Communications readiness: ‘Can you hear me now?’

PM PERSPECTIVE

COL. CHARLES M. “CHARLIE” STEIN

by Mr. James Christophersen

This column is the first in a new Army AL&T series, PM Perspective, which looks at acquisition from the viewpoint of the program, project or product manager. These are big programs—generally acquisition category I and II— not only in terms of their importance to the Soldier, but also in terms of sheer dollars. How do PMs deal with the complexity of the teams that staff these programs? What do they wish they’d known then that they know now? What lessons can other PMs take from their experiences?

Col. Charles M. “Charlie” Stein started his military career as a U.S. Marine Corps infantryman and mortarman. Spending six-month stretches on a flat-bottom boat in the South China Sea made land-based services look very appealing, and in 1990 Stein was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army Quartermaster Corps. Stein has been the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command Technical Center deputy director, product manager for Ground Combat Tactical Trainers, and project director for the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California. He relinquished his charter as the project manager for Defense Communications and Army Transmission Systems, part of the Program Executive Office for Enterprise Information Systems, in August 2017 and is now director of fires for the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology.

His education includes an M.S. in management from the Florida Institute of Technology. He has been an educator as well, as course director for the Army Acquisition Foundation and the Army Intermediate Program Management courses at the Army Acquisition Center of Excellence and assistant professor of military science at Seton Hall University. He is a member of the Ordnance Order of Samuel Sharpe, Military Order of Saint Martin, the U.S. Army Space Professionals Association’s Order of St. Dominic and the Signal Corps Order of Mercury.

Tucked away in a nondescript, temporary building on a corner of Fort Belvoir, Virginia, sit the offices of the Project Manager for Defense Communications and Army Transmission Systems (PM DCATS). Here, more than 200 men and women of the Army Acquisition Workforce manage more than $875 million for 30 strategic satellite and terrestrial communications systems.

Communications satellites orbit more than 22,000 miles overhead, invisible to the naked eye, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The average person does not give a second thought to the modern marvel of satellite communications (SATCOM). Although the U.S. Air Force enjoys responsibility for the headline-grabbing launches, the satellites would be little more than multimillion-dollar space junk without the terrestrial infrastructure in place to communicate with them. It’s the Army’s software and land-based control centers that command the communications payload on these satellite constellations, and the payload ensures that Soldiers have dedicated communications coverage wherever they go out on a mission.

As the PM for DCATS, Col. Charles M. Stein had a lot to do with making this happen. The systems he managed enhance the readiness of virtually all of the military’s wideband SATCOM capacity, which supports U.S. combat forces deployed around the globe. The PM’s objective: to ensure that the DOD wideband satellite constellation continuously provides support to peacetime, contingency, surge and crisis action plans. It is the very definition of SATCOM readiness.

Spc. Joseph Callaway, left, and Sgt. Christopher Peterson, both with the 89th Sustainment Brigade, work on a VSAT during Combat Support Training Exercise 86-16-03 at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, in August 2016. The VSAT illustrates an unusual feature of SATCOM acquisition: because satellite technology is constantly evolving and industry is continuously investigating new applications, few of the products and programs under Stein’s purview leave the developmental phase. While sustaining the current equipment, the VSAT team is already working on the requirements for the next tactical satellite terminal. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. John Russell)

U.S. Army Spc. Joseph Callaway (Left), and Sgt. Christopher Peterson, 89th Sustainment Brigade, Belton, Mo., work on a Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) during Combat Support Training Exercise (CSTX) 86-16-03 at Fort McCoy, Wis., August 13, 2016. The 84th Training Command’s third and final Combat Support Training Exercise of the year hosted by the 86th Training Division at Fort McCoy, Wis. is a multi-component and joint endeavor aligned with other reserve component exercises. (U.S. Army photo by Spc John Russell/Released)

A SYSTEM OF SYSTEMS AND PEOPLE
Gen. George S. Patton said, “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” That is a good encapsulation of how Stein manages PM DCATS’ collective brainpower. The team’s diversity—in background, personality and perspective—includes satellite engineers, contract specialists, logistics personnel and program managers, all assembled under one roof at Fort Belvoir. Each member brings a distinct skillset and expertise to the organization, and bringing them all to the same table has its own value.

Stein’s three-year tenure as PM DCATS started and ended with people, he said. His first goal at DCATS was to address morale. “When I arrived, we launched a climate survey, which revealed clear places for improvement,” he said. One such area was Stein’s effort to help make people feel safe to voice unpopular or critical opinions. “We followed up the climate survey with a series of small-group, non-attribution ‘sensing sessions’ where five to 10 people met with me at a time to air their grievances. The sensing sessions in particular really opened the floodgates, revealing some major issues,” he said.

More important to Stein, PM DCATS then followed up on the survey and sensing sessions, changing policies and personnel where necessary and instituting a number of training and team-building efforts. That Stein took concrete action to make real changes driven by those opinions reinforced that he was taking people seriously and affirmed the trust they had placed in him.

