FORT BRAGG, N.C. (September 30, 2020) – Paratroopers from the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division (1/82 ABN) continue to demonstrate their critical role in providing feedback to the Army as it both fields and refines its Integrated Tactical Network (ITN).
The ITN is comprised of new, easier to use network equipment that provides commanders multiple communication options and enables better data flow to and from lower echelons, and data fusion into a single common operational picture at the brigade level.
Over the past three weeks, the 1/82 ABN has participated in the Capability Set (CS) 21 ITN Soldier Touch Point (STP), which was a battalion-scale, force-on-force training exercise featuring developmental operations (DevOps) real-time feedback between Soldiers and developers.
Led by the team of the Network Cross-Functional Team (N-CFT) and the Program Executive Office for Command, Control and Communications-Tactical (PEO C3T), the CS process features capability delivery across two-year iterative cycles - - with each successive CS informed by experimentation, demonstration and direct feedback from operational units and Soldiers -- beginning in CS21, with a goal to achieve network modernization by 2028. Four infantry brigade combat teams will be fielded CS21 ITN equipment sets in fiscal year (FY) 2021. The first is the 1/82 ABN, which will complete fielding in December 2020.
“We must have ability to move data and information quickly – this is the most important thing we are doing – and this division will stop whatever we are doing to make sure it’s right,” said Maj. Gen. Christopher Donahue, commander of the 1/82 ABN.
The most important thing across the Army to achieve multi-domain operations is the ability to communicate effectively in combat, Donahue said.
“Everything we are developing doesn’t matter if the network doesn’t work,” he said. “We must be flat, fast, accurate and lethal. That’s what our network has to be and it has to be the transport layer to do that.”
The ITN is an approach that injects new commercial components and network transport capabilities into the Army's tactical network environment to provide maneuver brigades and below with smaller, lighter, faster and more flexible communications systems. It features a mix of commercial capabilities integrated with programs of record systems provide commanders with resilient communications as part of their primary, alternate, contingency and emergency communications (PACE) plan.
The 1/82 ABN has been testing and evaluating the ITN for more than a year while participating in multiple exercises and deployments. Their feedback has directly influenced critical procurement and design decisions for CS21 design goals.
For the 1/82 ABN, three of the most compelling capabilities enabled by the ITN are increased situational awareness, especially in the drop zone, increased range of communications and the ability to communicate over multiple network pathways when faced with degraded or denied network environments.
Col. Andrew Saslov, 1/82 ABN commander, compared running previous operations at the unit’s Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) at Fort Polk, Louisiana.
“Following an air assault to seize enemy bridges and intersections at the JRTC, we spent eight hours trying to talk to one Soldier inside the 2-504 [2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment] to figure out who made it out of the aircraft and who was still alive,” Saslov said. “My sergeant major had to physically find him in the western part of the drop zone.”
The entire battlespace breathed a sigh of relief when the paratrooper finally came up on the network, Saslov said.
“But he didn't talk to me; he talked to a company commander who was sitting outside the breach point, who relayed his status to a battalion commander, who relayed it to me ,because we just couldn't get the right line of sight communication in the summer, high humidity at Fort Polk,” he said.
Today, with the ITN’s end user device connected to advanced data radios, the information quickly makes it throughout the higher formations to produce an operational level of shared understanding that is increased by an untold variable, Saslov said.
Throughout the multiple night jumps executed at the STP, paratroopers evaluated the situational awareness capabilities using the ITN.
“As soon as we jumped in, everyone turned on their radios and quickly began to populate their location on the EUD [End User Device],” said Cpt. Thomas McGinnis, 1/82 ABN troop commander. “It took us about 45 minutes to get up almost 90 percent accountability and start getting off the drop zone to execute our follow on mission from there.”
In every rotation, the ability to transmit information quickly and accurately is critical. The Army loses friendly forces by known minefields because the information did not travel throughout the formation, Saslov said.
“This is why I say the ITN is not just evolutionary; it’s revolutionary,” Saslav said.
Another critical improvement to operations was the range extension provided by the variable height antenna (VHA), or tethered drone. Soldiers placed a commercial TSM single channel radio onto the VHA and raised it approximately 200 feet.
