Passing the iPhone test

By May 5, 2014May 14th, 2014Acquisition
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Advancing the Common Operating Environment to support current and future Soldiers


By Ms. Portia I. Crowe


Apple’s iPhone took a standard architecture and improved it, then provided a software development kit (SDK) that enabled third-party developers to quickly and inexpensively create applications, or “apps,” that deliver weather, social media, games and more. It worked intuitively, at the touch of a finger and with little or no instruction. By delivering the power of the Internet when and where we wanted it, apps revolutionized information delivery and had us all saying, “There’s an app for that.”

That kind of “smart” is the Army’s objective as it moves forward with its Common Operating Environment (COE). Without sacrificing warfighter capability or information security, but recognizing the need to converge multiple systems onto a common architecture, the Army is using a standards-based approach to try to pass “the iPhone test”— to provide the intuitive interface and rapid delivery with common look and feel of the smartphone.

COE is an approved set of computing technologies and standards that enable the rapid development and execution of secure and interoperable applications across a variety of computing environments. Established in 2010 by both the Army’s chief information officer/G-6 and the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology, the COE guidelines support the Army’s 30-year strategic modernization approach. The COE consists of six computing environments: the data cloud, command post, mounted and/or platform, mobile, sensor, and real-time safety-critical or fires and missiles.

The COE infrastructure services, defined set of standards, and processes act as a platform and playbook for industry partners, government program managers and third-party developers. The COE sets the foundation to enable rapid development of a stable, secure infrastructure, allowing the Army to field capabilities quickly while creating a long-term evolutionary plan that is sustainable and affordable. Currently, integrated development environments (IDEs) and SDKs are left to the discretion of the developer. The CEs introduce a standard set of DOD-approved IDEs and SDKs for third-party developers, allowing for innovation and rapid transition of capability.

This model of doing business goes a long way toward meeting the expectations of today’s Soldier, who has grown up with technology and expects intuitive, interoperable devices and applications with little or no learning curve. The vision of simplicity for the Soldier is at the core of efforts by the Program Executive Office Command, Control and Communications – Tactical (PEO C3T) to create a closer alignment across the tactical communications portions of the COE, which include the Command Post Computing Environment (CP CE), Mounted Computing Environment (MCE), and mobile or handheld environment, while also ensuring interoperability with the other computing environments.

As part of its network modernization road map, PEO C3T is making a concerted effort to remove stand-alone systems that require separate log-in procedures, training materials and field support, and transition to a unified tactical computing environment in which capabilities are seamlessly accessible, both vertically and horizontally, across Army echelons as well as interoperating with our joint and coalition partners.

Implementation of a tactical computing environment not only addresses the need for greater interoperability within the force, but also allows for a more agile, flexible and innovative Army.

This tighter alignment of capabilities through the COE will reduce hardware costs, simplify training, and leverage industry innovation to provide new technologies quickly. It will continue to strengthen our partnerships with the Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC), other PEOs and industry as we use standards that leverage industry best practices and adopt a common focus for the end state of tactical communications capabilities.

CP CE is intended for use inside tactical operations centers by commanders and staff to synchronize operations and view a more holistic picture of the battlefield.

By using a government-authorized laptop connected to the appropriate classified network, commanders and staff can log into the Web-based framework and access software applications specific to their mission, including fires, logistics, intelligence, airspace management and maneuver.

To date, CP CE has taken shape by converging existing stand-alone hardware systems into a common software framework. For example, the Joint Warning and Reporting Network, which provides the operational capability to report, analyze and disseminate chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear agent detection and warning, has transitioned from a single, separate system to the Web browser-based environment. Similarly, the previously stand-alone Maneuver Control System, which provides a common tactical picture, is also now integrated as a Web browser-based application. The Army unveiled the first version of CP CE during the 2013 Network Integration Evaluations (NIEs), a series of semiannual field exercises in which Soldiers assess network capabilities. CP CE received positive user feedback on the execution of mission command through Web-based applications.