Another climate survey in July 2017 showed a 40 percent improvement in morale.

Although Stein’s background is in teaching and acquisition, which are not even distant relatives of the signal or SATCOM professions, a PM doesn’t have to be the expert on every aspect of their program. “I rely on our satellite experts to guide the Army toward smart decisions,” said Stein. “They rely on me for the acquisition acumen to navigate the treacherous waters of Army acquisition. Only together does DCATS succeed. It’s all about getting everyone to see the benefit of all of us rowing together.”

A VARIETY OF CUSTOMERS
PM DCATS’ stakeholders, especially its customers, “are as varied and diverse as our workforce and portfolio,” said Stein. The office serves more than 45 different customer organizations as diverse as major commands, HQDA and special operations forces, not to mention joint force partners and international allies. “They each have different responsibilities for the Army, leading to different priorities and unique tribal languages. Deconflicting those is a major challenge,” Stein said. Critical to the success of the PM is fostering good relations with all of its customers.

One way PM DCATS addressed the challenge of serving this variety of customers was to look for efficiencies in program portfolios and to seek out the best home for missions that would fit better elsewhere. The best example of this was the 2015 realignment of Vehicular Intercom Systems from the DCATS portfolio to a more natural home at the Program Executive Office for Command, Control and Communications – Tactical (PEO C3T), which Stein said “is perfectly suited for the work of supplying intercom systems for crew-served tactical vehicles like the Humvee [High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle] or Bradley. We made the case to realign the program not long after I arrived at DCATS in August 2014, and C3T took the reins less than a year later. That change was readily recognizable and worked out well.”

PM DCATS greatly improved communication channels with the Army’s chief information officer/G-6, embedding DCATS into the Army’s part of the planning, programming, budgeting and execution (PPBE) process upfront to more proactively manage priorities for site installations and modernization. “This upfront investment during the PPBE process has helped both organizations plan further in advance and minimized end-of-year scrambling to obligate money set to expire,” Stein said.

Stein speaks at the Armed Forces Communications & Electronics Association of Northern Virginia (AFCEA NOVA) 15th Annual Army IT Day in March 2016 in Tysons Corner, Virginia. As PM, Stein relied on SATCOM experts to guide technical decision-making and applied his own acquisition knowledge and leadership skills to build a team to execute those decisions. (Photo courtesy of AFCEA NOVA)

Stein speaks at the Armed Forces Communications & Electronics Association of Northern Virginia (AFCEA NOVA) 15th Annual Army IT Day in March 2016 in Tysons Corner, Virginia. As PM, Stein relied on SATCOM experts to guide technical decision-making and applied his own acquisition knowledge and leadership skills to build a team to execute those decisions. (Photo courtesy of AFCEA NOVA)

DEVELOPMENT NEVER ENDS
The actor, cowboy and humorist Will Rogers used to say, “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” In Stein’s world, that is to say that development never truly stops within any portfolio—a departure from the traditional acquisition-milestone mindset that views a program as strictly linear. This is particularly true in SATCOM, where the Army is constantly chasing to keep up with commercial technology, Stein said. “With the rapid advance of computing and communications technology, every program in this sector will continually be, at least in part, in the developmental stage,” he said.

For example, the Combat Service Support Very Small Aperture Terminals (CSS VSAT) are in sustainment, but the program is already beginning to form the requirements for the next generation of tactical terminals for logistics and sustainment. The Land Mobile Radio (LMR) product office has already fielded systems to Army installations worldwide, but it just launched the Army CONUS [continental United States] Enterprise contract vehicle to improve interoperability and survivability of the LMR networks while increasing competition in a market dominated by just two vendors.

Of all the product management offices, Wideband Enterprise Satellite Systems owns more of PM DCATS’ traditional research, development, test and evaluation programs, exploring future SATCOM technologies such as protected communications and digital intermediate frequency. Digitizing the SATCOM terminal architecture will improve the reliability of deployable communications and their ability to cope with extreme weather events, reducing the amount of required surge capability in each theater, among other benefits. Even these efforts are expected to rely extensively on identifying the appropriate commercial off-the-shelf technology and modifying it for a military environment.

Stein thanks Soldiers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, "The Old Guard," Alabama National Guard and Arizona National Guard, for their work verifying the preparedness of the CSS VSAT system for transition to Soldier sustainment from contractor logistics support, March 3, at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. Stein’s first move as PM was to assess morale through a survey and smaller “sensing sessions,” and then to act on the feedback gathered with policy and personnel changes. (Photo by James Christophersen, PM DCATS)

Stein thanks Soldiers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, “The Old Guard,” Alabama National Guard and Arizona National Guard, for their work verifying the preparedness of the CSS VSAT system for transition to Soldier sustainment from contractor logistics support, March 3, at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. Stein’s first move as PM was to assess morale through a survey and smaller “sensing sessions,” and then to act on the feedback gathered with policy and personnel changes. (Photo by James Christophersen, PM DCATS)

INDUSTRY ADVANCES CHANGE REQUIREMENTS
Ultimately, it is the end user—the Soldier—whose voice matters most in the mix of perspectives on any PEO’s programs. In this respect, PM DCATS faces an uncommon challenge. A typical PM shop has a TCM—a TRADOC (U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command) capability manager—but the diversity of the DCATS portfolio makes it difficult to have that sort of dedicated representation.

