Acquisition Soldiers field forward-deployed SFAB tactical network modernization on the fly.
by Amy Walker
The Army is pushing full steam ahead with network modernization efforts that are making today’s forces more mobile, expeditionary, simplistic and hardened. To inform rapid modernization, it is leveraging developmental operations (DevOps) constructs and other expedited acquisition processes to field innovative expeditionary tactical network and radio communication equipment packages to new and existing unit formations.
This incremental DevOps process is a proven industry practice that places developers side by side with Soldiers and commanders in operational units, thus enabling the Army to evaluate potential technology concepts and solutions earlier and more frequently, collect feedback in real time and generate new requirements as needed. As part of this process, the Army is putting lessons learned and Soldier feedback to work to continually enhance satellite and radio tactical network transport equipment, as well as the way it is fielded and employed on the battlefield.
The Army is standing up new unit formations, such as security force assistance brigades (SFABs), which are providing advise-and-assist support to Afghan Security Forces. The 1st SFAB returned from its nine-month deployment to its home station at Fort Benning, Georgia, in December. The 2nd SFAB from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, will take its place this spring. The Army has begun fielding efforts for the 3rd SFAB at Fort Hood, Texas, and the 4th SFAB at Fort Carson, Colorado.
While traditional fielding, from planning to deployment, can take up to two years to complete, the Army stood up, equipped, trained and prepared the 1st SFAB for deployment to Afghanistan in less than a year. The unit deployed with the equipment needed to carry out its mission safely and effectively; however, because of the condensed timeline, the program offices had to complete fielding some of the non-mission essential equipment after boots had already hit foreign soil.
Capt. Domoniqué Hittner, assistant product manager for Satellite Communications for the Project Manager (PM) for Tactical Network, and Capt. Jonathan Dodge, assistant product manager for Helicopter and Multi-Mission Radios for the PM for Tactical Radios (PM TR), were deployed in Afghanistan with their fielding teams in support of these first SFAB fieldings. Both organizations are part of the Program Executive Office for Command, Control and Communications – Tactical (PEO C3T). Hittner and Dodge worked hand in hand with the unit, including Maj. Anthony Nocchi, communication officer (S-6) for the 1st SFAB. In this Q&A, the three officers provide the insights and lessons they learned on fielding and training forward-deployed units in today’s rapid acquisition environment.The PM for Tactical Network provided new equipment training and fielding on SCOUT satellite terminals to the 1st SFAB in Afghanistan in September 2018. At far right is Capt. Domoniqué Hittner, assistant product manager for Satellite Communications, who observed that it was important to conduct thorough site visits to see what assets were available. “You don’t know what you don’t know until you are there on the ground,” she said. (U.S. Army photo)
1. How do the capabilities you helped field support the SFAB mission?
Hittner: SFABs require expeditionary communications equipment so they can rapidly deploy to theater and can be more agile during their mission support, which encompasses a wide area of operations. As part of the capability set that supports the 1st SFAB’s network, our team validated, fielded and trained the unit on SCOUT ground satellite terminals, which provide satellite capability to enable tactical network connectivity. Fielding these easy-to-use systems gives the SFABs a lightweight, easy-to-transport communications capability, which can be scaled up or down to support small team to large brigade-sized elements.
Dodge: The tactical radios we fielded in Afghanistan included the Leader Radio and single- channel, data-only radios. These radios supported the secure but unclassified (SBU) network that enabled the Soldiers to pass data across the network from their end-user devices. Additionally, during deployment, PM TR installed the mounted configuration of the Leader Radio on the 1st SFAB’s vehicles, which provided connectivity so commanders had better access to situational awareness data. The vehicle systems we integrated helped to provide SBU data and voice communications seamlessly between mounted and dismounted elements. The SBU network enables units to connect into commercial networks to share data, imagery and messaging among team members.
2. Were there any benefits in fielding a forward-deployed unit versus one at home station?
Nocchi: The benefit lay in the ability to really focus on the new equipment training. The Soldiers were all in the same location and could dedicate additional time to hands-on training with the new equipment without some of the competing requirements found at home station. While I’d prefer to field new equipment before deploying, the project managers were very supportive and we were generally successful. The 1st SFAB owes a lot of its success with the new systems to the acquisition community for fielding equipment as fast as they could, getting the manufacturer to provide the equipment and then following up with outstanding training and support.
Hittner: Timelines, the unit’s availability and equipment production will always play a factor in new equipment training and fielding. Any time you are fielding in the continental United States, the unit has a great deal of other mandatory training and preparatory efforts to focus on, especially the SFABs. These new units are setting a new stage to fight on. So on top of preparing for their missions, they have to prepare to become a new formation, so there are a lot of tasks involved—live fires, additional training, monitoring, all the different tasks needed to get the unit prepared to serve in its new capacity.
Because we fielded the 1st SFAB while they were deployed, we received dedicated time to focus purely on training. They were able to pick it up faster, and it saved the unit a lot of time. We were also able to support the unit through all of its reception, staging, onward movement and integration events and in-country tasks required to operate in that area of responsibility.
