Building the Agile Network the Army Needs

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

With the third decade of the 21st century closing in, uncertainty and volatility have become dominant factors in the global threat environment. The things we can count on are few and, in their own ways, often open the door to even more unknowns. Taking today as a benchmark, U.S. forces likely will remain in high demand around the world—though we can’t predict exactly where or under what circumstances. Moreover, the Army’s operational tempo won’t change much; we will continue to work in joint, coalition and interagency settings. Our adversaries will become more sophisticated, and their access to cutting-edge technology, especially information technology, will get easier. The threat to DoD networks will intensify. All of this will occur over a national financial backdrop that indicates a smaller Army and constrained defense budgets.

The network and information technology (IT) are integral to everything the Army does. Our soldier and unit training, mission execution—from combat to stability, support and partnership building—and even our daily business activities all rely on the network and our IT systems. The drive to make the Army leaner, more agile and more expeditionary means the network will become even more essential.

The network must have a specific set of characteristics: worldwide reach, whether at home station, en route, entering the area of operations or in a mature theater; guaranteed availability regardless of location and number of users; and a level of security that protects the integrity of the network itself and the data it carries. Implementing this 21st-century network will take extraordinary innovation: in technology, operational tactics and techniques, education and leadership.

The Army, in cooperation with the joint team, has begun to lay a solid foundation. We also need industry—and not just traditional defense-sector firms—to pick up the challenge on all of these fronts. Only with fresh perspectives and consistent, close collaboration between the commercial and government communities will the Army realize the agile network soldiers and leaders need.


A soldier checks the screen of a Joint Battle Command-Platform, the Army’s next-generation friendly force tracking system. (Credit: U.S. Army)

The Army network is one of the key technological focus areas described in The U.S. Army Operating Concept: Win in a Complex World, which provides the guiding framework to help the Army and industry shape the search for new capabilities and operating concepts. As an enabler of situational understanding across the joint force, the network must “empower leaders at the lowest levels with relevant combat information, situational understanding, and access to joint and Army capabilities.” The concept calls for developing and modernizing “capabilities such as cloud-enabled networks for mobile operations in austere environments and across wide areas” that are “simple and resilient, anticipating enemy efforts to disrupt communications.”

Joint Information Environment
In broad terms, the Army is looking for ways to enable partnerships across the joint information environment; provide uninterrupted, expeditionary Mission Command; operate seamlessly in mission-partner environments that cross geographic and organizational boundaries; and build a highly skilled military and civilian IT and cyber workforce.

The joint information environment is an IT construct shared across DoD that improves physical infrastructure, increases the use of enterprise services, and centralizes the management of network security. Key characteristics include common standards and operational techniques; a single security architecture; scalability and flexibility; real-time cyber awareness; consolidated, unified data storage; and delivery of integrated enterprise services. The joint information environment is still taking shape and in reality will never be static or reach an end state. It will continue to evolve as DoD’s needs and the technology available to satisfy them evolve.

Critical pieces are now moving from blueprint to functional capability. In partnership with the Air Force and the Defense Information Systems Agency, the Army is bringing online joint regional security stacks equipped with multiprotocol label switching. By the end of this year, the first four stacks in the continental U.S., and the first four overseas, will be activated. This architecture will create a federated network structure that includes standardized access and authentication management, centralized defensive cyber operations, and the protection offered by the DoD information network. As a virtual-traffic-management system, multiprotocol label switching helps maximize network capacity and speed data delivery.

The consolidation of applications and data into centralized centers that are not segregated by military service is proceeding apace as well. This will improve the availability of key information to all unified action partners; fewer data centers also means less risk of compromise to DoD and Army information and networks, and lower overall costs. As of April, the Army had already achieved 43 percent of its data center closure goal and was on track to meet the final target by 2018.


Army IT Workforce Enables Enlisted Success
Q&A with Sgt. Maj. Earl B. Allen, Army CIO/G-6 Senior Enlisted Advisor

Sgt. Maj. Earl B. Allen is the personal adviser to Lt. Gen. Robert S. Ferrell, the Army chief information officer/G-6, on all enlisted matters affecting Army information technology support to operations, training and quality of life. Allen’s job gives him a unique perspective on ongoing network modernization efforts and the task of interpreting the office’s intent, often written in the lofty language of policies and strategy documents, to soldiers in the field. He was asked to reflect on the questions he gets most, and the ones he wished soldiers would ask more often.

The recognition of cyber as the newest warfighting domain is changing the way we think of the signal workforce. What are the keys to being a successful signal soldier today?

