RANGE 24, FORT DRUM, NEW YORK: “That’s awesome,” said Maj. Edward Sedlock, watching another soldier call up data on his militarized Android smartphone. It was such small, unguarded moments — neither officer had noticed a reporter standing nearby — which suggest that, after more than a decade in development, the Army’s struggle to bring wireless networking to the foot soldier is finally yielding fruit, just in time to help secure the drawdown in Afghanistan.

Sedlock and his comrade weren’t part of some special group testing new equipment, like the much-publicized Network Integration Evaluations in the New Mexico desert, AOL D readers are so familiar with. Instead, they belong to an operational unit, the 3rd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division, training to use the new gear as they get ready for an expected deployment in Afghanistan. (They haven’t yet received their formal orders to go but planning is well advanced, down to designating an assigned area of operations the Army asked us not to name). “3/10″ and its sister unit, the 10th Mountain’s 4th Brigade, are the first combat brigades to receive the technology, as part of an upgrade the Army calls “Capability Set ’13″; two more brigades, from the famed 101st Airborne, are next in line for the new network.

What’s new here? Army vehicles have been able to exchange data electronically to some degree ever since the “Digitized Division” Advanced Warfighting Experiments of the 1990s. But miniaturizing network equipment so an individual soldier can carry it when he dismounts the vehicle has proved elusive — until now.

“We’re all learning; some guys are really good at it,” Maj. Sedlock told me once I’d introduced myself. “Essentially you have a walking computer on your chest that’s linked to a satellite.”

The modified Androids are strapped to the user’s chest and connect to the unit-wide network via a military radio, rather than operating over civilian cellphone networks, which aren’t sufficiently secure and wouldn’t be available in a war-torn country anyway. Instead of cell towers, the unit’s vehicles relay signals over distances the handheld radios can’t cover.

Plans and intelligence that would once have circulated on paper over the course of hours or days can now be broadcast across the brigade almost instantaneously. In his early days in the Army, said Maj. Sedlock, “there was an RTO [radio-telepone operator] running around with a stack of carbon copies.” Now, soldiers can download intelligence information, upload reports, request artillery support or casualty evacuation, and so on. Perhaps most important, the network picks up a locator beacon from every single soldier’s personal “Rifleman Radio” (the General Dynamics/Rockwell Collins PRC/AN-154) and plots their precise locations on their superiors’ screens.

“I love the phone,” Staff Sgt. Lee Hamberger told me. “It’s key, as a leader, to see exactly where everybody is.” In the modern “empty battlefield,” troops spread out to take cover, to avoid presenting easy targets for machineguns and grenades, and to search Afghan villages from room to room. But dispersion makes it all too easy for a sergeant to lose track of his squad, and the consequences can range from friendly fire deaths to kidnappings. With the new network, said Hamberger and his fellow soldiers, they can check on each others’ location with a quick glance at a screen — without having to reveal their own positions to the enemy by breaking cover or even saying a word aloud.

The downside, of course, is the potential for information overload. That’s why the Army has not, in fact, issued an Android to every single soldier: After much testing, the service decided rank-and-file riflemen would just get too distracted. But the devices are issued as far down the chain of command as the leader of a four-man fireteam. Said Maj. Sedlock, “It places a greater demand on the soldiers, but the soldiers today are better… smarter.”

“Chat or text messaging, it takes me forever,” sighed the brigade commander, Col. Sam Whitehurst, speaking to reporters outside his command post. “I’m probably the weakest link with some of the new technology.”

But the technology still has glitches of its own. “As you’re bouncing around the roads, hitting potholes, something gets knocked lose,” said Col. Whitehurst. But after five days figuring out the new equipment in field conditions for the first time, the colonel went on, the brigade has gotten many of the bugs out. Already, the new network is outperforming previous incarnations, said Whitehurst: “I’m not seeing some of the bandwidth issues that I’ve seen in the past…. It allows us to share information much quicker across the brigade.”

From Whitehurst’s standpoint as a brigade commander, the biggest attraction of the Capability Set ’13 network is that it liberates him from his command post: Systems he once could access only from a fixed site are now available wirelessly in his vehicle, part of a major upgrade to a system for commanders called WIN-T, Warfighter Information Network-Tactical. “I think most of us would prefer not to be stuck or tethered to our TOCs [Tactical Operations Centers] and get out and be with the soldiers,” said Whitehurst. “This will allow us, allow me to do that.”

Cutting that electronic umbilical cord is especially essential as the Army closes down the enormous infrastructure it has built up in the warzone and relies on fewer, more mobile forces to backstop the Afghans. “We’re reducing our presence but we still have to cover the same amount of area. Our units are going to be very spread out,” said one of the brigade’s company commanders, Capt. Widmar Roman. “What the system does is, it still allows us to go those great distances and communicate just as well.”

Beyond Afghanistan, the Army sees the new, more mobile networks as its top investment priority for operations around the world. In future crises, the service may well have to deploy to places where it has no infrastructure built up, electronic or otherwise, and where its forces have to hit the ground running and keep on the move.