“If I were PM Abrams, managing the U.S. Army’s main battle tank, the requirement would be shaped to address specific threats,” Stein noted. “For SATCOM, we look to industry to shape the requirement based on the technology available today, which keeps us ahead of the emerging threats of tomorrow.”

This is particularly relevant to the DCATS mission, as SATCOM relies on industry advances. “Our team is constantly searching for and staying on the pulse of what new capabilities industry is developing in the area of satellite and terrestrial communications so that we can provide assured communications. This is key to maintaining the readiness of the Army and DOD,” Stein said.

INDIVIDUAL ATTENTION
While the technology DCATS fields is the same at every installation worldwide, each theater is unique—be it in facilities, geography or command policy—which translates to distinct challenges for each.

“To confront these, we engage in person with each stakeholder through technical interchange meetings and sustain that engagement through regular communication,” Stein said. This degree of engagement requires extensive, often repetitive, travel, but it pays significant dividends in the mutual understanding and cooperation that those meetings foster, he added. “We also maintain labs at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, and Fort Huachuca, Arizona, and forward-assigned personnel at five sites spread across two continents to keep our experts tied at the hip to the end users,” he said. “Through these efforts, we get to better know our stakeholders’ priorities, risks and concerns, and they are able to better appreciate ours.”

DOD SATCOM collectively—the Defense Information Systems Agency, Army, Navy, everyone—has a severe configuration management problem at the DOD SATCOM Gateway sites, Stein said. “Gateways” are ground stations where the satellite terminals and dishes that provide communications capabilities to the services are located. “Between all the agencies, a proverbial forest of SATCOM technology sits at these sites—but our lack of awareness means we don’t know what kind of ‘trees’ are there. DCATS took initiative to scale up the internal DCATS configuration management systems and is making significant strides toward providing that service for the Army as a whole.”

While there is no official requirement for it to do so, Stein continued, “PM DCATS is taking the initiative to fill this critical gap—in part because it could be considered a subtask to everything else DCATS does.” That thinking illuminates Stein’s forward-looking approach to managing a project and customer service.

“As we go from day to day, we strive to ensure that Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines stationed around the world can take for granted their assured communications for the fights of today, tomorrow and the distant future,” he said shortly before relinquishing the PM DCATS charter.

The DOD Enterprise Satellite Gateway at Fort Detrick, Maryland, features the large strategic satellite terminals installed as part of PM DCATS’ the Modernization of Enterprise Terminals Program. Though Stein had no background in satellite communications, he was charged with leading a team of engineering, contracting and logistics personnel to ensure that wideband satellite coverage is available whenever and wherever Soldiers need it. (Photo by James Christophersen, PM DCATS)

The DOD Enterprise Satellite Gateway at Fort Detrick, Maryland, features the large strategic satellite terminals installed as part of PM DCATS’ the Modernization of Enterprise Terminals Program. Though Stein had no background in satellite communications, he was charged with leading a team of engineering, contracting and logistics personnel to ensure that wideband satellite coverage is available whenever and wherever Soldiers need it. (Photo by James Christophersen, PM DCATS)

CONCLUSION
The Army relies on SATCOM every day. “And when we’ve done our job well at DCATS, you don’t give a second thought to how your IP-enabled phone connects or your internet and email traffic passes over fiber optics,” Stein said. “From the end user’s perspective, their computer plugs into a wire and a server rack somewhere in a closet and then to the internet.”

But without the dedicated, daily efforts of the DCATS team, those connections would be incomplete. “You hear it all the time—because it’s true—that people are our greatest asset. For a PM, if the people on your team are not happy, they won’t be focused on the mission, and that mission will suffer as a result. Gen. Colin Powell [USA (Ret.)] said that ‘Leadership is all about people. It is not about organizations. It is not about plans. It is not about strategies. It is all about people—motivating people to get the job done. You have to be people-centered.’ ”

For more information on leadership, Stein recommends Powell’s books, specifically, “It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership,” and “Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times” by Donald T. Phillips.


MR. JAMES CHRISTOPHERSEN is a contractor and public affairs professional supporting PM DCATS. He has supported various offices of the Army acquisition enterprise since 2014, including the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology. He graduated with a B.S. in psychology from LeTourneau University in Longview, Texas, and earned his Project Management Professional certification in 2015.

RELATED LINKS: PM DCATS programs and dependencies.

This article is published in the October – December 2017 Army AL&T magazine.

Subscribe to Army AL&T News, the premier online news source for the Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology (AL&T) Workforce.