Col. Michael Thurston, Project Manager for Mission Command, lays out the essentials

By October 12, 2015September 3rd, 2018Acquisition, Army ALT Magazine
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By Ms. Nancy Jones-Bonbrest


There’s a fundamental rule on the battlefield: To command effectively, you must be able to communicate.

The Army continues its push to modernize mission command capabilities and embrace rapidly emerging technology against a backdrop of fiscal constraints and a volatile global security environment. At the same time, it remains focused on delivering to commanders and Soldiers the information they need to execute decisive actions anytime, anywhere and on any device.

To implement this vision, the Army’s Project Manager for Mission Command (PM MC), assigned to the Program Executive Office for Command, Control and Communications – Tactical (PEO C3T), is working aggressively to transition stand-alone mission command systems into an integrated, Web-based environment. User-friendly apps deliver warfighting functions merged with a common and shared view of the battlefield. Much as many people use their smartphones, tablets and laptops interchangeably, commanders will be able to plan a mission in the command post, then view and execute this plan while mobile in their vehicles and even dismounted with troops, viewing the same relevant information on a handheld device.

The Army is approaching mission command modernization holistically, incrementally refining requirements and executing development, integration, testing and fielding to drive to the larger vision of one Common Operating Environment (COE). As we converge servers and migrate stand-alone mission command system “boxes” into common infrastructure and adaptive apps using a commercial development approach, this cost-effective modernization process will leverage competition, encourage innovation and broaden opportunities for industry.


Featuring satellite-linked situational awareness data and easy-to-use battlefield chat rooms, the JBC-P displayed on this Mounted Family of Computer Systems hardware provides users a highly intuitive Google Earth-like interface that allows a close zoom-in to view precise locations, provides icons to pinpoint improvised explosive devices on a map, and uses instant messaging to call for medics. (Photo by Edric Thompson, U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) Corporate and Public Communication Office)

With 27 years of experience in tactical and strategic communications, including leading major networking and radio programs, Col. Michael Thurston, now PM MC, is charged with overhauling much of the Army’s tactical application infrastructure. Thurston recognized early that in striving to attain the vision of an effective, agile and decisive mission command capability supporting expeditionary operations, a “business-as-usual” approach wouldn’t cut it. Changes are needed in organization, resourcing, processes, technology and testing if the Army is to seize this unique opportunity effectively. Thurston provided his perspective on these changes and how to implement them in a Q&A discussion on July 9.

Q. How do you see mission command changing to meet the needs of a lighter, more expeditionary force?

A. The fundamental changes we are making in mission command today to meet expeditionary operations are to separate the functional warfighting applications from the infrastructure; consolidate common services such as collaboration and visualization; and create an authoritative, synchronized data source common to all applications. We are also driving toward a common user experience across the tactical formation and the ability for application mobility across environments. Web-based applications will now be available to all authorized staff instead of the few system operators and can be tailored across a family of commercial-based clients, whether in the command post or mobile.

The Army is also working to bring mobility and simplicity to the command post initiatives by consolidating computing hardware, adapting wireless technologies, converting systems into software applications and adding remote administration capabilities. The vision is to make the command post more agile and operate more effectively with less equipment. The Army is also investigating solutions that enable corps and division main command posts to operate primarily from home station, while deploying smaller “right-sized” formations armed with leaner mobile tactical command posts.

Q. You oversee an organization that only last year was two separate project management offices. What are you doing to organize PM MC to meet the changing needs of the Army?

A. It always starts with organization and people. With any reorganization, you have to quickly establish the organizational vision and set goals. For us, it is mission command modernization, which is an initiative to homogenize mission command capabilities across formations and echelons. The merger provided the opportunity to bridge organizational and technological barriers between PM MC’s role in the Command Post Computing Environment (CP CE) and the leadership of PM Joint Battle Command – Platform (JBC-P) in the Mounted Computing Environment (MCE).

This merger was the result of the Army’s natural progression over time from individual battle command systems to unified mission command capabilities for all echelons.

You also have to instill a culture of innovation in your team. This goes beyond technical innovation and includes innovation in everyday business practices such as contract development, programmatic structure and resource management. You do this by empowering people at all levels and creating collaborative teaming environments. The merged PM MC embraces a system-of-systems approach, which has improved the ability to innovate, challenge the status quo and adopt new technologies that will greatly improve the effectiveness of our systems.


Soldiers of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division use the Army’s tactical network to stay connected and adapt quickly to a range of expeditionary military operations during NIE 15.2 this past spring at Fort Bliss, TX. (Photo by Nancy Jones-Bonbrest, PEO C3T)

Q. What are some of the innovative tools you put in place, specifically in development, integration, testing and fielding, to move your organization to that vision?

A. We started with the organization itself. Following many in industry, we realigned internally as a matrix organization. This method pools resources in the technical, business and readiness management divisions to better share ideas and respond to program priorities.

We then created outcome-based, multidisciplinary integrated product teams (IPTs), and aligned resources from the functional pools and in many cases from external agencies and stakeholders such as requirements, science and technology and life cycle sustainment communities. This method brings together experts across the organization to work with the test, fielding and sustainment communities in a holistic manner. The outcome goals of the IPT are typically achieved within six months to two years and include milestone decisions, software builds, operational tests and fieldings to a first unit equipped.

