Despite raising tactical connectivity to its top modernization priority, the Army is proposing to cut fiscal 2012 funding for the backbone of its future warfighting network by half. Service leaders are proposing to the Office of the Secretary of Defense that $400 million of the $815 million appropriated to the Warfighter Information Network – Tactical (WIN-T) be reprogrammed and used for other purposes. Proposing to cut the program by that much just as it begins operational tests at the White Sands Missile Range could jeopardize congressional support (despite the program manager’s assessment on Monday that WIN-T faces no technical challenges).
It isn’t clear that the reprogramming proposal is an Army idea. The Pentagon’s comptroller routinely reviews acquisition programs to identify unneeded funds, and in the case of WIN-T a significant portion of funds appropriated in prior years remain unobligated. So the comptroller may have recommended to the Army that it cut fiscal 2012 funding to bring outlays into alignment with the execution rate. However, if the slow rate of expenditures reflects a disciplined approach to management in a program that is proceeding as planned (albeit at a slower pace than anticipated), then taking money away could be a disincentive to fiscal prudence in the future. More importantly, it will be hard to convince Congress to appropriate more money to the program as it begins fielding if the service says it doesn’t need half the money it was given for WIN-T in 2012.
It is hard to overstate how important WIN-T is to future warfighting plans. The last time the U.S. Army went to war in a big way — Operation Iraqi Freedom — it had difficulty maintaining communications on the move. That wouldn’t be a problem if it were still engaged in the kind of static trench warfare seen on the Western Front a century ago, but warfare today is all about agility. Combat units are constantly on the move, and must have communications equipment that allows them to stay in contact otherwise situational awareness will break down and they’ll end up shooting at each other. WIN-T was conceived to facilitate instantaneous transport of voice, video and data communications among units on the move, from the top of the command chain all the way down to the company level (companies typically consist of about 200 soldiers organized in several platoons).
The Army knew even before it invaded Iraq that its communications equipment was becoming obsolete. The service has improvised to field more flexible systems over the last decade, but prospective adversaries are acquiring better communications capabilities too, courtesy of the information revolution. Today, planners have to assume that even the most rag-tag insurgent bands may have highly versatile smart phones. Tests have shown that WIN-T has the features necessary to assure robust connectivity to soldiers on the move with more security than they will ever get from an I-Phone. But cutting funding for the backbone of the future tactical network just as it is approaching a decision on full-rate production would endanger soldiers. Whoever came up with the bright idea to reprogram funding for WIN-T needs to look elsewhere for savings.
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