FORT BLISS, Texas --- During combat operations, units often change base locations to outmaneuver the enemy or avoid attack, requiring the entire command post to be moved, or jumped. By going wireless, command posts not only shed cumbersome cabling, but network set up and tear down times are cut from hours to minutes, making those jumps easier and faster.
"Wi-Fi makes the command post much more defensible," said Lt. Col. Stephen Dail, brigade communications officer (S6) for 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, or 2/1 AD, the operational unit for the Army's Network Integration Evaluations, or NIEs.
Commanders actually had to weigh the option of jumping because it would take too long to reestablish command and control, he said.
"We would start figuring out how to improve the base defenses rather than moving like we should, simply because of how long it takes just to wire everything back in, which is probably the single biggest piece of that time," Dail said. "Command post wireless will definitely reduce that, so there is a huge advantage for us."
The Army demonstrated an unclassified wireless command post, with a battalion-sized element, during Network Integration Evaluation 15.2, or NIE 15.2, on Fort Bliss, Texas, in May. This fall, during NIE 16.1, the Army plans to demonstrate unclassified and classified command post wireless capability with a full brigade main command post. The wireless command post capability is expected to be fielded to units as part of the Army's at-the-halt network Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, or WIN-T, Increment 1.
Without the wireless capability, setting up a network in a brigade command post takes hours and requires 17 boxes of 1,000 feet CAT 5 cable, which weighs a total of 255 pounds. The cables have to be cut, laid out, configured and plugged in, taking hours for a battalion or brigade command post. By going wireless, network set up and tear down time is reduced to minutes, enabling the unit to get up and go as needed.
Additionally, without Wi-Fi capability, the command post has to be setup in necessary phases, with tent infrastructure, generators, network servers and satellite shots set up first, after which Soldiers run the cable to provide the local area network, also known as LAN, to support the command post.
"Now, right after the tents go up, units can turn on the Wi-Fi 'hotspot' and bam! They have a LAN," said Lt. Col. Joel Babbitt, product manager for WIN-T Increment 1, which manages the command post wireless capability. "So instead of your network coming up last, now it comes up first. Meaning that instead of network communications being restored several hours after jumping to a new location, a unit has it within the first hour after arriving. That's enabling maneuver. Wireless reduces a unit's most vulnerable time period."
During counterinsurgency operations over the last decade, the Army has developed many advanced battle systems, which aid in mission command and situational awareness, but cabling those capabilities also added to command post set up times. As a result, it takes longer for the command post to be set up than it used to, said Cpt. Adam Braithwaite, of the 1st Battalion, 35 Armored Regiment, or (1-35), 2/1 AD battalion signal officer.
"Wi-Fi can definitely reduce the time period," Braithwaite said. "It's important to make sure your expeditionary elements stay expeditionary. We have done two jumps so far and we had the network established immediately before anyone even needed to use it."
Mission command, network and computer network defense have also changed the way units set up and wire the command post. Without command post Wi-Fi, units may have to decide which sections are a priority to set up first depending on mission need. With command post wireless, they all come up at the same time, Dail said.
"I don't have to trade off capability and say can I live without the intel picture; can I live without the defense; can I live without the ability to do fires?" Dail said. "With Wi-Fi, we don't have to gauge, depending upon what kind of fight we are in, which we connect into first or troubleshoot as we go through it; they all come up simultaneously."
Additionally, to protect its network communications infrastructure, units often use raised flooring, which was the case at NIE 15.2 with the main brigade command post. This special flooring consists of two layers, a hard top, which Soldiers can walk on and a soft under mat that covers over all the wiring. Like the cabling, the flooring adds weight, footprint and set up time to the command post, and it takes up vital air cargo and truck cargo space.
"But if you get rid of the wires, you can get rid of that flooring," Dail said. "So all of it will just go away."
The command post wireless capability also enables the use of wireless Voice over Internet Protocol and Secure Voice over Internet Protocol phones, reducing additional cables and untethering commanders and Soldiers from their workstations.
The Army's biggest challenge in providing secure Wi-Fi for use on military networks has always been information security. With the command post wireless solution, the Army broke the barriers of the past, which hindered secure wireless access by using a National Security Agency encryption solution called Commercial Solutions for Classified.
Similar to the security software used for online shopping, the Army added a low-cost solution, which enables it to work on military networks. With this solution, the service has leveraged billions of dollars of commercial investment at no development cost to the government.
"For expeditionary purposes, a wireless command post definitely fits in with the Army's model of trying to make the TOC [tactical operations center] more mobile and scalable, to get the TOC from one position to the next and set up quickly," said Maj. Ken Selby, 1-35 battalion operations officer, who supported the wireless demo.
As the Army transitions to a regionally-aligned force, which responds to unexpected contingencies at a moment's notice in accordance with the new Army Operating Concept, units will require mobile, scalable and expeditionary command post capabilities. By reducing command post size, weight and power, or SWaP, units will gain freedom of maneuver to meet the needs of today's complex missions.
"Unit agility is a key component in achieving overmatch against increasingly capable enemies," said Col. Edward Swanson, project manager for WIN-T. "Providing Wi-Fi to the command post reduces the time and cost to deploy Army units, while increasing their agility and versatility to conduct full-spectrum operations."