Army deploying warfighting version of in-flight Wi-Fi

By next month, the Army will start fielding equipment that gives its commanders access to the networks they need to plan missions while they’re airborne and en route to a battle. It’s part of a broader Army push for a seamless mission command process, regardless of where the commander is located.

The new airborne capability is part of the Army’s Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T), a larger program the Army’s using to extend its networks into austere environments, and which is expected to win Pentagon approval for full-rate production by late next month.

But Maj. Gen. Dan Hughes, the Army’s program executive officer for Command, Control and Communications-Tactical (PEO-C3T), said the addition of en-route mission command is just one element of a strategy to make sure leaders are seeing up-to-date information at all times, whether they’re at their home stations, on the battlefield or on the way there.

“In a world that changes so fast, to have a unit get on an aircraft, be in the air for 15 hours and arrive on the ground with the same information they left with puts the commander behind the power curve,” Hughes said Tuesday at the annual C4ISR & Networks Conference in Arlington, Va. “As of next month, we will have a capability that will allow us to stay in contact and have the latest information from the time they leave, en route and as they hit the ground.”

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And once troops get to their destination, the Army wants its units—even its smallest ones—to have access to its classified networks immediately, rather than having to wait for bulky satellite transceivers to arrive and be set up. So under a new program called Transportable Tactical Command Communications (T2C2), the Army wants to deploy large numbers of satellite terminals that are about the size of a briefcase and get soldiers onto the WIN-T network within about 10 minutes.

“We’re working on getting the contract constructs out so that we’ll have the ability to have these 12- or 13-pound briefcases that you can take on the aircraft, get on the ground and have SIPRnet capability right away,” he said. “Obviously, we’ll build a larger tactical network as we begin to flow more forces in to the theater, but we’ve got to have that capability to talk back and get information within minutes. A great example of this is when the 101st Airborne went in for the Ebola support mission. They needed to have reachback as fast as possible and that capability was proven there. We’re just going to make it better and better as we go along.”

Small, light, compact and simple are some of the main themes behind the upgrades the Army is making to its tactical networks. So Hughes says once soldiers are on the ground in a contingency operation, it also wants its network operators to be highly mobile and not tied to large, fixed tactical operations centers which have continued to grow as the Army has added more technology to its networks.

“Right now, a brigade TOC at our Network Integration Evaluations is the size of what a corps used to use. We need to get smaller, quicker, and have capabilities that fit into a profile that you can put into an aircraft and get into the fight as quickly as possible,” Hughes said. “We’re going to expeditionary capabilities that allow the commander to operate the way the commander needs to operate. And they won’t be cookie cutter. The 10th Mountain Division doesn’t need the same thing the 1st Cavalry Division needs. So, we’re going to take a look at what we need in each of those regionally-aligned forces that allow the commander to operate as they enter the theater.”

To achieve that, the Army says it needs to continue to move away from its history of one-off technology solutions that, while they served their missions, did not have integration with other systems in mind when they were first built. So, it’s building its tactical networks within a framework called the Command Post Computing Environment, which sets integration guidelines for new pieces of equipment and software, and dictates that new technology additions must be able to plug into a common set of services and exchange data with others.

“In the future, this will allow us to have one map engine, one email, one chat, graphics that look all the same, the same desktop, and unified data that underpins all of this so that when you train the system, you train that soldier one time,” he said. “I don’t need to teach maps three or four times. We’ve got to get away from forcing our soldiers to fight against the system and focus on the fight instead. That’s what mission command is all about.”

The command post framework is one of several computing environments the Army says it is using to simplify and standardize the integration of its warfighting systems.

In another case, it’s working on a computing environment for mobile applications based on the Android operating system. As envisioned, the computing environment itself would handle cybersecurity functions, freeing the Army from having to apply an arduous security validation process to each app before it can be used.

“The environment we really, no kidding, want is one where we can go out to an app developer and say, ‘We need X.’ Put it in the system and move on,” Hughes said. “We don’t want to take six months for security if you build an app today. So, I can see a day where we have an indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract where we can throw a requirement for an app out, have industry write it, it comes to us and we get it into a library very quickly so the field can use it whenever they want. The app can maybe even be used one time and thrown away, but you know what? It might be the app the commander needed to use for that fight.”

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On DoD: Maj. Gen. Daniel Hughes, Army Program Executive Officer for Command, Control and Communications-Tactical