By Amy Walker, Army staff writerApril 9, 2018
FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. -- The 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) must be ready at all times to conduct rapid offensive and defensive stability operations, including Joint Forcible Entry missions, in support of global contingency operations. The unit requires expeditionary network capability that enables it to be agile, lethal and informed.
To support these and other high mobility missions, the Army has integrated critical tactical network transport configurations -- the Tactical Communications Node-Lite, known as TCN-L, and Network Operations and Security Center-Lite, known as NOSC-L -- onto lighter High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle HMMWV platforms, versus the previous five-ton Family of Medium Tactical Vehicle FMTV integration.
Now these network assets can be rolled onto an Air Force C-130 aircraft or sling loaded by an Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter across the battlefield, to deliver robust network connectivity and network operations capabilities even in the most austere locations.
Prior to these new "lite" capabilities, units arriving to their objectives by air would have to wait for their heavy FMTV configurations to be driven in on a ground assault convoy. Commanders now have the option to air assault them in and establish the network and mission command capabilities much earlier in the fight.
"The unique aspect of our mission is that we can conduct vertical envelopment through air assault to rapidly build combat power on the battlefield, to jump well ahead of where the enemy is located, to seize key terrain and to fight him where he least expects it," said Col. Joseph Escandon, brigade commander for the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), at the Joint Readiness Training Center, where the unit successfully employed these "lite" network configurations in a decisive action environment.
"With all of the communication systems that both we and our adversaries have, being able to communicate quickly is an advantage to either force," Escandon said. "In the past there has always been a gap in when I was able to have network connectivity to conduct mission command. If I go into a Joint Force Entry operation I might be working off a tactical satellite or FM radio, but I couldn't leverage those tools that the upper tactical internet enables. The TCN-L cuts that gap down."
As part of the Army's evolving unified tactical network, the TCN-L provides agile robust high-bandwidth satellite and line-of-sight network connections. It operates on-the-move in a convoy, at the quick halt, and at the stationary command post, and it enables mission command and voice, video and data communications anywhere in the world, without need of static infrastructure. Soldiers use the NOSC-L at the command post to monitor and manage the tactical network and enhance network security.
"I, as a commander, as well as my subordinate commanders, gain a greater appreciation for the operational environment when I am able to use all the capability that we have for the various warfighting functions," Escandon continued. "Just take a look at Command Post of the Future, or a follow-on CPOF, which allows for a common operating picture. I can see where my forces are on the ground. I see what they are facing, and I can make decisions. But I can't leverage those mission command capabilities unless I have a system [such as the TCN-L] that can provide that to me."
The 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) was the first unit to operate with new "lite" network configurations during a combat training center rotation at the JRTC at Fort Polk, Louisiana, in March.
In November 2017, the unit successfully conducted air assault operations with the TCN-L and NOSC-L during a field training exercise at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. The unit had its initial exposure to the capabilities during the TCN-L and NOSC-L operational test in July 2017 at Fort Bliss, Texas, which was held during Network Integration Evaluation 17.2.
Soldier feedback from exercises like NIEs and JRTC rotations are providing valuable information to the Army, not only on potential system improvements, but on how those systems can be used most effectively in joint and coalition fights, at every stage of operations.
Previously, the TCN and NOSC were integrated on five-ton FMTVs, such as those employed by 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) in Iraq in 2017. The heavy vehicle configurations provided armored force protection but were not easily air transportable, limiting their use during expeditionary, quick reaction and air assault missions. Feedback from airborne and air assault units spurred the Army to integrate these configurations onto HMMWVs, providing significantly increased agility and operational flexibility.
"Usually we conduct a Joint Forcible Entry farther into enemy territory with helicopters. Equipment generally needs to be sling loaded, and it's usually followed up by ground forces. We need something fast, simple and mobile," said Maj. Paul Houk, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), brigade communications officer (S-6). "Because it can be sling loaded by helicopters, the TCN-L gets that tactical internet into the fight much earlier, so it enables a much more robust PACE [Primary, Alternate, Contingency and Emergency] plan and more ways for the forward units to communicate back to higher headquarters."
As for the NOSC-L, compared with its heavier counterpart, "it comes with more tools to enable signal operators to better monitor and manage the network, to better track things like bandwidth usage. That's essential for us, especially when we go to the battlefield," said Sgt. Shaun Lavigne, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) NOSC-L operator.
Escandon said that the TCN-L "is easier to use and has proven to be more reliable than the TCN-Heavy." Battalions that didn't participate in the operational test at NIE 17.2 and hadn't received that extensive training and operational experience as some of the other Soldiers were given the TCN-L "and were able to quickly learn how to use it and effectively employ it," he said. "And so again, definitely a product improvement."
During high intensity, fast moving operations, the TCN-L enabled the commander to position his forward his Tactical Command Post in almost any location. The TCN-L enables the small TAC element to leverage many of the same capabilities found back in the larger brigade main command post, known as the Tactical Operations Center. While the unit relocates the TOC, they can use the smaller forward TAC to continue to support the fight, until they can transition the network back to the TOC once it arrives at its new location.
With the TCN-L, "my staff and I [at the forward TAC] can literally leverage the products that the main TOC and the brigade intelligence cell are producing, which is huge. It allows me to see my force, but it also allows me to see where the enemy is. I gain a greater appreciation of the battlefield, and I can appropriately figure out how to gain a position of advantage over the enemy. That is crux of the whole capability," Escandon said.
In addition to providing network connection and management, both of the "lite" network configurations also support the Army's effort to reduce the size of command posts, for increased mobility and survivability in the face of potential peer and near peer enemies.
"The TCN-L allows me the flexibility to be more modular," Escandon said. "I can bring more aspects of my TOC to support the TAC fight. But I don't want to make the TAC too big, because it has be to ready, it has to be mobile and survivable. The TCN-L [and NOSC-L] are giving us that capability to improve our mission command footprint."
Escandon said that he has a couple infantry battalions that have basically replaced their TOC tent with a Light Medium Tactical Vehicle LMTV and a trailer. They integrated their TOC capability inside the back of the LMTV and their plans area in the back of the trailer so they could operate without need of a static command post tent. They still carried the more permanent tent if they needed to be in a location for a length of time, but the configuration gave them the ability to move very quickly.
Capt. Gene Lary, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) brigade information systems engineer, deployed with the unit to Iraq in 2017. He said that if they had had the TCN-L, then it could have further extended the unit's mission command and control, and would have enabled the unit to bring the mission command network to places that it wouldn't have been able to go with the TCN-Heavy. The unit could have air assaulted the Lite into previously inaccessible locations on the battlefield and provided for upper tactical internet communications, instead of having to wait for days to get the Heavy online after it was driven in by convoy following a relocation.
"The TCN-L is a huge asset. It performs far better than the Heavy," Lary said. "It provides better communications on the move, so that when the network comes up, it can stay up and can be operational for an extended period of time. You can get the TCN-L on a C-130 and can rapidly deploy it anywhere in the world at a moment's notice. It can be sling loaded with a Chinook helicopter and placed anywhere on the battlefield. It provides that expeditionary capability and the forward communications assets that we need."