FORT BLISS, Texas (March 6, 2014) -- In preparation for the Army's Network Integration Evaluation, or NIE, 14.2 this spring, the 86th Expeditionary Signal Battalion, or ESB, is training with new tactical communications equipment that is smaller in size for easy transport, yet significantly increases capability.
"These new network technologies will increase our readiness and agility," said Lt. Col. Keith Dawson, commander of the 86th ESB, which will be evaluating the equipment at NIE 14.2 in May. "They will enable us to deploy in smaller teams instead of deploying as an entire battalion like we did in the past."
ESBs are modular in nature and primarily support other units that don't have their own communications equipment. As the Army continues to evolve its force structure while becoming a leaner and more expeditionary force, it is looking to increase the capability and versatility of these units. Upgrades and new technologies fielded by the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, or WIN-T, program, the Army's tactical communications network backbone, are filling these requirements.
In line with the 86th ESB's motto, "The first voice heard," the unit is the first to be fielded with some of the new technologies.
"For NIE 14.2, we will conduct demonstrations with new equipment, such as 4G LTE and a new line-of-sight radio, for a proof-of-concept as to what future ESBs are going to look like," said Maj. Rickie Meers, 86th ESB operations officer (S3).
As part of their training in support of NIE 14.2, a hands-on demonstration of the new equipment, along with WIN-T Increment 1B upgrades, was held at Fort Bliss, Texas, in late February. The event enabled Soldiers and commanders to better understand the capabilities and the space and manpower requirements needed to deploy the equipment.
"This new equipment is good, but we have to take it out into the field and use it; we have to learn how to pack it up in trucks, get it deployed, so we can put it on airplanes," Dawson said. "We hope to provide lessons learned from the NIE to the rest of the Army."
ESBs can support higher headquarters at corps and division, but they also have smaller teams to support units within a brigade combat team, or BCT, or when needed, to provide network support for natural disaster relief efforts or other emergencies around the world. As their name suggests, the expeditionary nature of these units requires an ability to be agile and the new WIN-T technologies and upgrades support those requirements.
"A lot of the equipment is more maneuverable and it's going to make it easier and quicker to deploy; making it a lot easier for our Soldiers to pack up and go when they need to," Meers said. "Plus the capability, the amount of bandwidth and data we can pass through, has also greatly improved."
The Army's semi-annual NIEs, which are held in a realistic operational environment at Fort Bliss and White Sands Missile Range, N.M., provide operational test data for programs of record, validate network baselines for fielding and collect Soldier feedback on promising industry capabilities. NIE 14.2 will include increased joint and coalition force participation, and to help support the coalition aspect of the event, the WIN-T Increment 1 program is introducing the Mission Network Enclave, or MNE, a small baseband package that enables Soldiers to share information with coalition partners. When needed, MNE can also be reconfigured for disaster response to provide commercial internet to first responders.
During NIE 14.2, the 86th will also evaluate a 4G LTE system that allows Soldiers to use the Secure Internet Protocol Router (SIPR) Network on the battlefield via mobile devices and Wi-Fi. These capabilities could help reduce the many wires and cables cluttering tactical operations centers and further untether commanders and Soldiers in command post areas.
Also being evaluated is a radio-bridging and voice cross-banding module that allows Soldiers to fuse radio and phone networks. Additionally, a new line-of-sight, or LOS, radio reduces size, weight, and power, known as SWaP, and significantly increases throughput from 16 megabits per second (Mbps) to approximately 200Mbps.
"These new LOS radio systems are lighter and easier to set up, so it will make it easier to deploy; throw them in the back of a truck or on an airplane and you're gone," Meers said. "The bandwidth is exponentially better. I started 10 years ago and you wouldn't even have thought about having 200 megabits going through a LOS system; it's just great."
The Tropo Lite, a transit case-based tropospheric, or tropo, scatter communications system, is being assessed to replace the Army's current truck and trailer-based system. Tropo systems shoot microwaves instead of satellite radio frequencies, allowing for secure, high-speed transfer of large volumes of data between sites and over terrestrial obstructions such as mountains. They also reduce the Army's reliance on expensive commercial and military satellites. Nicknamed "Tropo-in-a-can" by the Soldiers because of its smaller size and transportability compared to legacy capability, the Tropo Lite is also much faster to set up.
"I can put it in a helicopter, take it to a remote site, and hook it up without requiring three trucks and six Soldiers," said Sgt. Maj, Roberto Marshall, 86th's former command sergeant major. "Now I only need two Soldiers, a small truck and we are up and running."
The 86th ESB also received on-going WIN-T Increment 1B upgrades that add a Network Centric Waveform modem, which optimizes bandwidth and satellite utilization. The upgrades also provide a Colorless Core capability that encrypts data as it is transported over satellites and line-of-sight links, enabling Soldiers to send information securely across the battlefield. The upgrades improve the security and efficiency of the network, and since these capabilities are inherent in the mobile WIN-T Increment 2 network, they also increase the interoperability of both increments.
"The 1B upgrades makes it a lot easier for commanders on the ground to plan and execute their missions when they don't have to worry about interoperability," Meers said. "With this new 1B equipment it's not going to be a second thought; it's just going to work."
ESBs will be able to support any unit on the battlefield or area or operations within their footprint with the new WIN-T technologies once they are deployed. Vetting the proof-of-concepts through the NIE will help work out any initial bugs and improve tactics, techniques and procedures to provide Soldiers with the best capabilities possible.
"I am excited about the improvements we are going to get from this equipment," said CW2 Keith Hudson, 86th ESB network technician responsible for implementing the components in the tactical network. "As the equipment is being fielded, it is challenging our Soldiers to think outside the box -- how can I do this and how can I get better performance out of my equipment? That input is going to improve the Signal Corps holistically once the equipment is deployed to all ESBs."