Competition is another driver of innovation and is instilled in every acquisition strategy. We compete all aspects of the program and even compete government developers and contracting agencies. Well-defined and moderately sized efforts reduce risk and contractor overhead and thereby improve execution. In our experience, providers who compete for and win these opportunities are more eager to perform well so that they are better postured for subsequent contracts. The PM has also adopted innovative contracting techniques to support the program’s acquisition strategy. Using the full range of contract options available, PM MC is creating the ability to rapidly secure developers to provide a variety of competitively awarded engineering services and software deliverables needed in agile acquisition.

Q. How does the COE play a role in development of mission command capabilities?

A. The Army’s COE establishes mission command networking standards. It identifies cross-cutting capabilities used by many systems, such as geospatial visualization, and it allocates responsibility to subordinate CEs to implement. The COE provides the governance to the CEs, ensuring that the Army is developing capabilities effectively with the goal of reducing development and long-term sustainment costs, while improving overall system integration in the earliest stages of systems acquisition. Each CE then provides its own derived standards and governance to the programs within its purview and may even define technologies to be used if necessary to ensure compatibility.

PM MC has responsibilities within the MCE and CP CE, and works closely with the other four CEs that are part of the Army’s COE. We are building applications and infrastructure to comply with COE and CE standards, but we are also looking across the three principal computing environments of COE that support the command post, mounted and dismounted leaders to bring greater commonality and simplicity to the maps, messaging and capabilities we deliver to Soldiers.


Soldiers from the Fort Benning Experimental Force, 1st Battalion, 29th Infantry Regiment assess capabilities that enable mission command, during the E15 field-based risk reduction event at Fort Dix, New Jersey, in July. (Photo by Edric Thompson, CERDEC Corporate and Public Communication)

Q. How is PM MC working with vendors and government developers to make military tactical apps more user-friendly, resembling commercial applications? How is this a unique partnership?

A. Our goal is to make applications easier to use—with a more intuitive user interface, a common map and common services across all the warfighting functions—but also more robust so that Soldiers don’t need to know everything about the systems in order to make them work together. Through the Army’s CP CE and MCE, we have one development environment to create emerging technologies, allowing us to share experiences and knowledge.

We are also providing software development kits (SDKs) to our vendors and government developers so they can make the apps interoperable up front, and on the back end more cost-effective to integrate and easier to use. These SDKs are in place for both CP CE, which leverages the Ozone Widget Framework [an in-browser pub-sub event system that allows Web apps to share information] for apps in the command post, as well as for the MCE, which leverages the Android CE for apps inside tactical vehicles. CP CE and MCE will allow developers to provide new apps that ride on top of common software, which alleviates the need for separate programs with unique operating systems and services.

While we can look to industry to assist in app, services and infrastructure development, it’s our responsibility to perform the lead system integrator role for all of our products within CP CE and MCE, to bring in all the capabilities and orchestrate all the moving pieces. We have to get back to the government taking a larger role in the integration—not so much in the technologies—as we don’t need to re-create apps or build the hardware, which should be commercial. Let industry do that. But how it comes together to support the warfighting mission is absolutely government’s role.

Q. What has been a good success story for you?

A. There have been several this past year, including fielding of improved mission command applications and hardware to dozens of Army units, supporting PM Warfighter Information Network – Tactical (WIN-T) in providing en-route mission planning capability to the XVIII Airborne Corps, and several engagements with other nations’ forces to improve coalition interoperability.

JBC-P, fielded to the first unit this year, delivering improved situational awareness, chat and graphics capability to the mounted Soldier. Soldiers say it is simple, intuitive and reliable, which is a testament to the fact that JBC-P was built over time, using direct feedback from Soldiers at the Network Integration Evaluations (NIEs) and several user juries. In fielding JBC-P, we took the first step into COE. JBC-P is the basis of the MCE and will soon host an Android environment that will enable rapid integration of applications on the more than 130,000 platforms in the field.

A final great news story is the convergence of operations, intelligence and network-based transport server architectures on a single Tactical Server Infrastructure (TSI) as part of the CP CE effort. TSI will replace separate server stacks in the command post, reducing the burden on Soldiers and creating efficiencies in fielding, training and sustainment. The TSI is undergoing development test and is expected to debut at NIE 16.2 next spring.

Q. Is there anything you would like to add in closing?

A. To encourage innovation, you have to empower your people and you have to create an organization in which your people have the resources and feel they can be effective. You give them the vision and direction and let them go. You check them along the way, but you let them come up with creative approaches and creative ideas. Challenge the status quo and give them the power to do that. Clearly I’m not claiming success in all of this: We are still a work in progress. But we’re heading in the right direction and making real strides as we charge forward with the Army’s goal to achieve mission command anywhere, anytime and on any device.


Through mobile communications technology that connects all echelons of a brigade combat team, the network reduces units’ reliance on fixed infrastructure, extends their range of communications and improves battlefield awareness at the lowest levels. (Photo by Nancy Jones-Bonbrest, PEO C3T)

For more information, go to the PEO C3T website at or the PM MC website at; or contact the PEO C3T Public Affairs Office at 443-395-6489 or

MS. NANCY JONES-BONBREST is a staff writer for DSA Inc., providing contract support to PEO C3T. She holds a B.S. in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park. She has covered the Army’s tactical network for several years, including multiple training and testing events.

This article was originally published in the October – December 2015 issue of Army AL&T magazine.

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