The gear will include lighter and faster communication equipment, battle-tracking applications on tablets and new ways to communicate with one another, as well as partner forces. By using a secure-but-unclassified architecture, soldiers can tap into commercial cellular networks, like 4G, and a greater range of wavelengths, depending on the electronic threat environment.
The first paratroopers to be fielded the new equipment will help determine how the rollout to more soldiers will work beginning in fiscal year 2021.
“The integrated tactical network is about improving the war fighting capabilities of our maneuver formations, our brigade combat teams,” said Maj. Gen. Peter Gallagher, director of the Network Cross-Functional Team. “They’re getting new capabilities that include advance networking waveforms, which significantly improves our mobile ad hoc networking capability at the lowest tactical echelon.”
The Program Executive Office responsible for the testing is planning to begin new equipment training and fielding to the 1st Brigade Combat Team at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, starting in October through December, according to Col. Garth Winterle, Integrated Tactical Network experimentation lead for Capability Set 2021, or CS21.
The soldiers will begin collective training at the squad-level and above in early February.
“Ultimately it’s going to take a hard look at [whether] we have the right radios in the right places,” Winterle said. “Are the new capabilities really adding enough capability to justify price points and overall cost of the networks. So, it’s exciting the 1-82nd was selected to do this."
CS21 is just the start of more bi-annual capability sets that will be rolling out through 2028 to update the Army’s integrated tactical network.
It’s not a new or separate network, but instead uses existing devices and gateways alongside commercial off-the-shelf products to make sure communications can continue even in limited bandwidth environments and amid electronic attacks.
“One thing we know for sure is the capabilities we’re pursuing are better, definitely better than what we had," Gallagher said. "And soldiers that don’t have it today are chomping at the bit to get it.”
Fort Bragg’s 2nd Security Force Assistance Brigade has already used some of the new capabilities. For instance, the brigade utilized Nett Warrior downrange in Afghanistan, a dismounted handheld system that provides the location of friendly forces and other mapping data.
Special operations forces have for years been using the Android Tactical Assault Kit application on tablets for battle tracking and calling in air support, which is what Nett Warrior is derived from.
But the amount and specific types of gear needed for infantry, Stryker and armor brigade combat teams do vary and so each type will require different approaches to fielding equipment.
“User feedback, leader feedback and running these through a series of exercises, to include force on force combat training center rotations, will give us that kind of feedback we need to make the best decisions for the Army,” Gallagher said.
The integrated tactical network updates will allow the Army to leverage private-sector products that have been approved by the National Security Agency to work in secure-but-unclassified, or SBU, environments.
“This environment allows us to secure the network, but pass data to where, if it’s perishable time sensitive data, we can actually share it with unified action partners,” Gallagher said. “That allows us to connect better with coalition teammates and other partners."
The SBU architecture will hopefully help soldiers coordinate with foreign partner forces, like those of Afghanistan, on the battlefield. But it will also give troops more waveform options, regardless of whether they’re working with local allies.
SBU architecture does come with security implications depending on where soldiers are around the world.
“If we go into a host nation where we believe we can leverage the infrastructure, we can and we will. But if there’s a concern ... we have the ability to do some workaround,” Gallagher said.
“They can use 4G when the threat dictates,” Winterle added. “But it will never be the only way to connect to the tactical network.”
The new capabilities won’t just be relevant to combat operations. They will also help with communications and information sharing on humanitarian missions or disaster response where being able to show up in an area and rapidly “plug and play” into the existing infrastructure is key.
As 5G cellular networks roll out, the Army is watching closely. The development promises significantly increased capacity at the lowest-end user device, including faster data usage, lower latency and the ability to connect more devices at once. But it also requires a lot more cell towers.
China plays a prominent role in the development of 5G infrastructure and technology, which brings cyber security concerns for the United States.
“There’s a lot of hype right now surrounding 5G,” Gallagher said. “We want to be able to leverage the millimeter wave solutions that the 5G network provides but the density of antennas required to employ a tactical 5G network is pretty immense."
“For us to apply this in a tactical environment, there’s a whole lot of lab work that needs to be done," he added. "There are concerns about certain providers — non U.S. providers — and I think a lot of that has been played out in the media. But we want to make sure the threat is driving the technical solutions that we deliver. And we want to make sure that we provide options to mitigate that threat.”
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq. Follow on Twitter @Kyle_Rempfer