Additional mission command capabilities, which include the Battle Command Sustainment and Support System, the Army’s maneuver sustainment system, and Global Command and Control System – Army (GCCS-A), the Army’s strategic, tactical and theater command and control system, will migrate to the Web environment as part of the CP CE evolutionary strategy.

In the near future, CP CE will provide a common data strategy that will separate the data from the applications while reducing multiple databases. CP CE has established and governed key COE enablers such as a common standard sharable geospatial foundation, a common application framework and virtualization, supported by technical guidance, developers’ handbooks and a software development kit.

The Joint Battle Command – Platform (JBC-P) provides a glimpse into the future of mission command. JBC-P is the Army’s primary situational awareness tool and the foundation for the MCE. MCE, in turn, is the COE’s standard for tactical vehicles, which continue to evolve into mobile mission command centers and serve as a vital link between dismounted Soldiers and their higher headquarters.

With intuitive tools that include a Google Earth-like interface with touch-to-zoom maps for quicker views of precise locations, drag-and-drop icons for placing enemy locations or improvised explosive devices on a map, and chat rooms that allow instant messaging, JBC-P reflects heavy Soldier involvement in its development. Fielding of JBC-P will begin later this year. Through JBC-P, which upgrades the widely fielded Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below/Blue Force Tracking (FBCB2/BFT) system, Soldiers in tactical vehicles will be able to access new applications as well as tools they have come to rely on.

As the JBC-P program explores the potential technical benefits of greater alignment with the well-known Android-based infrastructure, new levels of interoperability in the MCE could open up for industry, which can quickly build to the COE. This alignment with the Android operating system would also set up greater interoperability between the MCE and the mobile, handheld computing environment found in Nett Warrior handheld devices. As JBC-P accepts the migration of more capabilities through the COE, the Army will leverage existing FBCB2 hardware while continuing to evolve new solutions.

The Army took a significant step last year with the signing of a contract between PEO C3T and DRS Technologies Inc. for initial delivery of a single hardware solution in vehicles known as the Mounted Family of Computer Systems (MFoCS). With a modular “build your own system” computer, users will be able to access and operate several different software applications over a single piece of computer hardware that is scalable and tailorable to the mission and vehicle. Developed to converge separate computing functions into a single architecture, MFoCS will run JBC-P and other command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) applications.

The tactical mission command of the future—in which the Army will standardize what Soldiers see across handheld devices, vehicle mounted systems and command post screens—will provide operational agility across warfighting functions. Just as the iPhone keeps the complexity “inside the box,” delivering a user-friendly interface with apps that are easy to obtain, change, upgrade, develop and test, so, too, can Army mission command.

By continuing to break down separate systems into capabilities that can run on a common infrastructure, building in intuitive features, and aligning CP CE and MCE for unified data on a common operating picture, we can offer Soldiers a computing environment that mirrors what they use in their daily lives.

Along with the operational benefits, the Army expects to realize cost savings by combining hardware and other infrastructure, reducing software development efforts, and right-sizing the number of field support personnel required to train Soldiers, troubleshoot systems and sustain the tactical network. Moving from hardware-centric to software-centric development, with standardized applications that industry is familiar with and can build to, is projected to yield further reductions. Already under CP CE, the Tactical Airspace Information System, a PEO Aviation system, has converted from a stand-alone client to the more efficient Web-based approach, resulting in a cost avoidance of $32 million through FY25. Also, under MCE, the signing of the MFoCS contract represents a reduction of as much as 36 percent in the cost of the basic vehicle-mounted computer while increasing its performance by as much as 350 percent.

With the guidance of the network modernization road map, combined with targeted efforts for accelerating a tactical computing environment that allows for shared applications, unified data and services using common hardware over a reliable, secure transmission network, the Army will achieve its operational and programmatic goals—and pass the iPhone test.

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MS. PORTIA I. CROWE is the PEO C3T COE lead and command post chief engineer. She is a PhD candidate at the Stevens Institute of Technology, and holds an M.S. in engineering management from New Jersey Institute of Technology and a B.S. in computer science from Rutgers University. She is a member of the U.S. Army Acquisition Corps and a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt.

This article was originally published in the April – June 2014 issue of Army AL&T magazine.

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