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.