PEO C3T leverages rapid acquisition and prototyping to improve network management for new software-defined radios.
by Maj. Nicholas Milano, Keith Whittaker, George Senger and Amy Walker
The Army has been fielding new software-defined radios, such as the 2-Channel Leader Radio, to enable voice and data exchange across U.S. Army, joint and coalition forces on the battlefield, at extended ranges and with greater capability than ever before. However, once deployed, Soldiers began asking for easier and faster ways to perform the initial, labor-intensive networking tasks required to enable these advanced radios to communicate across the battlespace.
To address their request, our team at the Program Executive Office for Command, Control and Communications – Tactical (PEO C3T) leveraged the Army’s rapid acquisition prototyping processes and reduced the time it takes to conduct these networking tasks for a brigade’s worth of radios from four weeks to just minutes. These once labor-intensive tasks include:
- Radio initialization, which prepares the data products needed for the unit to run on the network, including unique identifiers, roles and Internet Protocol addresses, and takes into account a unit’s mission, personnel footprint and mix of networked mission command systems.
- Radio planning, which designs the radio networks and provides needed planning information such as location data, configurations and settings.
- Loading all of the data and software into each radio.
Along with speeding these tasks, the new user-friendly software prototype tools are less complex compared with the Army’s current capability in use today, which means that tasks once performed by advanced signal Soldiers can now be performed by general-purpose users. Additionally, when a commander needs to reassign a unit on the battlefield, the software tool suite makes it easier for signal Soldiers to more rapidly complete the extensive radio networking tasks needed to support such changes, a process known as unit task reorganization.
Taking full advantage of the Army’s acquisition processes for rapid prototyping, which are outlined in Section 804 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016, our team was able to develop these software prototypes in just three months, compared with the 12 to 18 months a traditional, fully custom Army development effort would have taken. By fully adopting rapid acquisition concepts and better business practices, DOD organizations like PEO C3T can deliver new technologies to the field faster and outpace U.S. adversaries in the technology race.
NEW WAYS TO GO FAST
As part of its acquisition reform, the Army has been implementing new ways to speed acquisition processes to deliver capabilities that will prepare our forces to fight and win a war against any adversary. Among these reforms is the other-transaction authority, which enables program managers of smaller programs to enter into contracts with vendors to prototype new technologies. PEO C3T’s other-transaction authority efforts include the accelerated prototyping of capabilities that incorporate common network planning, configuration, monitoring, provisioning, management and cyber defense. We are using these authorities to prototype solutions, such as our radio management tool suite, to configure and integrate tactical and enterprise networks, enabling the delivery of information and communications among Soldiers at all echelons and using network resources prioritized according to the commander’s intent.
The Army’s Network Cross-Functional Team continues to identify capability gaps and integration challenges across existing network programs. Our team rapidly developed each of the prototype software-defined radio management solutions to address some of these gaps under the Unified Network Operations middle-tier acquisition authority, which was granted by the Army acquisition executive in March 2019, with PEO C3T named as the decision authority and the office of primary responsibility. At the time, it was the eighth middle-tier authority to be approved by the Army. The authority enabled us to prototype industry software to support existing operational needs without formal requirements documentation and to gain Soldier feedback to continue to enhance the capabilities and inform Army fielding decisions.
UNIFIED NETWORK OPERATIONS PROTOTYPES
On the battlefield, communications officers from the tactical edge up through corps use network management software capabilities to plan, configure, manage, monitor, control, secure and defend their network assets—the combination of which is referred to as network operations. The Unified Network Operations middle-tier acquisition authority is helping us to provide a more integrated, standardized and simplified network operations architecture. In one of the first efforts under the agreement, in March 2019 we concentrated on prototyping existing commercial software applications for network planning and management, integrating them into existing government programs of record, and then quickly inserting them into military formations to gain feedback for further enhancements and to support future Army capability decisions.
It was apparent early on that an integrated tool suite would require an integrated team that promoted alignment, collaboration and rapid delivery. From the beginning, we worked closely with Army stakeholders, including the Network Cross-Functional Team, to ensure that our PEO C3T team was synchronized with Army network modernization efforts and requirements. Our team created a methodology to rapidly integrate and align development activities between the offices, implementing software development techniques found in the commercial software development world—including agile software development; a scaled agile software framework, which guided the team in applying lean and agile practices for rapid development and delivery; and a unified team-of-teams that managed a tightly integrated software release cycle, known as an agile release train.
