Nothing matters more in modern land warfare than quick and reliable communications. Battle conditions are so fluid and forces are so scattered that continuous connectivity is crucial in coordinating maneuvers. However, the U.S. Army has encountered chronic difficulties in fielding state-of-the-art communications equipment for its combat units. Efforts to develop an agile “software-defined” radio were held up by problems in engineering the software. A planned constellation of very capable communications satellites was canceled. And now, the one part of the Army’s communications plan that seemed to be progressing smoothly is being threatened with big delays by Pentagon budget planners.
The program in question is the “Warfighter Information Network – Tactical,” or WIN-T. The goal of WIN-T is to free soldiers from the highly vulnerable, fixed communications nodes they now rely on in combat by providing a resilient wireless network that can operate on the move. The need for such a network was stressed in the after-action reports of Army units that deployed in the Iraq war. For example, the report generated by the Third Infantry Division stated that the Army’s existing battlefield communications system “cannot support continuous offensive operations,” and argued “the Army must procure on-the-move, long range, secure voice and data communications systems.”
WIN-T goes a long way toward answering that need. When it is fully fielded, all Army combat units will have access to a secure, high-speed mobile network that can carry voice, video and data content anywhere on the battlefield. Commanders will no longer be tethered to fixed communications nodes, and soldiers will no longer have difficulty establishing contact with other friendly forces because of mountains and other terrain features. Instead, each warfighter will have access to all the information and insight generated by the deployed force, greatly enhancing prospects for survival and success. But the plan calls for fielding WIN-T in increments, and budgeteers have now proposed funding cuts that would delay the most critical increment by years — undercutting the purpose of the whole program.
As it stands today, the WIN-T development plan consists of three increments. The first increment, currently being fielded, will improve connectivity for stationary units but will not be usable on the move. The second increment, which commences fielding later this year, will enable initial deployment of a mobile network to a limited number of combat units. The third increment would increase the capacity, versatility and dependability of on-the-move communications, and would eventually be deployed with all combat units. It is this third increment that planners propose to delay, resulting in a gap of five years between the initial mobile network and the far more capable follow-on version.
That delay can’t be what defense secretary Robert Gates had in mind when he told an audience at the Army War College on April 16 that, “the connectivity of the Warfighter Information Network will dramatically increase the agility and situational awareness of the Army’s combat formations,” and went on to say that it would be accelerated for fielding across the whole Army. What planners have done instead is slow it down, arguing that proposed delays in developing new combat vehicles reduce the urgency of funding the third increment. But WIN-T isn’t about a particular class of vehicles, it is about the battlefield effectiveness of the entire force. If the full-up version of WIN-T is not fielded on schedule, soldiers will die and battles will be lost to save a modest amount of money. Mr. Gates had it right at the war college, and the Army needs to keep WIN-T on track.
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