismounted soldier that will provide for all that. Although JCR and WIN-T provide the broad capabilities and backbone connectivity, the last mile connection to the edge, where the dismounted soldier lives, is not so clear.

Complicating things is a recent turn by the Army to a lower-cost and more agile acquisition process that emphasizes commercial off-the-shelf technology development over the long-term and far more costly process that’s been used in the past. That, plus some very negative feedback from soldiers during several field tests last year, was the reason the Army last October canceled its effort to produce a software-definable Ground Mobile Radio as part of the Joint Tactical Radio Systems program.

“We want to increase competition because that encourages innovation and brings lower costs,” Heidi Shyu, acting Assistant Secretary of the Army -- Acquisition, Logistics and Technology, explained at the time. “Our adversaries are very adaptive, so our acquisition process has to be agile. We understand that in order to attain this agility we need mature technologies."

That’s produced some innovative takes on what can be used to provide this edge connectivity, and which were on display during several Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) exercises run by the Army in 2011 to subject a range of technologies to testing under combat conditions.

For example, Northrop Grumman’s Advanced Meshnet Technology (AMT) was one of those selected. It works in concert with FBCB2, and can use any piece of equipment or platform on the meshnet to serve as a node that soldiers can access to get information by using, in the case of the NIE demonstration, Android smart phones.

When connected in this mobile ad hoc network, every soldier, vehicle and command post becomes essentially a high-bandwidth node.

“So you get that handheld and all of the bandwidth that the meshnet gives you, and you get the ability to put a number of people on a common network that’s also fully integrated with the rest of the tactical environment using software we developed for the handheld that exploits the FBCB2 JCR,” Taylor said.

AMT is based on meshnet technology Northrop Grumman found in the mining industry, which has the same elements of compartmented terrain, the need for situational awareness as well as the need to distribute commands to various people the Army contends with.

The military application of these technologies is somewhat different, Taylor said, “but with some thought and energy we can probably make them applicable to the battlefield, and make them durable enough to last so they come in a lot cheaper than through that older, methodical and more deliberative process.”

NIE 12.2, scheduled for April and May of 2012, will include a more formal test of the capabilities of WIN-T Increment 2, along with a closer evaluation of technologies such as AMT to deliver tactical command network connectivity to the dismounted soldier.

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