Dodge: Our embedded team provided mission essential training and support to the 1st SFAB’s lower tactical internet [radio] network. Because I was deployed with our team, I was able to travel to over a dozen locations in Afghanistan over a period of four months to assist with fielding and training.
In total, we fielded over 500 radios and integrated systems into 66 vehicle platforms spread out over Afghanistan. I was able to assist SFAB advisory teams in setting up their radio networks and accompanied them on missions to identify and troubleshoot any issues with new equipment. As part of the developmental operations construct, the Soldier feedback we were able to gather on product performance allowed us to make positive changes to the unit’s communications architecture while they were still in theater.
3. Did you do anything different as far as the training itself was concerned?
Nocchi: The SCOUT training went well but required some refinement, which was expected due to the circumstances and makeup of the class: Some Soldiers had extensive network experience and some had very little. We are recommending and attempting to schedule new equipment training for general purpose users and new equipment training for technical users and Signal officers, which will teach the operators what they need to know based on what equipment they’ll be operating and at what level.
Hittner: The PM Tactical Network training team designed and developed a training set for the
SCOUT system to support the unit’s specific mission requirements, enabling them to successfully perform their mission training completion. We put the unit’s feedback to work and developed a condensed general user training set to support new SFAB Soldiers. PM Tactical Network takes Soldier feedback from training events and shapes training packages to suit a unit’s needs, taking into account missions, Soldiers’ military occupational specialties, age groups, etc. With the numerous rapid acquisition efforts the Army is conducting, the PM is staying innovative in the way we train by delivering a concise yet diverse training set.
We are streamlining training, making it shorter and more user-friendly, more intuitive and more technologically enhanced to match the needs and expectations of a new generation of Soldiers. We reworded manuals and reduced portions of the training to make them more clear and suitable for general users, and we employed a lot of hands-on training.
4. What lessons did you learn from your deployment that could help future fielding efforts or other PM fielding deployments?
Dodge: Having a “green suiter” lead fielding efforts makes coordination with units much easier, as we understand how operational units work and can thus better plan around their mission. Coordination and ensuring that the project manager is on the same page as the unit is essential. I was closely tied with the brigade and battalion staff to keep them aware of all acquisition efforts, so they could redirect me as necessary in support of their missions and timelines. While the program office is responsible for fielding, the unit should be the driving factor in determining who gets assets first. The unit is the customer!
We are also continuing to use Soldier feedback to implement changes to streamline and improve fielding and training. For example, when we first started fielding the 1st SFAB, some of the radios were fielded incrementally as parts became available, rather than fielding the system as a complete set. But we learned quickly that it was more efficient to field the entire system at once to enable the unit to train as they fight.
Hittner: New formations like the SFABs rely on us for guidance in the fielding and training process. I wouldn’t say we had any significant challenges, but [we had] opportunities to learn. You don’t know what you don’t know until you are there on the ground, so we conducted thorough site visits to see what assets were there. One thing the site visits revealed was the need to coordinate shipping. We streamlined supply support by proactively and very closely cross-coordinating across entities before shipping, including the unit on the ground, the warehouse and the shipping entities. It is also important to closely monitor tracking numbers to stay ahead of any unforeseen shipping issues and to keep a fluid shipping line from point A to point B.
Synchronization is key to fulfilling the unit’s requirements. A lot of planning and coordination enabled us to expedite shipping and we are able to provide a smooth, fairly seamless transition of equipment from the United States to Afghanistan. The next time when we go back to field another forward-deployed unit, the lessons learned will make everything more expeditious.
This fielding effort has also made coordination with our vendors much smoother and our relationships with all of our PM logisticians, and the units forward-deployed much stronger. The Army often talks about being ready to deploy and support any time we are called, and that includes the acquisition community, folks in the background, all the civilians and all of the partners. It’s important that we can rapidly pull together to make these missions successful, whether supporting from home station or deployed with the unit. Units will always need new technologies. If we have the ability to field them all in the U.S., that’s great; if not, we need to remain flexible.
To enable your team and others to be successful, it’s important to understand the scope of the mission and really project= the plan out as far as you can with the information you have at hand, and be flexible enough to overcome the changes and potential roadblocks that may arise down the road. Remaining flexible has been vital to the success of this last fielding, and it will definitely help us with future fieldings as well. It’s important to note that this mission is ongoing. I think the biggest takeaway is to just give Soldiers grace when they are deployed. Everyone that has worn this green suit before understands what it’s like to be deployed, whether it’s missing your family or just the many things happening there, all of the expectations, the hard work, the long hours that you put in, and the time you have to sit back and reflect. Do anything you can to support them.
AMY WALKER has been the public affairs lead at PM Tactical Network for the last nine years, and was the public affairs lead at PEO C3T for the previous two. She has covered most of the Army’s major tactical network transport modernization effort, including Army, joint and coalition fielding and training events worldwide. She holds a B.A. in psychology, with emphasis in marketing and English, from the College of New Jersey.
This article is published in the April-May 2019 issue of Army AL&T magazine.
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