That’s the environment in which the new networks will have to function — quite possibly while being attacked by enemy jamming or hackers. The system currently has three levels of fallbacks to keep brigade headquarters online if the main antenna is disabled or destroyed, said the brigade’s chief signals officer, Maj. Graham Wood. But with an eye to adversaries more technologically sophisticated than the Taliban, the Army is already preparing for future battles fought by invisible armies of electrons.

Comments

  • Kurt Plummer

    Death in the details + more toys for boys I’m afraid is a recipe for disaster.

    First off, this isn’t really anything new. PLRS/EPLRS could give basic vehicle and to an extent (Manpack Secure Radio) squad locations almost two decades ago.

    OTOH, limiting the number of users on the network will of course conserve bandwidth but assuming that just because you can see someone’s location, you don’t need to yell at him to DO something useful is facetious at best.

    Similarly, the real vulnerability, even if these things are encrypted enough to not be hacked for content, is that you can track user IDs through the equivalent of ISP master nodes. Tie this in with the reality of operating without unit:unit contiguity because of a (FALSE!) sense of electronic connectivity as comradeship and you have an enemy that gets a free order of battle map to go with their plan to deal death in detail.

    The truth is that small units can work a netcentric environment in a high intensity warfare environment but when you are ‘out amongst them’ in an expeditionary/stabilization role, having sheer numbers with which to go shoulder to shoulder with immediate support is crucial.

    In this, I would like to point out one other conditionally invalid syllogism: namely the notion that you can lose the ‘main antenna’ back at the Brigade TOC and still function. It’s not the antenna that is lost, it’s unit electronic security through the node.

    There are five principle laws of FIREPOWER which should drive modern distributed warfare capabilities:

    1. Shoot shoot shoot. This is Tooth:Tail at a glance because the false concept is again that if you can talk to each other, you can support each other and that’s just not true when your principle weapons system engagement zone is <200m downrange with 5.56.
    2. Mass Fires Not Forces.
    Since the multiplicity of fires sources dictates the numbers of
    targets or target densities you can handle when the excrement hits the
    rotary cooling mechanism in a big way and the RANGE of those fires units is what counts when you break up your main force elements into piecemeal vulnerability.
    3. Maneuver to Target NOT to Engage.
    While this has all kinds of consequences when it comes to things like platform specialization and unit strengths as force structure, the reality on the ground is one of it simply _not mattering_ where the commander is, back at the TOC running his
    things like a headquarters exercise or out in the field chatting up the men. If he doesn't have aggressive intel coming into his PDA, IPhone or Ruggedized Laptop, -that- is the bottleneck of ISR assets vs. info dominance by which he is crippled when something unexpected comes up. Staff is nice, big screens are nice but the thing the USAr consistently fails to understand is the fires effectors are NOT the ideal intel gatherers and should not be exposed as such. Which brings us to the fourth law.

    4. Always Separate Your Fires From Your Targeting.

    If you start putting the ability to 'request' too many things on a given network, you get bleed over into other networks which really should remain secure. Indeed, if you have a proper NLOS ability to put loitering UAVs and precision attack downrange from a remote firing post and then totally torque up -their- access to secure tasking orders through a shared, non-firewalled, network, it really doesn't matter how fast, far or 'cut umbilical' you are because they are the ones who need to use the secure ISR portion of a network which is, in it's entirety, compromised from below. Of course, if the Brigade commander wants his own 'decision aids' ability to mix and match information available on multiple networks, then he had better not be out and about tooling around with the shooters underneath him. He'd better stay back where a master node has moated access to various networks higher up the food chain.

    5. Always maintain COE.

    Contempt Of Engagement is the ability to maintain objective detachment as professional, macro-view perspective on what is really happening. One of the critical problems with 'humanizing' /everything/ is that the guys in the field become so used to the crutch (and/or afraid of the oversight) that they lose the initiative as problem solving to git'er done. While the suporting systems become bogged down fulfilling multiple low value requests and lose responsiveness as reserve capability with which to handle the real emergency hidden within a possibly spoofed set of multiple situational response drivers. i.e. You can be -lead- to respond to ambushes and dissipate their unified capabilities as much as doing it yourself. Something that doesn't happen when an institutional chain of command servicing queue delays immediacy of tasking response.

    Until and unless we combine the precepts of maneuver warfare on particularly force dissipation and purposefulness with data access and mission handling limiters on how fast we let ourselves become distracted by electronic toys, we will only render ourselves more vulnerable, not less, through the dissemination of electronic network architecture throughout lower command and combatant levels.

    Forgeting this is asking for our combat forces to be driven by deception tactics into a digital abatoir chute. Civilian technologies only work in the civilian world where a minimum of fraud and misinformation is the norm. Sadly, those are exactly the opposite conditions to what we can expect to encounter in war. Sun Tzu said it best-

    "All warfare is based on deception.
    Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces,
    we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe
    we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

    But the inverse is equally true, when an enemy is confident in his own perceptions of his abilities as insight, then you work on incapacitating his strategy which is the key element of pursuit for victory for any war.

    Reliance on massively downwards integrated commo networking where the cheapness and ubiquity of signal as much as equipment is the driver for loss of data security is just begging for trouble.

    when he chose spies a