Not long ago, modernization of the U.S. Army centered on the Future Combat System (FCS), a networked collection of 18 ground and aerial, manned and unmanned platforms tied together by a network. When most of that program was cancelled — except for some near-term elements that would support the current fights — the Army came up with a new modernization story. This time it was the Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) which was intended to incorporate all the lessons learned from nine years of war. Then the Army cancelled the request-for-proposals for the GCV, apparently having discovered that responding to all the lessons learned would result in a very big, heavy and expensive vehicle. This necessitated yet another story about modernization and the Army. This one was, to say the least, innovative. Like the young man who discovered he could speak prose, the Army discovered it had always been modernizing. Except, that is, for its network. As one senior Army officer put it, “I think the new ‘Big Five’ [programs] of today, of 2010, may really be the Big One: the network.”
There is some truth to this new story. In many ways, the past decade has been one of profound change for the Army. It restructured itself into modular brigades, recrafted its force generation system, and altered its tactics, techniques and procedures to better fight insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. When it comes to equipment there is also much of which the Army can be proud. There was the introduction of the Stryker brigades. Virtually every existing vehicle type in the Army’s fleet including M-1 Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles and Humvees received major survivability enhancements. The same was true for soldier clothing and equipment. Robots and IED jammers became standard unit equipment and helped to significantly reduce casualties. Army helicopters were upgraded to handle better the challenging environments in the Middle East.
But is the network really the “Big One?” And if so, which network — or more accurately how many networks? In reality the Army is not developing a network, it is pursuing a bunch of them simultaneously as well as new and upgraded radios and other electronic devices. There is something with the infelicitous name of SOSCOE which was originally supposed to be the “Big One” tying together all the FCS platforms and the new FCS-equipped brigades with everyone else. SOSCOE didn’t die with the cancellation of the FCS program but is on life support as part of the initial effort to bring some FCS-based capabilities into the current force. There is Land Warrior, initially intended as wartime expedient but expanded to meet continuing demand. A better, follow-on system is now being planned. There is the Warrior Information Network-Tactical to provide on-the-move, high-speed, high-capacity backbone communications. The Joint Tactical Radio System is intended to provide integrated communications for everyone from soldiers to ground vehicles and airborne platforms and support both legacy and new waveforms. Finally, there are the major improvements to existing networks and systems such as the SINCGAARS radio system.
When you add up all these new, improved or just different networks and communications systems and then pile on the new deployed capabilities in other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum such as IED jammers, what you are left with is not the “Big One” but the big mess. The process of continual, on the go, wartime modernization of networks, communications systems and electronic devices has left the Army with a massive integration problem. This is not simply the challenge of making sure that different radios and networks can talk with one another and share data. It means other things such as ensuring that different systems don’t interfere with one another, can share power sources and match other parts of the soldier, vehicle and unit’s equipment set.
Making the integration challenge even worse is the fact that on-the-horizon innovation such as wireless, cell phone based communications systems have the prospects of being cheaper, more rapidly deployable and easier to use than anything currently in the Army’s inventory. Moving to wireless will require doing battle with the National Security Agency (NSA), the dragon guarding the gates of communications security. But having defeated Al Qaeda in Iraq and, hopefully, the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Army may be able to take on the NSA at home.
As one senior Army officer recently told me, “Integration is kicking our ass.” The Army should focus less on modernization, which is ongoing, and more on integration, which is not.
Find Archived Articles: