FORT IRWIN, Calif. --- Imagine a fast-paced, complex combat environment that constantly shifted Army personnel and resources from one area to the other. In order to establish a functional tactical operations center (TOC) to direct troop movements and logistics, Soldiers have to handle nearly 2 dozen boxes of costly CAT 5 cables, weighing hundreds of pounds, in order to set up a functional network.
Multiple cables have to be cut, laid out, configured, plugged in, or replaced because of wear and tear. This network setup process can take several hours, and unit might not get the full technical support it needs before it is "jumped", or moved, to a new location.
Wireless connectivity would be a practical, effective solution to this problem. In fact, that's what the Army's tactical network program office, the Project Manager Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, is working on bringing into the field.
In April, the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division was the first unit to train with the Army's secure wireless capability at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif.
Throughout the unit's entire NTC rotation, Soldiers successfully utilized the Secure Wireless solution to provide untethered network connections to the brigade main command post, which enabled secure wireless voice, video and data exchange, and wireless mission command on systems such as Command Post of the Future.
"From a mission standpoint, as a brigade commander, the ability to have a mobile command post and exercise mission command with secure wireless continues to be an enabler," said Col. Phil Brooks, commander for the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division. "When facing a near peer threat in a complex environment, it is imperative that our operations centers become more mobile with ability to move quickly, and that we have the ability to rapidly collaborate in planning to defeat a near peer adversary."
By going wireless, command post setup and tear down times can be reduced by hours, and less cable and protective flooring have to be transported from location to location. Soldiers can be untethered from their workstations inside the tactical operations center (TOC) to facilitate improved collaboration. Most importantly, network downtime and the loss of mission command systems following a command post jump are significantly reduced.
Once the unit arrives at its new location and sets up the physical structure of the command post, Soldiers can turn on their wireless systems and the network can come up in as little as minutes, with everyone connected to the network simultaneously, instead of one-by-one as they wait to get wired. Soldiers can also stay connected longer while the TOC is being disassembled to prepare for jump to a new location.
"Technology keeps moving forward at an astonishing pace. You must be knowledgeable about Army trends, understand the larger Army picture and be willing to push boundaries to ensure your unit remains on the cutting edge and with the greatest tactical advantage," said Lt. Col. Chris Byrd, Division G6 for the 3rd Infantry Division. "Secure wireless is that revolutionary capability that postures our Division well for the future."
Brooks said that in 2003, as a part of the initial "thunder run" from Kuwait to Baghdad during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division's operations center was constantly jumping and on the move, with the unit reaching Baghdad within 100 hours.
"And [looking ahead] the operations center will continue to move in order to effectively conduct mission command as part of our operation in a decisive action environment," Brooks said.
During the NTC rotation, the unit jumped its large brigade main command post five times, in support of its realistic and complex decisive action operational mission training set. Maj. Michael Donegan, the brigade's communications officer (S6), sees time savings as the biggest benefit of employing secure wireless. The wireless network assists Soldiers "in rapidly getting the Wireless Access Point up and not having to do anything else but have users log in and have those systems securely connected to the tactical network all at once," he said. "Going forward, that will be invaluable."
"Anything you can do to shave time from TOC setup and tear down is really critical," Donegan said. "You can liken it to racing, anything to get that extra advantage."
Donegan explained that over the past decade, the Army "resigned itself to a counter insurgency fight, living on static and immobile forward operating bases that were heavily wired." Since then, as near peer adversaries continue to pose increasingly lethal threats in multiple domains, the Army has shifted the way it trains and fights. NTC's rotations reflect that shift, simulating the complexities of battle that U.S. forces could now face when fighting near peer adversaries.
"In the current NTC [desert] environment, there is no cover or concealment," Donegan said. "You absolutely need to have a smaller footprint, not only to be less visible (both physically and electromagnetically), but again, to reduce the time it takes to jump."
"A lot of brigades have been struggling with how to reduce the footprint of their TOC and be more agile, but as technology exponentially grows, it becomes more difficult," he continued. "We keep adding equipment and TOCs are becoming more complex, which adds to the overall setup time to becoming fully mission command capable. Secure wireless is reducing that time, and that is a good thing."
Along with advanced network operations capabilities, the secure wireless package also comes with comprehensive security features. These include the Wireless Intrusion Detection System, which enables the system to identify potential hackers trying to get into the wireless network. The system will display the hackers' location on a graphic and enable communications officers to shut them down remotely and immediately.
"Secure wireless can also eliminate that single point of failure along the network," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jeffery Allen Leitheiser, server technician and automations officer, who also serves as the information assurance manager for the brigade. "It eliminates possible problems [and makes troubleshooting easier]. You know if the connection is working or not. With cable, if there is a problem, Soldiers have to go in and manually test each and every cable, which is often under flooring."
The brigade is scheduled for another NTC rotation this fall, where it plans to extend and push the limits of its piloted secure wireless capability to its fullest operational potential. In preparation for its next rotation, the unit will continue training with its secure wireless equipment at its home station at Fort Stewart, Ga.
The use of secure wireless during the recent NTC rotation was highly positive, which is why the unit is moving forward with an even larger footprint of the capability at its next NTC rotation, Donegan said.
The Army has conducted several risk reduction events of the secure wireless capability, including in Hawaii, Delaware, and Texas with other Army units.
As it moves forward with the eventual official fielding of Secure Wireless, the Army is using Soldier feedback from these and other events to continually improve the capability and the way it will be used to support mission requirements.
"Secure Wireless will change the way the Army conducts operations," said Lt. Col. Mark Henderson, product manager for WIN-T Increment 1, which manages the Army's secure wireless capability for the Army.
"It provides agility and operational flexibility, enabling commanders and staff to stay securely connected with full situational awareness and mission command capability for the maximum amount of time possible," he said, "so they can make faster, more informed decisions and move out when the mission demands."
The U.S. Army Program Executive Office Command, Control and Communications-Tactical develops, acquires, fields and supports the Army's mission command network to ensure force readiness. This critical Army modernization priority delivers tactical communications so commanders and Soldiers can stay connected and informed at all times, even in the most austere and hostile environments. PEO C3T is delivering the network to regions around the globe, enabling high-speed, high-capacity voice, data and video communications to a user base that includes the Army's joint, coalition and other mission partners.