Today’s U.S. Army is in the midst of its most significant modernization transformation in more than 40 years. While the Army spent the first two decades of this century focusing on counterinsurgency operations in Southwest Asia and the Middle East, our near-peer adversaries narrowed and, in some cases, eliminated several advantages that made us the world’s premier military land power. To reestablish those advantages, the Army is modernizing at lightning speeds.
The increased lethality of future battlefields makes sustainment more critical than ever. Army sustainment describes the provision of materiel logistics, financial management, personnel services and health service support necessary to maintain operations until successful mission completion. Supporting the life cycle of Army software provides longevity for command, control, communications, computers, cyber, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C5ISR) systems and is essential to maintaining combat power, enabling strategic and operational reach and providing the U.S. armed forces with everything they need to win wars.
As the world modernizes at a rapid pace, the Army grows increasingly reliant on technology and computers, and software plays an essential role in success or failure. As software operates more and more of the advanced C5ISR equipment soldiers need, it is imperative that the Army ensures our software is constantly updated to protect against the latest cyber threats.
To support frequent software updates, the Army has shifted its focus toward a new, flexible model called continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD). In the past, once fully fielded, software would transition to sustainment, where the software would remain for the rest of its life cycle to ensure that the program benefits would continue. This means that it would be maintained with updates and patches as needed to ensure cyber security and fix any defects. As the Army’s premier sustainment enterprise, the U.S. Army Materiel Command and its subordinate command, the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command, have adapted their strategies for Army software life cycle support of systems transitioned to sustainment.
Software constantly requires improvement and upgrades. Under the new CI/CD model, software will now be continuously upgraded. This means upgrades, security patches and new features can be delivered more quickly than before. This also encourages the Army to continue moving forward by constantly improving while also more readily incorporating user feedback. Under this model, emerging software will no longer transition to sustainment under Materiel Command. Instead, it will remain the responsibility of the program executive office that fielded the software.
While all this is done to ensure increased modernization and readiness for soldiers on the ground, there is an important fact to remember. Software life cycle functions once performed by Communications-Electronics Command, such as cybersecurity and fixing software defects, remain essential contributors to the long-term health of Mission Command systems and any weapon systems with a software component.
In that stead, it is important to note that software and hardware do not exist in their own vacuums. Rather, the two work together closely, balanced and interdependent, as one cannot work without the other. Think of the computers of the 1990s. You would turn on your computer and marvel at the operating system, the latest and greatest of its time. Now, imagine turning on that same computer today and trying to install and run the operating system you currently use. The hardware would not be capable of running the updated software.
While this might be a dramatic example of software outpacing hardware, it is something we must keep in mind as we maintain the Army’s warfighting systems.
The Materiel Command enterprise supports this balance as the single face of sustainment for hardware and software in the field. Seven Army field sustainment brigades and Communications-Electronics Command logistics assistance representatives provide sustainment support for hardware and software systems that have transitioned to sustainment. The Communications-Electronics Command’s sustainment model includes repairing and overhauling critical systems and parts, but it also has evolved to upgrading and integrating new parts and technology within the systems.
One of Communications-Electronics Command’s major subordinate commands, the Software Engineering Center, is the Army’s foremost Center of Industrial and Technical Excellence for C5ISR software system maintenance. Its unique modern software practices and capabilities include software availability and patch automation services, software installation services, software identification and reporting, software assurance, software licensing and much more.
The Software Engineering Center is focused on engineering and creating soldier tools in concert with software practices that reflect the Army’s Cyberspace and Electromagnetic Readiness Assessment, including delivering software updates to the field as quickly as possible through an end-to-end software pipeline. It also operates the Communications-Electronics Command Software Repository, which is a one-stop shop for the Army software community to access updates and cyber patches quickly and easily for more than 70 C5ISR systems. This means patches and updates can occur instantaneously rather than waiting for CDs to arrive from across the world.
The Software Engineering Center also uses its organic software capability and the Army’s established logistical systems, such as equipment status reporting, unit status reporting and the Modification Management Information System, to enable units to report, track and account for software readiness in real time.
As an example of the assistance the Software Engineering Center can provide, think of vehicle repair and maintenance. Many people can change their own oil or a fuse for a headlight. But when it comes to fixing a broken touch screen or head-up display, or a hardware or software recall, they need to take it to a dealership.
This is similar to soldiers and their relationship with Communications-Electronics Command and the Software Engineering Center. Like changing oil or a fuse, there are many maintenance tasks soldiers can and should perform in the field. However, just like the maintenance or repairs that only a dealership can perform, there are issues in the field that can only be resolved by depot organizations such as Communications-Electronics Command and the Software Engineering Center.
And just as you may have the trusted dealership you go to when your car needs maintenance, soldiers are already accustomed to using Communications-Electronics Command for both hardware and software support. Therefore, it is important to keep leveraging the Army’s resources and expertise within Communications-Electronics Command.
Additionally, the Software Engineering Center provides necessary tools to ensure soldier readiness now and into the future. Of the software trouble calls Communications-Electronics Command received in fiscal 2023, 79% were submitted by experienced and technical soldiers. Software is getting increasingly complex, and this complexity is part of the reality in our current and future datacentric environments.
To maintain the tactical advantage, these trouble calls must be resolved promptly in the field. This means that integrating software engineers in the field with soldiers to ensure software anomalies can be handled when and where they arise will be crucial.
As the Army’s premier materiel, logistics, technology and equipment enterprise that engages directly with soldiers, Materiel Command will continue to be a critical piece in the Army’s ability to identify and mitigate the capability gaps that soldiers face when operating and maintaining upgraded systems at the brigade and battalion levels.
At its simplest, sustainment is a critical insurance policy for the soldiers of today and tomorrow. In a time of rapid modernization and datacentricity, soldiers and the Army’s ability to fight and win will depend on cyber-secure and sustained software and hardware delivered quickly and efficiently. The continued longevity of C5ISR systems is dependent upon leaders understanding the symbiotic relationship between hardware and software, and knowing that each depends on the other for success.
Materiel Command, Communications-Electronics Command and the Software Engineering Center are equipped to continue supporting the life cycles of software for the Army in a continuous upgrade environment, as they have the expertise and experience to support the needs of complex software.
In a world where technological overmatch remains paramount, the synchronization of both hardware and software “sustainment operations” offers tremendous opportunity.
* * *
Maj. Gen. Robert Edmonson II is the 17th commander of the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command and senior commander of Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. Previously, he was deputy chief of staff for information/chief information officer, U.S. Army Forces Command. He received his commission in 1991 from Frostburg State University, Maryland, and holds two master’s degrees: one in information resource management from Central Michigan University and one in national security strategy from the National Defense University.