FORT STEWART, Ga. — The current way the Army communicates — from units operating in the field to establishing command posts — is too slow and clunky to survive or be effective against a capable adversary.
“We know on the future battlefield, you got to fight dispersed and distributed,” Maj. Gen. Charles Costanza, commander of 3rd Infantry Division, told reporters at a media day at Fort Stewart, Georgia. He went on, adding that command posts at the brigade and division level are “just too big” and “not survivable.”
Armored formations must move rapidly on the battlefield, but their current communications architecture doesn’t allow them to do what they need at the right speed or range. The Army is working to change that. Between January and February, the service conducted a pilot aimed at better understanding the needs and design for modernizing the network for armored formations.
As part of the Army’s modernized network approach, it is providing “capability sets” to units every two years, each building upon the previous delivery and adding in new technologies. The first of these, Capability Set ‘21, was designed for infantry brigades. The next two focused on Stryker brigades and armored brigades, respectively.
The three-week pilot, which took place at Fort Stewart with 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, sought to help establish Capability Set ‘25 design goals and inform concepts, requirements and technology maturity from division to battalion.
The soldier feedback gathered during the effort — especially so far in advance, given a preliminary design review isn’t scheduled until around April 2023 — is essential for providing units the capabilities they need to succeed. Officials hoped to understand how the capabilities were deployed, whether the right equipment was put in the right place in the right formation and did the technology support or hinder the mission.
To get that feedback and test new equipment in an operational context, the pilot outfitted three battalions with three different network configurations called equipment sets. One included line-of-sight and satellite communications; one was primarily satellite communications; and one was line-of-sight heavy.
Early feedback from soldiers indicated that the new equipment significantly improved units’ ability to move and communicate quicker, although some equipment might not be in the right formations.
“The general feedback we’ve received so far is it’s easy to use, it’s expeditionary in mindset and allows us … [to] keep a much smaller command post signature, which will help us increase our survivability,” said Col. Terry Tillis, commander of 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division.
From the division’s perspective, the new gear is poised to improve operations.
“This capability would allow us, enable us to fight a little bit more distributed and dispersed,” Costanza said. “I think this is really going to improve our ability to fight and survive on the future battlefield.”
In many cases, set up and tear down for command posts and communications was over an hour. Additionally, sometimes in the field, units would have to stop their vehicles to establish communications. However, soldiers said communications that would take much longer could now be communicated seamlessly in minutes with the new equipment, while also being more dispersed.
The ability to communicate faster and more efficiently in the future will invariably change the way the Army operates and fights, said Tillis.
“It is going to change because it adjusts the tempo and we’re going to be able to move faster … what changes for us is the ability to move when we need to move,” Tillis said. “The increase in technology is going to change fundamentally how we would fight. That’s something that we’ve got to learn at our level. How do we become expert coaches? How do we work distributed [command and control] in each of these command posts?”
For example, operators explained that one of the tenets of maneuver warfare is if formations outrun their communications, they have to stop. But what if they don’t have to stop and can maintain those links of communication, asked one battalion commander. New technology tested in the pilot could enable that, but armored formations come with their own challenges.
Armor formations and vehicles are one of the most difficult formations to outfit from a networking perspective given the confined space on the platforms. While this current pilot effort took place on surrogate vehicles — Vietnam-era tracked vehicles — discussions are ongoing across the acquisition community to outfit communications gear on forthcoming replacements. The Army’s Program Executive Office for Command, Control, Communications-Tactical (PEO C3T) is working hand in hand with PEO Ground Combat Systems, which has provided drawings for new vehicles such as the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle and the Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle.
“As we start making some of these decisions coming out of this [pilot], then the next phase will be working with the identified vendors as we move forward on what that next step of integration going forward is,” Col. Shane Taylor, program manager for tactical networks at PEO C3T, said.
Once it’s determined which vehicles receive which equipment, based in part on feedback from the pilot, “we’ll be concurrently providing that information to the ground combat folks and then we’ll start working with them much tighter on the integration kits,” Taylor said.
Another integration aspect officials described is how the new experimental equipment works with the current network.
“The Army’s a big army. There’s a lot of kit already out there. We’re [not] going to throw everything away and start over,” Taylor said. “The Army is just too big to do that. Therefore, we need to make sure that what we carry forward out of this interoperates with the existing solutions that we have until we can replace it.”
Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.