Following middle-tier acquisition authority guidelines, we looked at leveraging commercial technologies, existing Army programs and resources to meet the network operations gaps in support of evolving unit formations, such as the Expeditionary Signal Battalion–Enhanced pilot unit and the security force assistance brigades, and the emerging network operations requirements that support them. We looked at resources that were available within PEO C3T that were already being used in different project offices to satisfy specific needs. We found significant synergies in software-defined radio capability development between Project Lead Network Enablers, Project Manager Tactical Network and Project Manager Tactical Radios, and we knew that combining and integrating efforts would be an exponentially more efficient and effective process.
We created an integrated team of over 20 engineers, including a senior engineer from each of the three project management offices. Instead of each office focusing on its own product, the team worked together to pull the different products together to work as one functional business process. We looked for innovative ways to enhance each other’s separate capabilities, which eventually led to the enhancement of the radio management tool suite as a whole.
We did not build an entirely new Army system or write mountains of new code, but instead used common interfaces and protocols—work that already had been done in commercial industry. We integrated commercial application and tools into our existing systems so they could work in new ways. Within three months of working together, we were able to reduce the process to initialize, plan and load a brigade’s worth of radios from four weeks to just minutes.
As permitted in middle-tier acquisition guidelines, we did not need to wait for formal requirements documents and other time-consuming documentation, enabling our team to quickly perform market research with industry to speed development of the radio network management tool suite. Through requests for information and technical exchange meetings initiated by the Network Cross-Functional Team, where we explained to industry the software capabilities that we were looking for, we were able to determine the best options for integrating existing capabilities with minimum development efforts. Where possible, we created capability that is not vendor specific, to spur innovation and keep costs down through increased competition.
To create the prototype capabilities, the other-transaction authority spurred us, when possible, to contract smaller vendors that traditionally do not support military efforts. Other-transaction authority also enabled us to continually assess experimentation results and Soldier feedback to see how these products could potentially support a more mature system that we could eventually field across the force. If results reveal that a product is not the right fit, we can look for something else that works better, before fielding the capability to numerous units.
We had to bridge language barriers in technology and processes in order to make sure new vendors understood the military requirements, and we had to understand what the proposed commercial off-the-shelf technologies could do for us. In the end, when we applied the nontraditional vendor’s existing technologies to our evolving military systems, the technologies functioned in new ways. The vendors did not need to change their internal business processes to provide their technologies to us, enabling them to enter into an arena once monopolized by larger, more traditional defense contractors.
USE OPEN FRAMEWORKS AND STANDARDS
Adopting an open framework and standards was a key component that enabled us to use nontraditional vendors, and it also provided common network planning, configuration, management and monitoring capabilities. Throughout the process of developing the radio network operations software tool suite, we purposely laid a foundation for an open framework and open standards, including open application programming interfaces that enable applications to “talk” to each other. This open architecture ensures that future DOD software and system development will most effectively share information between systems and more easily and rapidly integrate future systems to improve functionality and capability.
The open construct will be critical to future network modernization endeavors. DOD continues to develop integrated capability, such as its Integrated Tactical Network, which includes multiple vendors, hardware, software, configurations and systems that overarch multiple programs. The Integrated Tactical Network design enables commanders to leverage military and commercially available networks for communication and more easily share information with their coalition mission partners. The commercial off-the-shelf equipment package includes new expeditionary satellite terminals, high-capacity line-of-sight capability, mobile broadband kits, radio waveforms, a 2-Channel Leader Radio, single-channel radios, smartphone end-user devices, network gateways, unified network operations tools and data products.
IMPLEMENT DEVELOPMENTAL OPERATIONS
To get the new prototype software tool suite to the field faster and to continue to improve capability, we are conducting ongoing experiments and using a developmental operations construct that puts developers alongside Soldiers and commanders in operational units. The Soldiers put the capabilities through their paces in training and field exercises, and we incorporate their feedback to continually inform requirements. This incremental development process enables our team to evaluate new technology concepts and potential solutions earlier and more frequently, collect feedback in real time, and rapidly generate new requirements as needed.
