SPRINGFIELD, Va. -- It's possible that network communications on the battlefield could be denied at some point in operations against a peer adversary, said Lt. Gen. Paul Ostrowski.
If that happens, Soldiers would need to be able to operate on their own following their commander's intent until communications are restored, he said.
Ostrowski, director of the Army Acquisition Corps, spoke at the AFCEA Army Signal Conference, March 7.
Although command and control is an important tool of mission command, another equally important part of mission command is empowering Soldiers down to the lowest levels to operate independently using commander intent in event of a network breakdown, he continued.
"The U.S. Army does mission command better than any other army in the world," he added.
Getting to that point of commander intent, he said, involves a lot of training and honing of Soldiers' tactics, techniques and procedures.
Having said that, Ostrowski pointed out that getting all of the radios within a tactical network to be as effective as smartphones, is one of the Army's six modernization priorities, along with long-range precision fires, next generation combat vehicle, future vertical lift, air and missile defense and Soldier lethality.
Tough Nut to Crack
Maj. Gen. David G. Bassett, program executive officer for Command, Control, Communications -- Tactical, or C3T, pointed to challenges with tactical radio network communications.
The Army uses what is called the Single Channel Ground to Air Radio System, or SINCGARS. The downside to SINCGARS radios is they have limited range, he said. The advantage is they don't rely on a cellphone tower or satellite and are much more secure.
Hank Perkins, director of operations, PTS Inc., whose company is fielding radio components to the Army, gave his take on other problems with SINCGARS radios and related policy issues, adding that his comments apply to other tactical radios as well.
Smartphones rely on cellphone towers, he said. "It is the communication backbone." Communications are handed off from one tower to the next seamlessly as the user travels around.
The process of routing traffic from tower to tower is power intensive, he said, and the power to do that resides is in the tower, not the cellphone.
SINCGARS radios, on the other hand, use a very large battery for power and have internal routers. Those add weight and bulk.
Also, encryption in a smartphone is relatively simple, compared to high-level encryption used in SINCGARS radios, he said. "The difference is in the order of magnitudes."
There's an algorithm approval process that has to be validated by the National Security Agency, he added, explaining that encryption is accomplished through algorithms that are uploaded into the software.
However, "algorithms have a shelf life," he said. As adversary hacking ability improves, new algorithms need to be continually written and then approved by the National Security Agency prior to upload. That process of NSA review can be lengthy, in some cases taking weeks or even months.
In addition, for an added layer of security, military radios use something called "frequency hopping," he said, explaining that radio frequencies are changed many times per second to avoid adversaries from eavesdropping by honing in on a single frequency.
So it's not surprising that the hurdles to overcome are enormous, Perkins concluded.
Lt. Gen. Bruce T. Crawford, chief information officer, G-6, said there's about 62 C2 networks in the Army, each with its own hardware, software, security and people running it.
These stove-piped systems have trouble communicating with each other, he said. What's really needed, he said, is a single network.
Crawford said ideally, a network should be able to detect other networks in the local environment, detect any attempts at jamming or interference, and then take evasive action like autonomously selecting the optimal radio frequency for jamming avoidance.
The Path Ahead
Ostrowski said the Army is using a multifaceted approach aimed at getting to the network problems.
One idea, he said, is to tap into the power of having many small, low-orbit satellites that could be linked to the radios that would provide communications seamlessly at any time or place in the world.
Another idea is to improve how the radio operates, he said, noting that there are only around 5,000 companies in the U.S. doing business with the Defense Department. There are another 23 million companies in the U.S. that are not. "We're not tapping into that yet."
There's a lot of innovation out there in industry, he said. "Who knows, in five or 10 years, someone might eventually make cell towers obsolete the way landlines almost are now."
Part of the problem is that a lot of small companies are intimidated by the lengthy and complex acquisition process, he said.
He said the process needs to be shortened and simplified with such vehicles as Other Transaction Authority.
Although funding has increased, Congress can further help by providing flexibility in how dollars are spent, he added.
Crawford said that despite all of the work that needs to be done with the network, he's optimistic that the Army will succeed.
A culture shift has started, he said, beginning at the top.
Instead of incremental fixes to current systems, leaders are telling their subordinates to start with a blank sheet of paper and sketch out how to solve the problem without preconceived notions, he said.
Also, the chief of staff is fully engaged, he said, noting that Gen. Mark A. Milley has had 34 deep dive sessions with the experts working on the tactical network modernization strategy.
Crawford thinks that needed fixes on the network were not done for so long because the Army was necessarily focused on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the demand signal simply wasn't there.
But now, it's become one of the Army's six modernization priorities, he added.
While the Army was focused on counterinsurgency efforts, the insurgents started using their cell phones to move, shoot and communicate in a fashion that outpaced the Army's way of slow communications through its C2 networks, he said. "We didn't have our sensors in the right place to affect institutional change. We do now."
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