By Amy Walker, PEO C3TOctober 17, 2013
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (Oct. 17, 2013) -- Army engineers are joining forces with industry to simplify the service's tactical communications network by uniting fragmented capabilities and taking a holistic approach to network advancement.
"Simplifying the network not only improves capability for the Soldier, it also significantly reduces cost for the Army over the long run," said Brig. Gen. Daniel Hughes, Program Executive Officer for Command, Control, and Communications-Tactical, known as PEO C3T. "By leveraging industry solutions that help us to simplify the network and reduce the footprint of our tactical operations centers, we can quickly and cost-effectively take advantage of emerging technologies."
Ease of use and the convergence of hardware and software across multiple programs are playing a fundamental role in Army network modernization efforts. To help further these initiatives, Product Director Common Hardware Systems, assigned to PEO C3T's Project Manager Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, hosted its first CHS Technology Day last month at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
The event provided a unique opportunity for industry to demonstrate how commercial-off-the-shelf, or COTS, advancements in technology could help the Army reach some of its network improvement goals. It also provided a forum for technical leads and design-level engineers from various program offices to discuss common program requirements and collaborate on effective technology solutions that meet mission requirements, yet simplify operations across multiple systems.
Convergence of tactical communications systems and supporting processes leads to efficiencies in hardware and software development, as well as in support from the reduction of field service representatives needed to troubleshoot and maintain the equipment. Program offices also benefit from economies of scale in purchasing and sustainment, said Danielle Kays, PD for CHS, which provides a contracting vehicle and related services across a system's lifecycle.
"The Army has much to gain from getting engineers at the design level to consolidate platforms," Kays said. "If we can facilitate conversations between engineers about how they can share their dollars to buy one platform that fits multiple needs, then that is a significant step forward and a huge win for the Army."
Consolidating platforms is specifically significant in light of the Army's implementation of a common operating environment, or COE, for communications systems. Instead of encouraging developers to begin with a blank slate by designing a system or capability from beginning to end, the Army is advancing parameters for a more interoperable COE where government and industry partners can contribute applications to an existing standard framework.
Capabilities developed years ago were developed based on stove-piped requirements, but now the COE is developing standards in operating systems and common platforms that will support that computing environment across the battlefield. Various program offices can take advantage of that standardized computing environment to consolidate systems and simplify the network. A standardized COE sets the stage for hardware consolidation, enabling single network platforms to cover multiple program requirements.
"That is one way that programs can allocate resources to continually develop capabilities in a fiscally constrained environment," Kays said. "If we can save on that back end, on the hardware and on the fielding, then we can use those savings to develop capabilities and give Soldiers advanced technology."
The gamut of network capability demonstrated at the CHS Tech Day included several improvements over current capabilities: systems that are more intuitive to the user, require less power, or are more rugged, smaller or lighter. Virtual computing and nano technologies are helping to provide advanced capability in a fraction of the space and to consolidate and eliminate network hardware platforms. These emerging technologies provide more capability with less equipment.
Some of the new products could support network simplification by enabling the use of equipment across echelons, from platoon to company to battalion and above. The technology can expand from a Soldier's backpack to a tactical operations center simply by using the same modular components across echelons and adding additional capability as needed.
"The trend is to get as much capability out to the edge, but not as much hardware," said Don Catrette, regional sales manager for Riverbed, whose products aim to accelerate and improve the performance of applications over the network. His company takes advantage of the Army's Network Integration Evaluation events, known as NIEs, which provide a forum to leverage promising industry capabilities that solve operational gaps."We took what we learned from the last NIE and we applied it to our next section of beta code [to further improve capability]."
The Army has adopted an incremental approach to network modernization in order to keep pace with technology advances and field the right mix of capabilities to the right formations at the right time. Through the semi-annual NIEs, Soldier-led evaluations conducted in realistic operational environments, both the Army and industry can get a clear picture of how emerging COTS technologies could potentially satisfy network requirements.
"The NIE process is good for getting your product out there," said Joel Bodine, systems engineer for DTECH Labs, whose capabilities have also been through several NIEs. "It's good to be put in front of Soldiers -- to actually be there with them and use the equipment with them is a lot different than just sitting in the lab."
The Army's network and mission command capabilities are providing commanders and Soldiers more information than ever, but many systems are still too fragmented by functional area and not as intuitive as they could be for the user. The Army's goal is to make the network easier to use, train, maintain and sustain. The NIEs and the many integration facilities located at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. support the Army in its trek to efficiently modernize the network.
"We must work together with industry and across the various program offices to simplify and consolidate network systems," Kays said. "It's everyone's responsibility to look at the big picture, the network as a whole, and collectively improve capability."