Under the developmental operations construct, our engineers implemented Agile release train principles used in the software industry that are designed to bring the team-of-teams together to deliver regular planned upgrades. Continuous exploration and integration fed quarterly software releases that were part of quarterly Soldier touchpoints with various units, including 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division; 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division; and the 10th Mountain Division. Through these Soldier touchpoints, we are gaining continuous feedback on the prototype software design, which is immediately fed back into the software development sprint cycles, to be refined again as part of the next quarterly release cycle. Using this common cadence, each of the three PEO C3T program offices has dedicated resources to continuously define, build, test and deliver the best possible capability to the Army, prior to fielding it across the force.
The Army’s new rapid acquisition processes have empowered our PEO C3T team with new ways to use commercial technologies and synchronize existing resources to effectively meet the Army’s evolving network operations needs. By fueling open relationships with our industry partners; creating open standards and architectures that enable nontraditional vendors to compete; and leveraging prototypes, experimentation and Soldier feedback to continually inform requirements and enhancements, we can arm our Soldiers with the most innovative and relevant network capability possible. To keep ahead of our near-peer adversaries, we have to remain ahead in the technology race.
INTEGRATING ELEMENTS TO EXPAND CAPABILITIES
The Army’s new, user-friendly network operations planning and management software prototype tool suite can initialize, plan and load a brigade’s worth of radios faster than ever before. Each integrated piece of software works in unison in a beginning-to-end network planning and initialization workflow. The software includes several components:
- Integrated Planner is an overarching system that plans and creates network configuration files for numerous network elements, including the software-defined radios supporting the Army’s tactical network. This planner was developed to integrate or replace existing network planners.
- Network Operations Management System is an overarching prototype system used to manage the network and support unclassified, classified and coalition network enclaves with a common look, touch, feel and functionality.
- Initialization Tool Suite enables Soldiers to manage and modify their data products on the ground in theater. Data products provide the information required to enable end-to-end network connectivity and interoperability across the Army’s tactical internet.
- Codex is a database with a common data model and open application programming interfaces (APIs), enabling standard access to the data products. APIs enable applications to “talk” to each other.
- Atom is a simplified radio planner that provides intuitive workflow and an open API that uses the data product network design to provide a radio waveform plan. The Atom prototype will inform enhancements and future capability and fielding decisions on the final solution to support existing and emerging planning requirements, potentially replacing the legacy Joint Enterprise Network Management Capability.
- Black Sails is a simplified radio configuration tool that uses the waveform plan through an open API to configure software-defined lower tactical internet radios. Atom and Black Sails work hand-in-hand: Atom creates the plan and Black Sails generates the configuration files and loads the radios.
As DOD postures itself to retain advantage over near-peer adversaries, these new prototype software tools are expected to dramatically increase unit readiness, data exchange, agility, operational flexibility and network communication range, and to reduce unit burden on the battlefield.
MAJ. NICHOLAS MILANO is a basic branch engineer officer, and he serves as the assistant product manager for the Product Manager for Tactical Cyber and Network Operations (PM TCNO) and the project lead for the Network Manager and Codex efforts. He has a B.A. in computer studies from the University of Maryland and an M.A. in management from American Military University. He has been in the acquisition workforce for two years, is a member of the Army Acquisition Corps (AAC) and is Level II certified in program management.
KEITH WHITTAKER serves as the product lead for network planning in PM TCNO. Over the last five years, he has supported PEO C3T in various capacities, serving as an expert in network operations and software engineering for Army and joint service programs of record. He holds a B.S. in information systems management from Columbia Southern University, and is a member of the AAC. He is Level III certified in information technology and Level II certified in program management.
GEORGE SENGER is a computer scientist serving as the software and services assistant product manager for the Product Manager for Waveforms and the lead engineer for Project Black Sails. Over the past few years, he has supported PEO C3T and the Project Manager for Tactical Radios as a tactical radio and software engineering expert. He has a B.A. in communications from William Patterson College in New Jersey, and an M.S. in computer science from Montclair State University, also in New Jersey. He is a member of the AAC and is Level III certified in systems engineering.
AMY WALKER has been the public affairs lead at the Project Manager for Tactical Network for the last nine years, and was the public affairs lead at PEO C3T for the previous two. She has covered a majority 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 Winter 2020 issue of Army AL&T magazine.
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