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Monday, November 14, 2016

In April 1994, a group of distinguished Army leaders watched as the first “digi- tized” battalion to fight the National Training Center’s opposing force tried to assault the opposing force’s defensive positions. It was not a pretty picture. In spite of the intervehicle information system available to task force leaders, the opposing force had their way—not an unusual outcome at the Army’s combat training centers then or now.

In spite of the inability to defeat the opposing force, there were lessons learned from the experience. Who needs “the network,” along with why and how to make it routinely available, are questions that have perplexed commanders, leaders and soldiers for over two decades.

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Satellite-based network communications equipment at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, Calif.
(Credit: U.S. Army/Staff Sgt. John Briggs)

Why a Network?

In an age of digital devices and ubiquitous commercial networks, it is easy to assume there is a need for soldiers and leaders to have unlimited access to a network for operational purposes. Making this assumption a reality has proven to be elusive. Even if one is convinced a network is needed, debate continues over what kind of network, for what purpose, and to what echelon. This debate is not exclusively an argument of operational need. When the discussion centers on affordability, accountants rather than soldiers take center stage and suboptimization is the result. So it has been with the Army’s relationship with its network.

Why a network? In the early days of U.S. Army digitization, the thesis was simple. It went something like this: “If I know where I am, where my buddies are, and where the enemy is, then I will enjoy increases in lethality and tempo leading to decisive battlefield outcomes.” The Army conducted experiments to determine the validity of this thesis. After much experimentation and analysis, not only was the thesis proven to be valid, but unlike the tactical benefit of weapon systems and platforms, the network was seen by Army leaders for its strategic potential. Thus began the Army’s quest for a network that, with properly trained soldiers and if appropriately resourced, would afford soldiers information superiority, leading to decision superiority, leading to unparalleled battlefield success.

Army leaders have long acknowledged the advantages of network connectivity and the capability it brings. Among the many arguments for a robust Army network, perhaps two stand out as most compelling. First, networks imply connectivity. Connectivity is the essence of joint and combined arms warfare.

Any talk of cross-domain fires, intelligence, protection or logistics must begin with a discussion of how to meaningfully connect service capabilities. Connection allows collaboration. The network not only allows but promotes real-time collaboration, creating unity of purpose, direction and action. From infantry squad to joint task force, collaboration via a robust operational network is profoundly powerful.

Second, it seems likely that the U.S. Army is destined to be smaller. While size alone does not imply loss of capability, there is ample evidence to suggest that despite our best efforts, a smaller Army will be one with less capability and less capacity.

A smaller Army needs the connectivity of the network to punch above its weight class and, via planning, collaboration and action, to use other service, coalition and agency capabilities as if they were its own—hence mitigating, to an extent, the effects of the Army’s reduction in manpower.

Who Needs a Network?

It is entirely too simplistic to answer the question of need with a resounding “Everybody!” Or is it?

Starting at the squad, the basic building block of our formations, it is easy to see a need. During his time as commander of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, now-retired Gen. Martin Dempsey began efforts to increase the capabilities of the squad. Soon after, Fort Benning, Ga., launched an effort with the theme “Squad: Foundation of the Decisive Force.” (The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s current Squad X effort is on the same azimuth.) These initiatives, although short-lived in some cases, acknowledged that in spite of our operational and technological superiority, enemies have found and exploited the near-parity they find at squad level.

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Spc. Darnell Brown, a South Carolina National Guard soldier with the 228th Signal Brigade, provides communications and network support during a training exercise in Germany.
(Credit: U.S. Army/Staff Sgt. Brian M. Cline)

Although some suggest we ought not bother trigger-pullers with the burden of the network, logic dictates the infantry squad could benefit from network attention, perhaps for intersquad communication or position/location awareness; the receipt of tailored intelligence information and situational awareness; or for both active and passive control of a suite of robotic capabilities whose addition seems inevitable.

Network needs reside at each echelon and are equally as compelling as those of the squad for similar reasons. The larger the headquarters, the more data it collects. Increasingly, headquarters are looking for nonresident assistance in the analysis of their resident data. This leads to a need for networked communications to support analytic efforts.

Additionally, the complex problems faced by each echelon are best addressed when they are looked at by many minds with many different competencies and from many different directions. Information sharing, collaboration and consensus building are all greatly enhanced by networked communications that not only reduce the need for face-to-face sessions, but also allow for a much wider collaborative net to be cast.

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A soldier uses a Pocket-sized Forward Entry Device during fire-support operations.
(Credit: U.S. Army/Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod)

None of this is meant to suggest there is no need for voice communications or face-to-face meetings. There is, and always will be, a sense of purpose and determination when orders are passed verbally. Thoughtful commanders and staff principals understand the power of the network. They also understand the requirement for personal presence and personal leadership.

What We Have Learned

With each field exercise and during each operational deployment, the Army has learned more about the network. We have learned that our soldiers and leaders have an insatiable appetite for information and that they are comfortable—some suggest they thrive—in an information-rich environment. We have learned that well-trained soldiers and leaders are innovative and use the network to their advantage, sometimes well beyond its original design. We have learned that given a reliable network, our formations will excel and win.

