For Army, upgraded IT networks might mean fewer deployed soldiers

The Army is in the midst of a significant technical overhaul of how its headquarters organizations command and control the missions of their soldiers in the field.

If things work as planned, the next time a division of soldiers goes into combat, a significant proportion of them might be doing the warfighting equivalent of telework.

The Army is working through changes to what it calls “mission command” — the service’s overarching approach to how commanders manage their organizations and communicate orders to the troops they lead. In the past, an Army division, ordered to respond to a contingency somewhere around the world, would tend to bring along most of its headquarters staff and all of its accompanying equipment.

But that might no longer be necessary, thanks in part to upgrades the Army is making as part of DoD’s Joint Information Environment, including much bigger data pipes and a flatter, more centralized approach to cybersecurity. What officials are calling “distributed mission command” also happens to line up nicely with Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno’s objective to reshape the service’s rigid combat formations into more flexible packages that can rapidly respond to future crises.

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“When you talk about the chief’s desire to be able to send small teams into an austere environment at a moment’s notice, that doesn’t entail deploying an entire main division command post,” Lt. Gen. Robert Ferrell, the Army’s chief information officer told an AFCEA conference in Tysons Corner, Virginia on Wednesday. “He’s asked us to look at how we can shape the requirements for the network to provide early-entry communications back to home station.”

In at least the early stages of an operation, improved network capabilities might mean some elements of a division’s headquarters could stay put and manage operations from afar. The updated approach to mission command also attempts to give Army commanders constant communication with the troops they lead, whether they’re training, fighting or en route to a battlefield.

One key technological element, which will let leaders conduct mission planning while their troops are in the air, is expected to reach initial operational capability in May. The Army expects to procure enough equipment to quickly roll that capability on-and-off of six aircraft at a time in the first increment. 24 more such packages are planned to follow.

The changes, officials said, are the logical extension of a notion Army IT leaders have been championing for several years: Commanders and soldiers should have access to one set of networks and systems, irrespective of whether they’re deployed or at their home stations.

“We need to provide access and capability at the point of need, from the generating force all the way forward to the tactical edge,” said Doug Wiltsie, the Army’s program executive officer for enterprise information systems. “Home station mission command will give us the ability to keep part of the division main headquarters back in sanctuary — so long as you’ve got a big enough pipe — and only move part of the division forward. That’s a huge change from the way we fight today.”

To achieve that change, Ferrell said the Army needs to continue down the path of standardizing the hardware and software at each of its military bases.

Just as every installation had its own way of handling email services before the Army moved to a centralized enterprise email system, right now, no two division headquarters’ command posts look much alike from an IT perspective.

“Each of our units have built systems that are not standard, and their home station mission command centers are not a program of record,” Ferrell said. “This initiative will take a look at how we change that, how those fixed-station command centers connect to tactical communications in their local area, how they maintain the same comms when soldiers go to training centers, and how we maintain consistent communications back to the corps and division headquarters. We need to do the same thing when they’re deployed and maintain that same connectivity. We need uninterrupted comms for mission command.”

Once all of the Army’s division headquarters are running along a single technical baseline, they’ll also be able to share real-time data — including minute-to- minute updates on cyber threats — in ways they can’t right now.

“We have an intelligence processing, exploitation and dissemination (PED) site at Fort Gordon, and it’s world-class,” Ferrell said. “This initiative is going to let us build out a communications back-end that will let us connect that intelligence back to these home station mission command centers at all of these posts, camps and stations. It’s going to be a continuous feed.”

Besides giving commanders a nonstop link to their troops, Army leaders believe the new approach to mission command will let them get advanced communication capabilities to soldiers as soon as they arrive in a contingency zone — and without sending an entire division headquarters to provide technical support. For example, Ferrell said, the Army is working to build a small, lightweight package of communications capabilities that would link early-entry forces into the mission command network as soon as they arrive in an overseas theater.

The military succeeded in doing something similar late last year, when, along with the other military services, the Army sent a contingent of troops and health experts to respond to the Ebola crisis in West Africa.

But doing so required a lot of help from an expert team from U.S. Central Command, said Maj. Gen. Gary Cheek, the Army’s assistant deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and policy. Going forward, he said, the Army would strongly prefer to have an organic capability to establish seamless mission command from day-one of a response effort, since the Army is usually the service that’s tasked to lead a joint headquarters in a contingency operation.

“One of the things that Operation Unified Assistance highlighted to us is that an infantry division is built for things like what we call phases 2, 3 and 4 of an operation.

It’s a big outfit and a robust capability, and it’s designed to fight that way. It’s not built exceptionally well for what we call phase zero — shaping operations or operations prior to conflict,” he said. “That’s when your footprint probably should be lighter, and we realized we need a more tailorable, scalable mission command capability at all echelons, but especially for our divisions.”

The Army’s ideas about mission command are one element of a new IT campaign plan the service published on Wednesday, and several other components of the plan will serve as necessary precursors.

More broadly, it calls for more data throughput across the Army’s networks, strengthened network operations, stronger cybersecurity capabilities, and, at least blurring — if not eliminating — the boundary between the Army’s tactical IT capabilities and its institutional networks.

“We’ve got to get to one network as fast as we can,” said Maj. Gen. Dan Hughes, the Army’s program executive officer for command, control and communications-tactical.

“If we don’t treat it that way, we cannot do cyber correctly,” he said. It’s absolutely critical. The network must be easy to use, easy to maintain and easy to configure. We still have work to do to make the tactical network more capable, more secure, more lightweight and more intuitive. By bridging the gap between our home station and our deployed environments, we’ll be able to fight on arrival and quickly adapt our communication systems to changing conditions. One of the critical parts of this is also going to be making sure we can interoperate with our coalition partners. We need to make sure we can get data from and to them, and do it securely.”

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