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Interview: John Willison, Director, Command, Power & Integration Directorate, U.S. Army RDECOM CERDEC

Sep. 18, 2012 - 02:14PM   |  
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In 2011, the U.S. Army formally replaced “command and control” with “mission command,” a doctrinal change “that better defines the art of command and the science of control in full spectrum operations,” according to the latest iteration of Field Manual 3-0, Operations. Mission command, the Army says, recognizes that commanders must be able to act “independently amid uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity” even when “their networks are degraded.” It also focuses “on the command of people in operations instead of processes and technological solutions.” Looking beyond the current fights toward the Army of 2020 and the critical role of mission command is John Willison’s CP&I team at the Army’s Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center. One of Willison’s goals is to ensure critical intelligence gets to the soldiers in the lowest echelons — a tall order in the decentralized operational environments the Army is likely to face. He spoke by phone with Ben Iannotta from his office at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.

Q: What’s the mission command problem for the Army and what are you doing to solve it?

A: If you look at it historically, the Army’s done a fairly good job of equipping and advancing the practice of mission command at higher echelons down to a certain level, probably battalion level. And that’s reflective of the fight we were in, et cetera. We haven’t done as good a job at company or squad level. So there’s a heavy push right now to look at how do we better empower the squad. And in that realm, we’re doing things like building on some of the emerging programs that are giving these guys handheld technology — basically an Android phone. We’re looking at some of the work going on between us and the intel world, to try to get these guys better situational awareness, better information in a more timely manner. Right now, from a Training and Doctrine Command point of view, their perspective is that the biggest parity in the fight is at the squad level. We do a pretty good job with overmatch at echelons above that, but within the squad level, it’s still primarily reacting to contact and tactical surprise. So what can we do to help these guys out?

Q: Which means what? Giving them the geospatial tools that can feed real-time intel so they can be aware of an attack?

A: There are two parts in the overall effort that we have got. There’s a mission command portion and the intel portion. We’re working both together for what the Army’s calling technology-enabled capability demonstrations, or TEC-Ds. The tagline we have on the combined ops and intel TEC-D is: “Getting the right data to the right soldier at the right time.” So, yes, it is putting geospatial data on a handheld, putting whatever intel and ops data we have onto that handheld, into a squad leader’s hands before they go out on patrol. Right now, they’ll tell you as soon as they step out of the vehicle, or step out of the forward operating base, they’re stepping out of the network. They feel completely disconnected; they don’t have the tools they need. We’re not the ones necessarily giving them the handheld, but we are the ones looking at what technology we can give them on that handheld — better geospatial data, better intel data, better route planning data, better social/cultural data, better language translation tools, better social networking tools, if nothing else, just within the squad. Better assured posnav — position/navigation — so it’s not leaving us so susceptible if GPS for whatever reason is denied. We’re looking at alternatives or backups to GPS.

Q: What are some of the ideas about a backup to GPS?

A: We’ve had a number of S&T programs within the posnav and the timing. You want to have a short posnav, and part of the posnav is having a short timing. From a timing point of view, we’ve got an effort called chip-scale atomic clock — CSAC — which is basically looking at miniaturizing and making affordable very short timing that you can then embed in pretty much any system. Right now, most people get their timing from GPS, so we’ve got a lot of concerns about GPS-denied environments. We also are looking at using the other technologies, RF technologies, and using multiple camera perspectives, triangulating to figure out positioning, as well. So we’ve got a number of S&T efforts looking at alternatives to GPS, or really backups to GPS, as well as how do you keep GPS from being jammed.

Q: Have you had any input into DARPA’s Transformative Apps program?

A: We actually have supported TransApps over the past couple years. We’ve put people in theater for Dr. [Mari] Maeda and TransApps. I actually within the last couple weeks have brokered a deal between TransApps and the Army for us to serve as the bridge between TransApps and the programs of record. Basically, what you’ve got is TransApps kind of leading the way forward on what it’s doing with some of the capabilities. It kind of unconstrained the current architecture, unconstrained the current program constraints. You’ve got the programs of record — Nett Warrior and Joint Battle Command Platform, folks that sit here with us at [Aberdeen Proving Ground]. You’ve got them working programs, kind of constrained in certain requirements, constrained to working within the current Army system. What I’ve been able to get both sides to agree on is we’ll serve as the bridge. So we’ll take capability coming out of TransApps, we’ll supply it with the architectures that are emerging from Army programs so that, based on the operational feedback and the requirements TransApps are making, and we’re helping to contribute to, we’ll be able to get that into mainline Army programs and get that out in greater quantities with a greater sustainment life.

Q: Doesn’t the Army need to decide which way it’s going to go on these two different visions: TransApps, where you have deployable cellular towers [so] you don’t require a radio, and the Nett Warrior and Joint Battle Command Platform app

A: I would say someone does at some point, yes. In the long term, I don’t think it’s going to be an either-or type of scenario. I think in some cases, you’re going to be limited to whatever the soldier radio is they are carrying at the time. You’re going to have either inter-squad or limited networking capability, depending on the operational scenario. Further than that, we’ve got the ability to give them a capability that exceeds what they have, even with no networking. Being disconnected doesn’t mean some of the technologies we’re looking at don’t have any value. If for nothing else, with handhelds, being able to take pictures and have an actual recording of where they’ve been so you can start looking at trend data would be an advancement beyond what they have. I think, as the mission command, we’re going to take advantage of whatever network’s out there. And ultimately, yes, the Army is going to have to decide from a network architecture what technology to be investing in and what architecture we’re going to build on. As the mission command, I’m interested in taking advantage of whatever network is out there, whether that’s radios, whether that’s cellular, whatever that is.

