FORT BRAGG, North Carolina (September 16, 2019) -- The Army fielded the 50th Expeditionary Signal Battalion-Enhanced (ESB-E) pilot unit with the first transit case-based Phoenix E-Model ground satellite terminal prototypes, which are designed to provide large division and corps headquarters with agile high-throughput network communications.
As part of the ESB-E pilot, the Army fielded the unit with emerging tactical network equipment that is more expeditionary, scalable and tailorable, as part of its effort to shape future equipment solutions and the force structure for the service's 24 ESBs. In addition to the ESB-E's previously fielded small and medium ground satellite terminals, the Phoenix E-Model prototype will serve as the unit's largest ground satellite capability.
"Providing communications services to other units is not a one size fits all endeavor," said Col. Matthew Foulk, commander for the 35th Signal Brigade, to which the ESB-E is assigned. "That ease of scalability, being able to build our support from a four man team up to a Joint Task Force Headquarters, and have the bandwidth to do it, is not something we have fielded to the conventional Army before, which has caused challenges over the last couple of years."
"We are looking at our new prototype network communications kit holistically, and that will change the game in our ability to support other units. Now the ESB-E can provide tailorable and scalable network communications to support any and all operational stages, from in-flight deployment with our Enroute Mission Command (EMC) capability, to small early entry units, all the way to a corps size element," Foulk said.
The flexible Phoenix E-Model ground satellite terminal prototype operates on four different satellite bands (military X/Ka and commercial C/Ku-bands), and its dual-head capability enables the use of two antennas on two different frequency bands, or two different satellites, simultaneously. This reduces manning requirements for equivalent capability, doubles throughput, and enhances multipath diversity and resiliency within the tactical network. In addition to operating on traditional Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO) satellites, the systems also have the potential for growth to operate on existing Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) constellations.
Project Manager Tactical Network, assigned to the Program Executive Office for Command, Control and Communications-Tactical (PEO C3T), working closely with the Army's Network Cross Functional Team, completed the fielding of the new Phoenix E-Model prototypes in August, at Fort Bragg. As part of its network tool suite, the ESB-E will now exercise the Phoenix E-Model prototypes during training, operational and field exercises and provide feedback to inform the Army on capability enhancements and solution decisions that will eventually replace the Army's legacy Phoenix systems.
"Scale wise, now we have three different sized kits to provide services, which enables us to provide a more robust, more flexible, higher throughput network for end users," said Sgt. Joshua Lee, 50th ESB-E network operations technician. "We [as an Army] have always been behind as far as competing with commercial networks and this new kit brings some of that commercial atmosphere back down to the Warfighter."
Traditionally the Phoenix terminal is used for high-throughput missions, which include Unmanned Aerial System feeds, video teleconferencing, and large numbers of subscribers and computers on the network. The legacy Phoenix is completely vehicle based, with a permanent vehicle-mounted antenna. Contrarily, if needed, the new E-Model enables Soldiers to remove the equipment from the vehicle in transit cases so they can easily deploy and operate the system without the vehicle, increasing the unit's expeditionary nature, mobility and operational flexibility in support of a variety of missions around the world, said Maj. Kyle Hurst, assistant Satellite Communications product manager for Phoenix, at Project Manager Tactical Network.
"There are a lot of benefits to be gained with a larger aperture satellite terminal that you can't make up with several mediums," Hurst explained. "Technically, the ESB-E could use four or five of its medium terminals to support a division or corps sized element, but that would be a very inefficient use of bandwidth and manpower. Smaller terminals are good for more expeditionary missions, but they use more power to close links and take up more bandwidth. That is why the ESB-E equipment package is scalable, so it can most efficiently and effectively support any size unit at any stage of operations."
The PM purchased the Phoenix E-Model prototypes through an Other Transaction Authority (OTA) rapid acquisition process that leverages Soldier feedback, experimentation and prototyping to get systems into the hands of Soldiers more quickly. As part of the OTA, the PM went with a nontraditional small business vendor for the initial prototypes to "spur innovation in the developmental process," Hurst said. The Army plans to keep a commercial-off-the-shelf open source design, avoiding proprietary vendor-specific designs, to more easily integrate future modernization efforts, increase competition and keep costs down.
PM Tactical Network already received Soldier feedback from the ESB-E during the Phoenix E-Model new equipment training that will be used to alter the design of the next iteration of prototypes. This includes the ability for the system to automatically track and acquire the satellite, which is necessary to leverage the emerging MEO satellites.
A few commercial MEO satellites and prototypes have already been launched and are currently in use, but the use of MEO capabilities is expected to significantly increase as this technology continues to improve and more customers develop the ability to leverage it. Compared to larger traditional GEO satellites that most people are familiar with, these smaller MEO satellites orbit closer to Earth and are launched in greater numbers. Each MEO constellation can contain more than a dozen satellites. The natural resiliency that comes with having many satellites is important for the Army for transport diversity in contested environments and helps improve on-the-move satellite communication capability. However, the Army anticipates the most important benefits to be the significant reduction in latency and an order of magnitude increase bandwidth. For additional operational flexibility and network resiliency, the unit could easily transition the Phoenix E-Model back to a traditional GEO orbit constellation whenever needed.
"The Phoenix-E Model prototype leans into emerging technologies like nothing else that we have had before and it's an exciting time for our Soldiers to get the chance to test out and deploy these capabilities for the units we support," said Lt. Col. Ron Iammartino, commander of the 50th ESB-E.
"The system gives us better cyber resilience, higher data rates and it gives us options, which is most important to us in terms of giving the unit we support different ways to get on the network," Iammartino said. "This prototype highlights the type of flexibility that we want to be able to provide to the units we support."
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The U.S. Army Program Executive Office Command, Control and Communications-Tactical develops, acquires, fields and supports the Army's mission command network to ensure force readiness. This critical Army modernization priority delivers tactical communications so commanders and Soldiers can stay connected and informed at all times, even in the most austere and hostile environments. PEO C3T is delivering the network to regions around the globe, enabling high-speed, high-capacity voice, data and video communications to a user base that includes the Army's joint, coalition and other mission partners.