Army to halt $6 billion WIN-T program amid major network restructuring plan

The Army says the outcome of two studies shows the need to "pivot" to a new strategy for its tactical network.

The Army disclosed plans on Wednesday for a dramatic restructuring of its strategy for tactical networking systems, asking Congress for permission to reallocate more than $500 million in 2018 funding that officials had requested and defended only months earlier, significantly altering some programs and canceling others altogether.

Most significantly, the service said it plans to halt procurement of the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical during 2018, after having spent $6 billion acquiring the first two increments of the system. Officials have long described the family of systems that make up WIN-T as the “backbone” of the Army’s tactical network.

The swift change in direction was prompted by two separate studies, one directed by Gen. Mark Milley, the Army chief of staff, and an independent congressionally-directed review conducted by the Institute for Defense Analysis.

“Our current network does not meet our warfighting needs now, nor do we believe it will meet the future warfighting needs of a high-intensity conflict,” Lt. Gen. Bruce Crawford, the Army’s chief information officer and deputy chief of staff (G-6), told the House Armed Services Committee. “Our forces must be able to fight, shoot, move, reliably communicate, protect and sustain anywhere anytime. The current network was developed and fielded for the static environments of Iraq and Afghanistan in the mid-to-late 2000s, but does not meet the warfighting needs of a high in conflict against peer adversaries as we pivot to a new strategy.”

Among the Army’s greatest concerns: the network is excessively complex. That problem has long been pointed out by oversight organizations, but officials saw dramatic symptoms of the problem over the past several years, as units cycled through the National Training Center to perform training with their newly-issued networking equipment. It took, on average, between 40 and 50 hours for a given unit to deploy the network and get communications up and running, a luxury officials do not believe they will have in future conflicts in which units must be ready to “fight tonight.”

The studies also pointed to stifling complexities within the bureaucracies that make up the Army’s acquisition process. The Army had too many organizations and individuals in charge of developing and reviewing requirements across its four broad mission areas, and no coherent governance structure in place to ensure those requirements were synchronized.

“So one of the things we directed about a month-and-a-half ago was that the undersecretary of the Army and the vice chief of staff will now be in charge of a horizontally-integrated governance structure that’s going to oversee all strategy, all policy and all resources, all things network,” Crawford said. “That’s one of the things we’ve done to fix ourselves. This isn’t something we could just train our way through, we have to make some fundamental change: some culture that needs to change inside of our formations and some physical change.”

The Army has also gotten into the habit of over-specifying precisely what equipment it wants to buy, down to the radio frequencies and waveforms each component of the network must use, limiting its selection of potential vendors.

Going forward, the service must do a better job of broadly defining its challenges to industry and letting them come forward with innovative technical solutions to suit those needs, officials said.

“As we describe our future state to both the acquisition community and to our industry partners, it has to start with the ability to provide command control and Mission Command from home station en route to an operation, once you’ve arrived at an operation and then several types of environments, once you get there as you treat it as a system of systems from that network to the physical infrastructure of our command posts,” said Maj. Gen. James Mingus, the commander of the Army’s Mission Command Center of Excellence. “All that has to be integrated, and those are the things that we’ve kind of described to our industry partners in our acquisition community in terms of what we’re trying to go with, with this future state.”

But the Army’s plan to “pivot” to a new tactical network modernization strategy was almost universally criticized by members of the House Armed Services Committee for its lack of specificity, and for asking to dramatically restructure funding profiles in a fiscal year that’s only days away from beginning without the documentation and justifications that usually accompany a formal budget request.

The service, as of now, has no clear plan to redirect its resources into a new set of programs, only a general idea of how it would like to evolve the network from its current WIN-T baseline using more agile and iterative acquisition processes.

It’s far from clear exactly what the Army is pivoting to, said Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), the chairman of the tactical air and land forces subcommittee.

“What you’ve described is a process, not a destination, not a system, not a procurement program,” he said. “These are all good words, but they’re processes. You don’t have the answer to what you’re going to do instead of this.”

Rep. James Langevin (D-R.I.) called it “stunning” that the Army would abandon its tactical network plans after following a “steady trajectory” that’s been well understood by Congress for the past several years.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said. “This is exactly the type of thing that people back home get so worked up about, when precious taxpayer dollars are apparently squandered, wasted, not applied and used in a judicious and effective way.”

But Army officials said the money expended on the network to date, including the $6 billion for WIN-T, had not gone entirely to waste.

WIN-T’s first two increments, which have already been fielded partly or entirely to Army units, will serve as the “baseline” for the tactical network for the foreseeable future, until vendors deliver more innovative capabilities that meet the service’s new priorities, including mobile and survivable communications at its command posts, network transport technologies that can overcome enemy electronic warfare systems, and a common operating environment within its mission command systems.

For fiscal 2018, the Army is asking Congress to redirect $545 million in spending that has already been approved in various appropriation and authorization bills making their way through the legislative process.

Within that amount, $414 million would be used to “fix” problems with interoperability and cybersecurity concerns that were identified by the two studies; the remainder would go toward buying as-yet-unidentified new systems.

“We do not have an objective system in mind,” Crawford said. “If there were an objective system on the shelf, we would be trying to go and purchase that objective system.  What we’re trying to do is to literally fix ourselves now so that we have a fight-tonight capability.”

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