When the U.S. Army marched off to war earlier in this decade, it took with it communications gear that was woefully inadequate for the demands of irregular warfare. Battlefield communications systems inherited from the Cold War lacked the reliable connectivity, mobility and versatility for an information-age force constantly on the move. Commanders were forced to halt their troops and set up fixed communications nodes to get good connections. Their line-of-site links were limited by geographical features like mountains, and efforts to overcome those obstacles made it easy for enemies to predict where communications nodes were likely to be located.
The Army’s Third Infantry Division offered some biting comments about obsolete communications gear in the after-action report it issued following the fall of Baghdad. The report said the existing battlefield network was “an antiquated system that must be replaced as quickly as possible,” and recommended purchase of “on-the-move, long range, secure voice and data communications systems.” Without such systems, it warned, warfighters would lack the situational awareness of the conflict environment necessary to anticipate enemy moves, avoid friendly fire, and exploit their capabilities to maximum advantage.
The Army responded fast to these complaints, fielding a range of interim solutions aimed at bolstering battlefield connectivity. But it took some time to develop a system that could function flexibly and reliably for commanders from the theater level all the way down to the company level, even when they were bouncing around the harsh terrain of places like Afghanistan. The communications backbone the service devised for the future force is called Warfighter Information Network – Tactical, or WIN-T. Its basic goal is to equip mobile and stationary command posts with secure, resilient telephone and intranet service regardless of conditions in the battle area. WIN-T is being deployed in three stages:
Increment 1: Improved battlefield networking from fixed locations.
Increment 2: Initial networking on-the-move for mobile command posts.
Increment 3: Full networking on-the-move using lighter, more versatile gear.
Increment 1 is already fielded and Increment 2 will begin reaching the force next year, employing a system that dynamically prioritizes and allocates bandwidth to users so those in greatest need are served first. When fully deployed, WIN-T will greatly enhance both the situational awareness and the communications options available to commanders. In effect, the command center will be wherever the commander is on the battlefield, because he or she will no longer be tethered to fixed, vulnerable nodes. But WIN-T shouldn’t stop there, because it needs to keep evolving as new technology and missions emerge. The next steps will be to increase the availability and capacity of the network while fielding it to more and more of the force. It’s an evolution that must continue, because in today’s wars, you are either on the move and connected, or you are in imminent danger of becoming a casualty.
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