By Justin Eimers, U.S. Army Communications-Electronics CommandFebruary 6, 2017
FORT HOOD, Texas -- It is often mentioned that the Army's network is very complex, but what does this really mean? True, some network technology is itself complex to use and understand for an average Soldier or leader. True, network system and software sustainment is challenging due, in part, to software growth among the Army's systems. Complexity though is not just a technology or sustainment issue, it also stems from the way the Army trains its Signal Soldiers to enable network capability proficiency across formats. Commanders do not argue with the power of mission command situational understanding that network connectivity and capacity provides in terms of readiness, but Signal Soldiers must be able to properly exploit the network to enhance mission command at the point of need. To help build network proficiency and to ensure Signal Soldiers are up to date on their certifications, the Army looks to its Signal Universities.
Over the past 12 years, the Army Material Command's Signal University construct has matured to provide Soldiers mission-critical knowledge, skills and certifications needed to carry out their jobs. Managed by the Communications and Electronics Command (CECOM), the Signal University concept has grown from a small division of 10 personnel to a network of Signal University locations around the globe.
The CECOM Training Support Division (TSD) was stood up in 2005 when several logistics assistance representatives at Fort Gordon, Georgia, developed an introductory information technology networking course. Signal Universities in 11 locations including Hawaii, Kuwait and Fort Hood, Texas, were created four years later to expand the TSD mission and enable greater access to certificate programs at major operational unit locations. Since the university's inception at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, tens of thousands of Soldiers have gone through courses ranging from A+ and Network+ Certification to Project Management Institute and Project Management Professional training.
Each university location is run by a Department of the Army civilian and a number of contracted instructors from several defense industry partners. Fort Hood Signal University (FHSU), supporting all III Corps units is the largest site and is comprised of five classrooms and dock space at a training facility where equipment can be hooked up for hands-on training. With all Signal Universities, as network technology matures and new capability is added, Signal University curriculum adapts so Signal Soldiers can receive up to date certifications and expertise on capability ranging from routers, to wireless technology and cabling.
Signal University is shifting its focus as the Army continues its ever-growing cyber emphasis. The cyber network defender military occupational specialty (MOS) plays a crucial role in cyber security and requires classes not currently offered at Signal University. To provide the necessary courses, mobile training teams are deployed from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to various university locations to meet demands. Of the required courses for these 25D MOS Soldiers is the Cyber Digital Master Gunner (DMG) course, a three-week program that focuses on the increasingly important fields of offensive and defensive network activity, such as hacking and scanning for enemy vulnerabilities.
"This is something we've really got to be on point with," said FHSU Commandant Jeffery Foraker, adding that the Army is looking to maintain a certain number of cyber DMGs.
Vendors have made certification tests more difficult in recent years in an effort to ensure Soldiers stay ahead of the technology curve. Foraker said this has effectively increased the significance of each certification.
"It has been a challenge for us to teach each class more effectively in preparation for the tests, but it has always been our mission to help Soldier's do their jobs," he said. FHSU also offers the Certified Ethical Hacker course twice annually with two EC-Council certified instructors. "We don't just slide anyone into that course. We only accept Soldiers who are a network administrator for their unit, are sponsored by their commander and are hard-nosed," said Foraker.
A regular DMG course is offered to give Soldiers a holistic view of the tactical network. By the end of the year, FHSU-certified DMGs should receive an alternate skills identifier which will hold the Soldier on station for two years.
"The Army values what we are doing and is starting to allocate more resources for Signal University to invest in Soldier development," said Foraker.
Jonathan Jenney, a former 25N tactical systems operator with the 62nd Expeditionary Signal Battalion, can speak first hand to the benefits Signal University provides. Jenney was working his way through the Senior Level Military Transition Assistance Program and was notified of an internship opportunity under Foraker at FHSU.
"There was an agreement between him and my unit commander to release me for six months to teach at FHSU as a Soldier-instructor," said Jenney. "It gave me an introduction to civilian life while providing the opportunity to take some classes while I was teaching." Jenney received his A+ Certification through FHSU and speaks highly of the experience.
"It's like college work. It requires a lot of discipline, intense studying and self-motivation," he said. "The instructors are knowledgeable and experienced in their field so you know you're getting experience-based information. I've tried to incorporate that philosophy into the way I teach."
In addition to providing Soldiers necessary training, Signal University also delivers cost-savings to their respective units as each course if unit-funded. Compared to costs listed in the U.S. General Services Administration training catalog, FHSU saved units more than $2 million in fiscal 2016 by offering courses at their location.
While most students enrolled in FHSU courses have a field 25 MOS, the standard operating procedure written by III Corps focuses more on retainability and the unit's need rather than a Soldier's particular specialty. FHSU uses an enrollment form which a unit commander must fill out and sign off verifying that the Soldier has at least one year of service remaining and that they will be assigned to Ft. Hood for the duration of the class. Foraker says other Signal University locations operate differently but that each has its own set of checks and balances to ensure "training gets done where it needs to get done."
Two additional Signal University locations are set to open this year at Fort Stewart and in the Republic of Korea.