Q: So you don’t see radios going away someday? The 2020 Army will have a lot of radios?

A: Looking at history, SINCGARS has been in the Army inventory for 20 years already. The Army tends to never throw anything away. We tend to recapitalize on what we’ve got, make use of what we’ve got and the investments that we’ve got. Cellular requires an infrastructure. We may not always have an infrastructure wherever we’re going to be. I don’t know that we can rely completely on an infrastructure or building our own infrastructure if we’re talking about initial entry ops somewhere.

Q: I’m curious how you stay in touch with what’s happening, for example, in Afghanistan right now, what’s working for soldiers and what’s not, and how you maybe target your research and development toward those issues.

A:In the 25 years of experience I’ve got, any project that I’ve been involved in that’s been a success had an element that involves direct engagement with the user. So, within my organization, we at any one point will have at least a couple people deployed in theater that are serving as our eyes and ears on the ground to, if nothing else, get feedback, but hopefully, in many cases, providing some quick response, S&T-wise, in theater — whether that’s out of my mission command group or for programs like TransApps, where we put people on small FOBs throughout Afghanistan, or people within my power division over there fine-tuning smart grids on posts within Kandahar or Kabul.

Q: How are you dealing with the tight budget environment? Is there temptation to sacrifice the future?

A: I talked about us having to make some hard investment decisions because we’re not going to have as large a pool to invest in as we move forward. The one major effort that we’ve got, which is, in the near term, how can we better shape soldier/squad level from a mission command point of view and advancing them forward — I think that’s a worthwhile investment because that area has not been that invested in that heavily in the past. At the echelons above that, when we look at more of a command post environment — even company, but certainly battalion, brigade, division level — it’s our perspective that we aren’t so interested in investing S&T and incrementally advancing the command post capability over the next three or four years. We think the programs of records are doing that and there are some good efforts within that. Our S&T interest is: What comes after the current architecture that we have? So the second major effort we have is: What is the mission command of 2020? What is the command post of 2020? How can we look beyond the current architecture? First thing is, at the command post level, we typically over-equip. The feedback is command posts are too big and too complex. And for equipment, the feedback is, we need to refocus on collaboration between humans as opposed to interoperability between systems. … [We are] looking at things like, what if the command post isn’t a place, what if it’s a virtual command post? So you could create ad-hoc peer-to-peer social networks of soldiers anytime they get together. We’re looking at technology like touch, gesture, speech recognition, to manipulate things, as opposed to keyboards and mice. We’re looking at wireless power, we’re looking at things that we think are probably on the horizon that are going to come out in the 2020 timeframe.

Q: It sounds like you’re saying that a network is the people, and so instead of my computer talking to your computer, I’m actually talking to you over the computer in some method?

A: Exactly. The Army talks about losing its ability to maneuver. They’ve got these multi-thousand-square-foot command posts to house the people, in part, but really to house the infrastructure required for people to share products. And in a lot of cases, whether we’re talking about the operations of mission command, whether we’re talking ops-intel convergence, all of that is about sharing human thought, sharing data. We’ve kind of amassed these folks with equipment as the way to share data. The complexities all come into making all these computers work together. So how, if we were to start with a blank sheet, how can we strike a lot of that complexity away, so really what they’re worrying about is sharing information, sharing thought, sharing strategy, sharing data.?

Q: And there’s going to be impetus to do this in a world where the U.S. is withdrawing from Afghanistan?

A: Even more so. Within Iraq, within Afghanistan, operations were geared primarily on static operations, establishing command posts and operating outside of those command posts. I think we’re going to see an increased emphasis on mobility, on agility, on being able to form and have people operate in small teams. One of the big differences between command-and-control and mission command is, in mission command there can be antennas for the commander to be able to communicate the commander’s intent and then allow for people to execute within that commander’s intent and make good decisions at lower levels.

Q: Can you give me an example of what people mean when they say ops-intel convergence?

A: When you hear people talk about ops-intel convergence, they’re typically talking about one of two things. The first is what I would put more in the category of programmatic convergence, or what you hear referred to a lot of times in the Army as “collapse.” And in that respect it is interest in simplifying some of the system or individual box-count complexity by taking systems that perform like functions and either collapsing the infrastructure that helps support them or, in collapsing those applications or capabilities and putting the same hardware, the same system footprint. The other aspect of ops-intel convergence, that I think is true ops-intel convergence, is getting the products and the data that result from the intel analyst, from the analysis done by the intel world, by the sensors in the intel world, getting that product and that data into the ops or mission command community in a timely manner. So really it’s a sharing of data, it’s all about the data. When you talk to an operator, that’s what they want. They’re not so much concerned about, “Is this capability on the same box as this capability?” If I’m a mission command guy, I just want the products out of the intel world. I want access to those products and I want to drive some of factors that are going into the analytics. I want that done in a timely manner.

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