The signal regiment and the information technology workforce are changing. We are moving at a rapid pace to build capabilities we need to defend the United States as cyber becomes a key priority. Our military relies heavily on the network to share information. Unfortunately, the more we share information over the network, the more we become vulnerable to cyber threats. These cyber threats will certainly have an impact on our signal soldiers and how they will conduct business in a digital age. When I go out to meet our ‘Signaleers,’ I spend a lot of time talking about what they can do to prepare themselves. I always begin by telling them they are part of the greatest organization in the world, built on a foundation of Army Values. I remind them that we are part of an all-volunteer force, and it is our job to serve the American people.

From there, I tell them one of the best things they can do as a soldier is to engage in self-development. In the Army, you will find some of the best institutional and operational training, as well as formal schooling, being offered to our soldiers. But soldiers who want to be best prepared for future challenges—many of them unknown to us—will invest the time and energy today pursuing educational opportunities, broadening experiences, and individual specialized training such as certifications. When you think about it, soldiers are in complete control here. They can take advantage of Signal University, tuition assistance or the GI Bill to pursue their career goals and better prepare themselves for the complex world in which we live.

Here’s a simple example that requires zero funding. Today’s signal soldiers should be familiar with where we’re going with the modernization of the Army network. That information is relatively new and not widely available through professional military education channels. Available resources include the Army Network Campaign Plan and Army Cloud Computing Strategy that the Army CIO/G-6 recently published. Signal soldiers should familiarize themselves with these documents and discuss them with their leaders and peers. Although the documents may have little impact on their current duties, eventually they may move to a unit or organization responsible for executing tasks described in the plans. A working knowledge of the CIO/G-6 strategic direction will go a long way to set them up for success.

The Army is getting smaller. What advice do you give young soldiers contemplating a full career in the Army?

I tell them to aggressively pursue assignments that will broaden their experiences. Talent management can become cliché if we don’t explain to soldiers what knowledge, skills and attributes are most valuable to their careers. So I work closely with the Signal Corps to constantly align and meet the needs of the Army, in accordance with the Army Operation Concept and Force 2025 and Beyond.

What does that look like? Clearly, much of a soldier’s career is dictated—mandatory schools, training, duty assignments—but every soldier reaches a point where he or she can exercise a few choices. Right now, the sweet spot is right about the 10-year mark. If by this time a soldier is a staff sergeant or has been promoted to sergeant first class, we must encourage them to get out of their comfort zone and start taking on the tough jobs of platoon sergeant, drill sergeant, recruiting duty and so on. In addition, if they have served only in tactical units to this point, they should consider a strategic assignment and vice versa. Are they eligible for a joint assignment? Are they willing to work with our partners in the military intelligence community to further our advancements in the cyber domain?

The bottom line is, soldiers who aspire to someday become a sergeant major cannot be viewed as a one-track soldier. Diversity of assignments will play a key role in advancement because as we reduce the force, we will need multitalented signal leaders and not just signal specialists who have the talent to operate on only one platform.

What does the Army need to do differently to prepare soldiers?

Soldiers are prepared to fight and win wars in complex situations through credible, rigorous and relevant training and education. I think the Army has already started doing some things differently. One of those efforts is called Soldier for Life. It goes far beyond training and preparing soldiers while on active duty; it is a program that all leaders and soldiers need to embrace. Soldier for Life essentially gives soldiers the opportunity for continuum learning—from accession until they transfer out of the Army to become productive citizens in our great communities. If any soldier or leader is not aware of this program, I highly recommend they familiarize themselves with it as soon as possible. This program truly embraces the term “once a soldier, always a soldier.”

In addition, I have always felt that the Army has done a great job training our soldiers to excel as professionals. As a senior enlisted Signaleer in the Army, I am witnessing firsthand the rapid changes in today’s technology. As the Army draws down and we are faced with fiscal constraints, I highly recommend we don’t lose focus on the training and readiness of our forces. Our soldiers are being introduced to new equipment fielding and capabilities that will allow us to become a smaller, leaner, scalable and more expeditionary Army. It is our job as leaders to ensure our soldiers continue to have the resources available to train and effectively employ this equipment, win our nation’s wars, and have a competitive advantage over our adversaries.

Is signal contemplating any changes as part of the overall restructuring of the force?

Yes. We currently have 17 Signal MOSs. We are working with the Signal Regiment and Cyber Center of Excellence at Fort Gordon [Ga.] to redefine and validate the work roles and responsibilities of several MOSs. Redefining the work roles of our Signal MOSs will prove to be critical as we transition to a globally responsive and regionally aligned Army. This will also allow us an opportunity to look at possibly combining some MOSs.

What keeps you up at night?

That’s an easy one. Readiness, training, and the quality of life for our soldiers and their families are my foremost concerns. We’re going through a time that’s just tough for the Army. Fourteen years of conflict and counting, coupled with fiscal uncertainty and constraints, are making it difficult to plan as an Army, a unit or a family. Some of our best soldiers simply choose to leave the Army to pursue other careers. We continue to work with Accessions and Recruiting Command to attract talented new soldiers, but how do we keep the best of the best on the team over time?

