Army network boosts speed, simplicity during test

By Amy Walker and Claire Heininger, PEO C3T

 

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (March 10, 2014) — With drastically reduced startup and shutdown times, a new, easy to use graphical interface and improved troubleshooting tools, the Army’s mobile tactical network backbone system recently completed a key test.

In line with the Army’s overall effort to simplify the network so it more resembles technology that Soldiers operate in their daily lives, the changes to Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, or WIN-T, Increment 2 reflect a network that is easier to operate and maintain.

“We want an ‘on’ switch for the network — we want it to be absolutely transparent to Soldiers,” said Brig. Gen. Daniel P. Hughes, program executive officer for Command, Control, Communications-Tactical, which manages the WIN-T program. “When you pick up a cell phone, how much training do you need to make it work? It’s intuitive, and that’s how the Army network should be.”

WIN-T Increment 2 enables deployed Soldiers operating in remote and challenging terrain to maintain voice, video and data communications while on the move, with connectivity rivaling that found in a stationary command post. The reduced complexity and increased reliability provided by the system’s latest improvements are also expected to increase its utility on the battlefield and reduce dependence on Signal Soldiers to operate and maintain the equipment. Any Soldier can now take greater advantage of the new WIN-T Increment 2 network status and troubleshooting capabilities that provide them with a more robust and reliable network.

The WIN-T Increment 2 enhancements, based on Soldier feedback from theater and the Network Integration Evaluations, or NIEs, are being assessed during two intensive developmental tests executed at the Aberdeen Test Center, or ATC, at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. The first of these tests was completed in late February, with Soldiers putting a large part of a brigade’s worth of equipment through its paces in a tactical environment. The event was conducted over a 27-day period including five days of dry runs and eight days of record test, approximately 800 training hours and 21 network nodes, including 16 mobile nodes that drove 8,000 miles during the test. The second developmental test is scheduled for June 2014, and a follow-on operational test and evaluation is planned for the NIE 15.1 in October-November 2014.

Efforts to enhance the system began immediately after NIE results confirmed the need to improve WIN-T Increment 2 usability, and officials described the improvements as an ongoing process involving user juries and human machine design experts. While the nature of the system — it combines a number of routers, switches, modems, software, encryption devices, radios and antennas typically found in a command post and installs them as one package in a tactical vehicle — means it will never be as fast and easy as a commercial smartphone, the Army will continue to drive the technology to be more intuitive, easier to use and more effective for the Soldier.

“We took a hard look at the system at the engineering level, every component in great detail, to see where we could reduce complexity,” said Lt. Col. LaMont Hall, product manager for WIN-T Increment 2. “We reduced things like the time it takes and the number of steps required to start up the system, the time it takes to conduct operational tasks, the number of logins and clicks — all in an effort to simplify everything as much as possible to reduce the burden on the Soldier.”

WIN-T Increment 2 provides enhanced capabilities over the previously fielded WIN-T Increment 1 and its upgrades, including network-equipped vehicles that provide the on-the-move communications and situational awareness that commanders need to lead from anywhere on the battlefield. The changes to the system enhance the capabilities of the WIN-T Increment 2 Soldier Network Extension, or SNE, vehicle, which provides network communication and extension capabilities at the company level, and the Point of Presence, or PoP, which provides mobile mission command at the battalion level and above.

As part of these improvements, the Army automated the startup for the PoP and SNE, significantly reducing the complexity and length of the startup process. More than a dozen buttons and switches were reduced to a single startup switch, dropping the total time to get a networked vehicle up and running from over 12 minutes to four and a half minutes.

On the battlefield, commanders and Soldiers use WIN-T Increment 2 to quickly access mobile communication applications such as Tactical Ground Reporting, chat and voice-over-internet protocol (VoIP) calls. The new upgrades cut in half the time it takes to launch these applications, while increasing the performance of Joint Battle Command-Platform, or JBC-P, the friendly-force tracking and messaging application Soldiers rely on for situational awareness.

“We also spent a lot of time looking at the user interface and what we could do to improve it so it is easier for the Soldier to operate,” Hall said. “It’s much more intuitive now, more of the smartphone mentality, easier to understand and use, with larger buttons that are easier to see.”

The SNE’s Combat Net Radio, or CNR, Gateway takes advantage of the vehicle’s on-the-move satellite communication systems to help extend lower tactical internet radio networks and keep them connected. To improve capability, CNR Gateway operations were simplified and automated; operational steps to start it up were reduced from nearly a dozen manual steps to a single log-in and a click. Now Soldiers merely select and connect, with mere seconds to execute.

Among the most important improvements to WIN-T Increment 2 are simplified and streamlined troubleshooting capabilities for the PoP and SNE, moving from an in-depth interface designed for the Signal Soldier to one more suitable for a general purpose operator. During the first developmental test, Soldiers were so eager to troubleshoot faults using their new tools that they fixed an antenna problem before data collectors could diagnose it.

Prior to these improvements, when a general purpose user or company commander had an issue, they could only troubleshoot approximately 20 percent of system issues themselves, and 80 percent of the time they have to call a field service representative, or FSR, or S6 [communications officer] to resolve it, officials said.

“We want to completely reverse those percentages,” Hall said. “Our intent now is let the general purpose user troubleshoot and resolve 80 percent of those issues.”

The Army is also working to ensure that it is providing the right network capabilities to the right echelons, so Soldiers are not asked to do things beyond their trained abilities, and to develop the right tactics, techniques and procedures, or TTPs, for communications equipment. This is especially true in lower echelons such as companies, which don’t have dedicated Signal Soldiers assigned. With the network serving as a key enabler for a smaller but still highly capable future force, the Army will continue to make changes to simplify the network, so commanders and Soldiers can focus on the fight.

“We have aggressively examined and tested every component of the WIN-T Increment 2 system,” said Col. Ed Swanson, project manager for WIN-T. “We will continue to improve both ease of use and reliability in advance of the next operational test and then beyond that; we’ll never stop improving this system for our Soldiers.”