Data at the point of need: Army unifies, accelerates network modernization efforts

By Claire HeiningerOctober 13, 2021

(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

WASHINGTON (Oct. 13, 2021) – Each time the 82nd Airborne Division went overseas in the last nine months – for scheduled exercises in Europe and the Pacific, and then for emergency evacuation operations in Afghanistan – leaders depended on data.

Data on troop movements and civilian departures. Data from joint service, coalition and other government agency partners. Data that resided in the Pentagon, Fort Bragg, NC, and other locations far from the front lines, but was critical to decision-making on the ground.

“Universally, the one thing that jumps out continuously is the need for data,” said Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue, commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division. “It’s all types of data: logistics, operational, intelligence. All of that data has to be able to aggregate into a single pane of glass for the commander to make a decision.”

These and other recent operations have reinforced the importance of the Army’s efforts to modernize and unify its network and data capabilities, especially as the service prepares for potential future multi-domain operations against near-peer adversaries, Army leaders said during the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) Annual Meeting this week.

“Without a unified network, we won’t get the speed, we won’t get the range, we won’t get the convergence of cutting-edge technology that enables data to get to the point of need,” said Lt. Gen John Morrison, the Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff, G-6.

Morrison stressed that the Army’s unified network plan – which marked its formal release last week – is not a new program, but rather an operational framework to unify, codify and prioritize ongoing network modernization efforts. The goal is to better link enterprise and tactical network capabilities to give users like MG Donahue’s division the connectivity and resources they need from home station through global deployments, Army leaders said.

“There will be no sanctuary in the next fight,” Morrison said. “We have to have a resilient mission network that enables our Army to rapidly deploy, go wherever [we are needed] in the world, plug back in and deliver strategic, operational, and tactical effects.”

The Army’s network modernization efforts are not only aimed at improving data access, delivery and sharing for operational units across different locations and missions, but also with mission partners, said Brig. Gen. Jeth Rey, director of the Network Cross-Functional Team, part of Army Futures Command. Driving the Army’s technology towards capabilities that are transport-agnostic, data-centric, and underpinned by security architecture will enable the right information to better traverse artificial boundaries of echelon and system classification, so units can reach “over the horizon” to the resources they need, Rey said.

“There's a broken line between the tactical and strategic environment, and we are working to try to close that gap,” Rey said. “Data has to be tagged in a way that we can share information in a zero trust environment with ourselves, and with joint and coalition partners.”

The Army’s current efforts to field Capability Sets of tactical network equipment on a two-year cycle, including deliveries this year to select brigade combat teams within the 82nd Airborne Division and other units, are a step in the right direction, said Maj. Gen. Rob Collins, Program Executive Officer for Command, Control, and Communications-Tactical. Capability sets support the unified network plan by providing a construct to rapidly iterate network and mission command technology based on industry advancements and Soldier feedback, Collins said.

Approaching the implementation of common network tools and services from the tactical edge – where connectivity can be intermittent and limited – back to the enterprise also enables the Army to deliver the right capabilities for different echelons in a modular way, Collins said.

“With capability set fielding, we have established momentum we can build upon as we start to scale out for the unified network approach,” Collins said.

From the enterprise perspective, the Army is modernizing its 288 camps, posts and stations to support the unified network, such as initiatives to optimize unclassified and classified connections, leverage 5G technology, and implement multi-level and standards-based security architecture with zero trust principles, said Ross Guckert, Program Executive Officer for Enterprise Information Systems. Operating from a comprehensive, multi-year strategy as prescribed by the Army unified network plan enables greater efficiency in modernizing posts, camps and stations, Guckert said.

Even as the Army begins to check off milestones in reaching the unified network, the leaders emphasized that both operational needs and technology will continue to evolve, and Soldier experimentation and feedback will be critical to shaping iterative modernization efforts.

“There is no end point – there is no ultimate place you’re going to get to,” Donahue said. “This is constantly developing and evolving.”