We know additional reductions in the force are coming. But as we go forward, are we going to give soldiers the proper training they need? Are we going to be able to give soldiers a quality of life that encourages them and their families to stay part of the Army team? I can tell you the senior leadership of the Army, especially the NCO corps, is focused on this.

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Spc. Christina Williams, an information technology management specialist with the 94th Army Air and Missile Defense Command, connects computer video cables to an oversized monitor. (Credit: U.S. Army/Sgt. 1st Class Karry James)

Enterprise Services Underway
Enterprise services are beginning to replace stovepiped and disjointed services. Nearly the entire Army, all of Air Force headquarters and several other joint organizations are now on Defense Enterprise Email. The Army, Air Force and the Defense Information Systems Agency also are making progress on the switch to unified capabilities, a suite of communications tools including Internet Protocol-based voice, video, chat, presence awareness and collaboration. The current vision is to divest existing infrastructure and capabilities and obtain this functionality as a service from the private sector instead. The acquisition community anticipates a unified capabilities request for proposal will be released in fiscal year 2016. The intent is that the switch to enterprise services won’t end there; the Army and our DoD partners continue to look for opportunities to implement servicewide and, preferably, joint capabilities under this model.

Cloud technology is a key element of the joint information environment. The cloud will help extend the reach of the network and all of its assets to the furthest tactical edge. By pooling configurable computing resources such as servers, storage, applications and services, a cloud-based structure creates elasticity and responsiveness while reducing the risk of intrusion and compromise. It enables the network to aggregate, process and present data in a way that is easily understood, so soldiers and commanders will be able to make informed, effective decisions and readily share operational insights with mission partners. The Army plans to tap the cloud structure to advance mobility as well, by adopting commercially available mobile applications that allow the use of cloud-hosted solutions to the maximum extent possible.

The joint information environment paradigm dovetails with the Army’s need for expeditionary Mission Command. Requirements and solutions for one will support the other. Truly expeditionary Mission Command integrates in a time-sensitive matter all elements of combat power across all domains with information from sources around the globe. The overall design must produce common user experience and functionality across home station, en route and deployed conditions. Mission Command systems and infrastructure must be scalable and conform to common operating environment standards to achieve a plug-and-play environment. Beneath it all, network capacity must be robust enough, and connectivity stable enough, to link distributed elements of command posts and produce expeditionary command and control regardless of location.


Soldiers from the 86th Expeditionary Signal Battalion receive hands-on training on satellite terminals of the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical at Fort Bliss, Texas. (Credit: U.S. Army/Amy Walker)

To support Mission Command through all operational phases, the Army will employ standard, sustainable home station Mission Command centers, along with an integrated training environment and installation as a docking station to allow corps and divisions to effectively execute Mission Command from home station.

The joint information environment and expeditionary Mission Command will go a long way in enabling effective mission partner environments that cross geographic and organizational boundaries. The Army and DoD, however, must pay close attention to the ever-increasing demands on the network. As more technologies and services become network-dependent, those responsible for capability development, acquisition, integration and doctrine must ensure that anything new enhances—not clutters—the mission partner environment.

Future IT and Cyber Workforce
Attracting and retaining the best IT and cyber professionals—whether in uniform or a suit—will always be a challenge. Competition from the private sector is fierce and will remain so. But the appeal of service to country never dies, and defending the nation presents unique challenges. The Army’s recently established Career Field 17 and cyber mission force should draw new talent and provide opportunities for the most technically astute and creative minds in the military.

On the civilian side, the Army must build a cyber workforce whose level of maturity matches Career Field 17. That means developing a training pipeline, shaping the Army’s talent-management strategy to meet the increasing demand for a credentialed civilian cyber workforce, and promoting Army efforts to unify and manage the civilian cyber workforce across DoD.

Network modernization is an enormous, complex effort. Investments in network and information technology must yield the greatest rewards in terms of performance and benefits to the entire joint team. The Army must look for opportunities to share the cost of building, operating and maintaining new capabilities with other DoD components. As the Army gets smaller, the capabilities we select must also empower leaders at the lowest levels with combat information, situational understanding, and access to joint and Army capabilities without increasing manpower requirements. In addition, recognizing and mitigating internal vulnerabilities and external threats must become lightning swift.

Achieving a modernized network will require a broad team effort. The office of the G-6 is engaged across DoD to ensure we capture all user needs and implement the right technologies and services to fulfill them while reducing complexities cost-effectively and efficiently. Insights from industry and the field are particularly valuable. Working together, we will provide the robust, end-to-end network necessary to enable the success of our soldiers for today and tomorrow.