Some of what we have learned about the network is not flattering; in fact, it is downright disturbing. We have learned that many of our current efforts as well as the demands of the operational environment have led to large, stationary Mission Command centers supported by network apparatus and platforms that do not promote the mobility essential for combined arms operations. Mission Command On the Move, essential to both combined arms maneuver and wide-area security missions, is simply not supported by much of our current network and command post infrastructure.

We have learned that our networks are not simple to understand, set up, maintain or operate. We make the mistake of assuming military networks can be turned on as easily as the commercial networks with which we are familiar, forgetting the huge investment by modern telecommunications companies to make ease of use an imperative. Further, for the first time in our history, we have placed much of the Army’s network responsibility in the hands of non-signal soldiers, without devoting the requisite time and energy to the training they now require.

We have learned our network is less agile than the soldiers who depend on it. We cannot task-organize the network as easily as we can our formations. We have great difficulty maneuvering band-width as easily as we maneuver units. While each echelon has demand for network capability, we frequently shortchange lower echelons while supporting higher, and frequently immobile, headquarters. While our formations operate at increasingly greater distances from each other, our networks remain disturbingly dependent on line-of-sight communications.

We have learned that while we have been busy and at war, potential adversaries have been watching. They have found vulnerabilities to be exploited. Many of our vulnerabilities center on our dependence on the electromagnetic spectrum. Our ability to operate, regardless of mission, depends on our ability to engineer cyber protection into our operational networks, and in a willingness to routinely train under conditions where our networks are challenged.

Trends in Technology

The network the Army wants and needs is an evolution of thought and capability. There are network-related technology trends that are shaping the commercial sector and will inevitably shape the way the Army thinks about its network.

The analytics of big data are a persistent concern for any contemporary business or organization. For some, data analysis is an integral piece of their business model. Others depend on data analytics to gain a competitive advantage. The Army must keep abreast of trends in the analysis of big data and the benefits it promises.

From tablets to cellular phones, the emphasis on mobility is huge and unmistakable. The Army’s ability to conduct decisive combined arms maneuver and wide-area security missions largely depends on its ability to purposely move around the battlefield to positions of advantage. Mobility, and the means to achieve it on a 21st-century battlefield, is an attribute that must be regained.

The increased demand for mobility has increased demand for cloud computing and cloud services that not only enhance mobility but also reduce dependence on hands-on maintenance and upkeep to keep security and application software current and relevant. The Army must be alert to cloud-based advances born of large investments by private industry, and the likelihood that those advances will come from somewhere other that the traditional defense contractor base.

While perhaps not a technology trend, the explosion of social media and its various uses is a byproduct of the technology around us. Social media is rich with information, some of which can be valuable to commanders and staffs during planning, preparation and execution. Of course, some of the gibberish found on social media is just that. Regardless, commercial firms look to mine social media to use in planning, marketing, advertising and trend analysis. It behooves the Army to pay close attention to this phenomenon and gain leverage from what it might provide.

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The Army has evaluated enhanced and simplified network capabilities to help soldiers dominate on the battlefield.
(Credit: U.S. Army)

The vulnerability of networks to cyber threat has given rise to new and innovative pursuits in network protection. Once the exclusive terrain of the National Security Agency, cyber protection has become a matter of survival for network-dependent industries. To suggest we are all in this together is a gross understatement. The Army has no choice but to collaborate and partner with private industry across the width and depth of the cyber domain. We both have a vested interest. The ability to operate effectively depends on our freedom to maneuver within the cyber domain.

Moving Forward

A set of technology attributes and trends might inform the Army’s network journey, including the following:

  • Attributes: mobility, simplicity, agility, protection.
  • Trends: big data collection and analysis, mobility, cloud-basing, social media, cyber protection.

I also offer two ideas for consideration. First, assuming there is value in network access at squad level, why not build one? It could be a network built from the ground up rather than the top down; one that is not externally connected and is optimized to enable the squad.

Give a few talented small-unit leaders a network with which to operate. Listen to their ideas, add to it what they want, and eliminate what they find of no use. Allow no external network interference into or out of. Once they are satisfied and where there is value, experiment with how to link the squad network with other networks while being highly protective of the squad’s ability to operate freely and unencumbered.

Second, perhaps it is time to pull a page from the old Force XXI playbook and give an operational commander the responsibility for advanced experimentation. (Yes, I know we have the Brigade Modernization Command. In my opinion, it’s a good idea gone astray.) Give that commander the following guidance: “Two years from today, you are to attack from X to Y to defeat the combat training center’s opposing force using network-enabled Mission Command techniques. The Army will provide you capabilities appropriate to the mission and the training resources with which to prepare.” We have a long history of gaining huge benefit by giving mission and intent to our hypertalented commanders. Why not give them an opportunity to speak for the network on which they depend?

There is a network in the Army’s future. This network deserves to be as innovative as the soldiers and leaders who depend on it.