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At Army chief's request, service rapidly crafting network strategy

March 16, 2017 (Photo Credit: Vanessa Flores / ASA(ALT) System of Systems Integration Directorate Public Affairs )
HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley has asked service leaders to immediately produce a strategy on the Army’s network, according to the acting assistant secretary of the service’s acquisition branch.

“Last week I was in three network-related meetings,” Steffanie Easter told Defense News in an interview at the Association of the U.S. Army’s Global Force Symposium on March 13.

“There have been multiple studies on the Army network -- none of them flattering,” she said. “They have all been very deliberate in identifying the shortfalls.”

But developing the network isn’t an easy task. It’s been up against 15 years of rapid procurement without much consideration for the entire life cycle of radios or other aspects of command, control and communication capabilities. The goal was to get hardware out to the soldiers as quickly as possible as they fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There wasn’t much time for careful thinking regarding which unit or soldiers or command should get what capability to function properly across the network.

The Army network was also formed amid struggles across the entire Defense Department to change its acquisition cycles to keep pace with rapidly evolving technology. By the time the service fields a radio or a portion of the network, it’s already considered archaic in the commercial world.

The Office of the Director for Operational Test and Evaluation came out with a report on Army network modernization in December 2016, for example, that offered a scathing review of its current state and concern for its future. The report notes that Congress mandated -- in its National Defense Authorization Act in 2016 -- a report on current and future capabilities for the Army's tactical communications and data networks that is due this month.

“The chief of staff of the Army has made it very clear that he wants to see our overall strategy for networks and we owe him that,” Easter said. When asked if he’d imposed a timeline, she said, “He told us immediately,” adding leadership would be huddling next week to lay out a plan that answers Milley’s questions and “our own questions.”

Easter said formulating the strategy is not “as easy as it appears or sounds” because the network is so multi-faceted -- having to consider capabilities from tactical radios to the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical -- which is a capability that allows units to communicate using at-the-halt data, voice and video communications -- to the common operating environment to other defense business systems that ride on the network. All of these are competing for time and bandwidth.

A second increment of WIN-T is in development that aims to provide the same capability on-the-move, but is moving at such a slow pace that some critics say by the time it’s fielded it too will be considered outdated.

Easter noted that in the case of WIN-T Increment 2, it’s not so much a matter of technical issues holding up the program, but funding. She said the program has seen some assistance from Congress in order to keep moving forward.

As the Army works out a strategy, Easter said, pressures on funding will continue to cause the Army to have tough conversations about how much network capability to field and where.

“We are at a point where we have to have serious conversations about that, is that the most effective way to do it? Does everybody get everything? Or do we just give select units select capability,” she said, “and where are we willing to take risk if that is what it comes down to?”

The strategy, Easter added, intends to focus on exactly what the Army needs to make sure soldiers can continue to communicate and remain mobile.
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