WASHINGTON — Though many commercial airlines offer passengers the ability to connect to the Internet in flight, US Army soldiers cannot, save for a trickle of voice and data communications. They plan for operations before takeoff and after landing, flying essentially in the dark.
Using the same satellite technology as commercial airlines, the Army plans to offer connectivity to airborne troops for the first time, beginning in May. The effort is part of the Army's increasing use of commercial technologies — commonly satellite terminals — in expeditionary command posts.
"You had maybe one perhaps two people able to do email on the jet, and now what they're going to get is the full mission command suite of applications," said Lt. Col. Joel Babbitt, product manager for Warfighter Information Network Increment 1 (WIN-T Inc. 1).
"Just like people get uncomfortable when their phone dies for a day, and they feel blinded, it's the same thing with our soldiers nowadays. Constant connectivity is the key to situational awareness, their ability to flexibly and dynamically change the plan," Babbitt said.
The in-flight technology, called enroute mission command capability (EMC2), is due to be fielded to the 82nd Airborne brigade assigned the global response force mission. Special operations forces have it already, borne of a 2009 request from the 18th Airborne Corps.
Seven C-17 planes, supplied by the Air Force, will be equipped at the end of fiscal 2017, the first of them in May, Babbitt said. The Air Force plans to field it as well starting in 2018.
Linked through a fixed-install satellite antenna, troops on these planes receive real-time mission planning updates from their division operations team, with chat, voice, video teleconferencing and full-motion video from drones monitoring an objective. There are also displays along the inside of the aircraft.
Leaders and subordinates will also be able to communicate with each other wirelessly.
"You're watching the enemy and the disposition of forces over time, just before you're jumping in to assault that objective," Babbitt said. "That gives you situational understanding that is near-equal to the enemy on the ground."
The idea is to eliminate the most vulnerable time in an airborne operation, the planning that happens just after the drop, and make soldiers, "immediately effective on landing."
"It eliminates much of the confusion that surrounds the assault onto the objective," Babbitt said.
EMC2-equipped aircraft would provide the amount of bandwidth equivalent to a brigade command post in the field, Babbitt said. While the technology stays on the plane in its current form, the Army is exploring how it might roll off, without the antenna, to support an assault command post for an airborne task force once it lands.
The Army has for now fielded to the 82nd Airborne several very small satellite dishes considered "jumpable," with the same level bandwidth as a brigade command post.
For EMC2, Boeing modifies the planes, ViaSat provides the antenna and the ancillary items are commercial gear integrated by the government.
It's no secret that commercial networking technology is supplanting internal development as the US Army rides the consumer-driven revolution. Using commercial gear, Babbitt said, "is what has allowed us to make this a rapid integration process instead of a long drawn-out developmental process."
"It's completely outside the Department of Defense and strictly for commercial purposes, and we are grabbing that and leveraging it for defense purposes," Babbitt said.
"If you want a better tank you don't go to commercial industry, but when you want a better smartphone, you're going to find it in the commercial realm."
For security, however, the Army is turning to the National Security Agency's "commercial solutions for classified" for wireless connections at command posts and in the drop zone.
This allows command posts to be rid of the cabling that can take as long as three hours to set up, along with the related trailers and flooring — and the logistical tail that comes with all of it, Babbitt said. The emergence of 5G Wi-Fi also has made it possible to accommodate many more devices on a single information technology pipeline, Babbitt said.
"The lesson learned is everybody loves Wi-Fi, and why didn't we field it 10 years ago," Babbitt said. "The security solution has now come of age."
Ten-year-old WIN-T Increment 1 is undertaking an upgrade Babbitt jokingly refers to as its "Slim-Fast program," virtualizing hardware components into software and using newer, smaller modems and servers. The effort will cut the amount of equipment by 30 percent, Babbitt said.
The Army has also fielded a 28-pound suitcase-sized satellite terminal, the Global Rapid Response Information Package (GRRIP), manufactured by Klas Telecom. The terminal is air-droppable, and sets up in about 15 minutes for secure, unclassified voice and data communications for a small early entry team in a denied area.
At the next weight class, the Army has the Secure Internet Protocol Router/Non-secure Internet Protocol Router (SIPR/NIPR) Access Point (SNAP), which weighs hundreds of pounds and has about 10 times the bandwidth of the GRRIP. The SNAP, made by TeleCommunication Systems, is for command posts from company to division level.
Both systems are in retrograde, being taken out out of rugged Afghanistan and repurposed across the Army, according to Lt. Col. Leonard Newman, product manager for satellite communications.
Under this plan, SNAP would be fielded to division and corps headquarters later this year, and to expeditionary signal battalions, which set up communications infrastructure, as one did for multinational forces in Iraq in recent months.