ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (May 7, 2014) -- From an iTunes-like electronic marketplace for downloading security algorithms to network enclaves the size of a suitcase, the Army is joining with government and industry partners to advance communications technologies that support an expeditionary force.

Ease of use, faster deployment and the convergence of hardware and software across multiple programs are driving forces in the Army's effort to modernize the tactical network -- considered a critical priority to support a smaller but highly capable force. To support these initiatives, the Army's new Project Director Network Enablers, known as PD Net-E, part of the Program Executive Office Command, Control, Communications-Tactical, hosted two forums at Aberdeen Proving Ground last month designed to promote collaboration, outline common standards and demonstrate emerging technologies.

"The idea is to bring commonality and interoperability to the network to support dynamic operations and improve the user experience," said Stanley Niemiec, director of PD Net-E. "By setting standards for our enablers -- the ports, cables, mounts, chips, algorithms and other 'guts' of the network -- we will reduce complexity, reduce costs and give Soldiers the tools they need to be more expeditionary and more effective."

Created in February, PD Net-E manages five product directors: Communications Security, known as COMSEC, Cryptographic Systems, which procures, tests and fields COMSEC solutions to secure the Army's information against cyber threats; Common Hardware Systems (CHS), which supplies the Soldier with state-of-the-art computer and networking equipment; Initialization, which delivers relevant network initialization capabilities to the Solider; Key Management, which provides encrypted key management solutions; and Tactical Network Architectures and Configurations - Current, which integrates the current force network and ensures interoperability of networking products and solutions.

"The role of PD Net-E is to create and apply common standards aimed at delivering the most intuitive and efficient solutions for the user, while strengthening network security," said Brig. Gen. Daniel P. Hughes, program executive officer for C3T. "Our Soldiers need a network that is easy to use, but not easy for adversaries to break."

The first event, the 5th annual COMSEC Integration Integrated Process Team forum, took place April 14-17, and brought together more than 250 representatives from the Army, Department of Defense, the National Security Agency, and industry and coalition nation partners. Together, the organizations discussed ways to address COMSEC challenges and enhance current and future systems.

For example, PD Net-E is now fielding the Army portion of the Key Management Infrastructure, known as KMI, an NSA-led effort to modernize how cryptographic keys are delivered and managed for communications systems. Like iTunes or other electronic storefronts, KMI offers a web-based marketplace with a search engine that allows users to find and load the keys they are looking for to secure their systems.

"KMI is a significant piece to simplifying the network because it will deliver COMSEC keys over the network through an electronic storefront, rather than manually through user-operated fill devices," said Dennis Teefy, product director for Key Management. "That allows Soldiers to configure their systems and move out faster and farther without sacrificing security."

KMI is supporting 13 pilot accounts for the operational Army, with seven more pilot sites to be fielded in June. Fielding to the full Army is scheduled to begin in fiscal year 2015. The transition to KMI is expected to enable a broader user base among joint and coalition users, officials said.

The Integrated Process Team forum also covered progress in converging cryptographic systems that perform the same function in order to make room for modernized devices, as well as in simplifying the network planning tools used to manage, monitor and control the network. With the support of several vendors, the Army in 2013 began fielding the Joint-Tactical Networking Environment NetOps Toolkit, which collapses multiple radio management tools onto a single laptop, reducing the training and logistics burden for the Soldier.

The second event, the CHS Technology Expo held April 16, attracted more than 50 commercial vendors who demonstrated how their products could potentially help the Army reach its network modernization goals. Technologies on display aimed to improve existing capabilities by making them smaller, lighter or more intuitive to the user; by reducing power requirements; and by supporting more agile operations.

"The intent is to be modular and scalable from backpack to vehicle to command posts at multiple echelons," said Ryan Kendrick, chief technology officer for Klas Telecom, which displayed various baseband products. One suitcase-sized system designed to enable communications during early entry operations included multiple network enclaves that can use a single router, then scale up with additional capability when follow-on forces arrive.

"It's a 'Lego blocks' approach to reduce complexity in logistics and sustainability," Kendrick said. "You can scale up to support more users and greater capacity."

Several vendors focused on the intersection of new and legacy equipment. Steve McCann, director of business development for Mellanox Federal Systems, demonstrated integrated circuit boards with ports that can adapt to various network speeds for old and new applications, reducing the requirement for multiple switches.

The CHS program works closely with industry vendors of all sizes to collaborate with Army programs and provide a contracting vehicle and related services across a system's lifecycle.

The expo 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.

As the Army advances the Common Operating Environment to support the rapid development and delivery of secure, interoperable software applications, CHS is applying a similar approach to increase commonality in hardware.

"CHS will collaborate with other contract vehicles to manage a competitive, commercial off-the-shelf information technology marketplace that allows programs to procure common platforms in most effective and cost efficient means," said Danielle Kays, product director for CHS. "The goal is to streamline the end-user experience for Soldiers by providing a single look and feel that minimizes time and dollars required for training while allowing units to focus on their mission."