“The VHA allows us to greatly increase the size of our radio network,” said Cpt. Matthew Kane, 1/82 ABN Div squadron communications officer. “Without the VHA we were seeing a network size of only a few radios, but once the VHA was in the air we were seeing more radios in our network."
The capability allowed him to connect their squadron tactical operations center network to the brigade tactical command post, he said.
Secure but Unclassified Communications
The ability to communicate via a Secure But Unclassified (SBU) environment was another critical capability put through the paces at the STP. SBU decreases the burden of operating over the Secret network for Soldiers who do not need it, generally at battalion and below. It also provides additional network pathways for operating in degraded or denied network environments for PACE.
“I need to be able to understand intelligence that's coming in and talk up, but then move over to SBU because generally that information doesn't need to operate below me,” Saslov said. “The battalion commander doesn't care; he just needs to know where the enemy is and what affect I need him to have on the battlefield.”
By allowing Soldiers to operate over SBU, the Army will be able to move 75 percent of its classified information down to SBU, said Col. Garth Winterle, Project Manager for PEO C3T’s Tactical Radios and officer in charge of ITN development.
“As the Army continues to increase its coalition partner missions, SBU will also be the critical link to share information between nations,” he said.
Listening to Soldier Feedback
PEO C3T and the 1/82 ABN have also incorporated a new lab at Fort Bragg, called the ITN Integration Facility Forward (I2F2). The I2F2 is an extension of the ITN lab at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, but it provides real-time tactical DevOps due to its location.
“By having engineers and equipment on the ground they're able to replicate any changes we make to the system and then push that information to Aberdeen.” said Cpt. Brian Delgado said, 1/82 ABN S6 (Communications Officer).
In the past, developers at APG would make configuration changes to the equipment and then field to the unit. Soldiers wouldn’t get an opportunity to change the configuration until after the new equipment showed up, he said.
“DevOps saves us years in development efforts, and the I2F2 is now a critical component to that equation,” Delgado said.
Early and often feedback collected daily or during event-driven events such as the CS21 ITN STP or the recent Project Convergence at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona - held to inform sensor to shooter network design – is the most practical means for the Army to assess what is working and what must be done to get it right.
“We don’t expect our technology to work perfectly in our early assessments, but the feedback we gather from events such Project Convergence and the STP is the best method for us to incrementally improve capabilities,” said Brig. Gen. Robert Collins, program executive officer for C3T. “I tell my staff that feedback is a gift; that we can no longer build it, throw it over the fence and then wonder what happened.”
Collins spoke to multiple Soldiers during the STP, from leaders down to specialists, to assess how his organization could improve ITN capabilities. His one caveat to each conversation was that no one hold back when relaying their experiences using the equipment.
The most pressing concern among the Soldiers was power limitations and associated cabling restrictions. Some of these issues came down to training, specifically training to understand equipment interoperability, Delgado said.
“Everything affects everything else,” Delgado said. “We had Soldiers who were certainly able to operate a radio, but weren't really experts in making the radio and EUD communicate together.”
Based on this user feedback, PEO C3T is addressing three major focal areas for training: Handheld, Manpack and Small Form Fit (HMS) and Nett Warrior system-of-system training, a leader's course and ITN individual and collective training.
For the HMS and Nett Warrior training, the approach will include heavy hands-on training of the entire system and its components, including system hookup and configuration repetition.
“This will be a radical change to make this training more effective in preparing the unit, with fewer slides and more walking around using the system to help the unit maintain proficiency after we leave,” Winterle said.
Moving forward, the Army will field CS 21 ITN equipment to four brigade combat teams in FY 2021 and five in FY 2022. It will then continue fielding ITN equipment to infantry and Stryker units as part of CS 23 in FY 2023-2024.
“We know the technology works,” Donahue said. “SFABs [Security Forces Assistant Brigades] have it, SOF [Special Operations Forces] have it, but the real issue is how do we integrate it all?”
At the end of the day the Army's moral obligation is very simple, he said.
“Some kid will have this technology; some kid will walk into the face of the enemy and it better work.”
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.