Interesting article based on aspirations, setbacks and bottlenecks of creating a net enabled warrior.
Starting in October, some soldiers — represented by this dummy in the Pentagon courtyard — will carry a Motorola Atrix like the one strapped to the dummy’s chest, enabling them to send and receive data while dismounted in warzones. Photo: Spencer Ackerman/Wired.com
In October, the Army will do something it’s wanted to do for more than a decade: send a pair of combat brigades to a warzone equipped with a new data network, and the hardware to operate it. It’ll let more than a thousand troops rapidly send voice, text, imagery and data across a warzone and to a soldier on patrol. It’s a milestone, following years of aspirations, setbacks and adjustments. And it arrives pretty much too late for the wars.
When the 3rd and 4th Brigade Combat Teams of the 10th Mountain Division reach Afghanistan in October, between 1,200 and 1,400 soldiers will take with them a rejiggered Motorola Atrix running Android that’s the heart of a communications program called Nett Warrior. When they go out on patrol, their devices will load mapping applications layered with data about where they are and where their buddies are. When they encounter insurgents, homemade bombs or Afghan civilians, they’ll be able to record that information, which will appear on those digital maps as icons dotting layers of data.
Using the Rifleman Radios plugged into their Motorola devices, they’ll be able to transmit that data in a series of relays from one radio to another, across their units, into their trucks and back to their company headquarters. When the data reaches the computers within a tactical operations center, their captain and first sergeant will be able to see their battlefields like never before, as they change, in near-real time. And those officers will be able to ping that picture up the chain of command, to the battalion and then brigade headquarters — and, should a colonel decide it’s necessary, onward and upward, all the way back to the Pentagon, thousands of miles away.
And it works both ways. When the captain decides that there’s information at his or her level that a squad leader needs to know — say, a suspicious car moving at a high rate of speed toward the squad, captured on video from an Army drone overhead — the captain can send it out to the squad leader. A new icon will appear on the mapping app on the Atrix.
“This is a capability we have never, ever been able to provide,” says Brig. Gen. John Morrison, one of the key figures behind the Army’s new data network, called the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, or WIN-T.
He’s not kidding: WIN-T has been in the works since 1996. For most of that time, it lived as the dream of Pentagon officials — and the frustrations of soldiers in confusing, arduous fights in Iraq and Afghanistan, who didn’t have the tactical information they needed when they needed it. Army colonels and generals who announced the deployment of WIN-T to Afghanistan at the Pentgon on Thursday used terms like “sea change” to describe it.
Only that change may have come too late.
Inside a mock-up of a mobile Tactical Operations Center that’s running the Army’s new Warfighter Information Network-Tactical. The TOC (“tock”), as soldiers call it, is designed to be mobile: It can be picked up, moved and reconstructed in three hours. Photo: Spencer Ackerman/Wired.com
In order to develop WIN-T, the Army had to tear up its playbook for how it develops, well, everything. When the Army wants a new tank, it determines the specifications it needs, figures out of those specs are realistically deliverable, picks a contractor to build it, tests it once it’s built, and then starts to buy it and send it out to the units who’ll drive it. You can’t buy IT gear this way.
Nett Warrior is an example. It began life in the mid-1990s as a different program called Land Warrior. In order to connect dismounted soldiers to the data they needed, the Army’s idea was to strap them full of wearable computers, with dangling banana-shaped keyboards and monocles strapped to their helmets displaying maps, all cabled together in a cumbersome get-up that weighed over a dozen pounds. By 2010, when the renamed Nett Warrior had been panned by the few soldiers who used it, the program had less computational power than an iPhone, which could fit in a soldier’s pocket. And it still hadn’t gone to war.
But developing Nett Warrior was hard enough. A different Army office developed the Rifleman Radios that were supposed to be how the wearable computers to the outside world. Another one worked on what waveforms the Army should use. Another one worked on providing deployed soldiers with the bandwidth necessary for them to communicate. The costs ballooned; the deadlines slipped; and the network never arrived.
About 18 months ago, the Army decided — thanks in large part to its former vice chief of staff, Gen. Peter Chiarelli, an iPhone enthusiast — that it needed to develop the whole network, all at once, and test it all at once, so soldiers wouldn’t discover in the middle of a firefight that the network didn’t work as advertised. That led to a series of tests at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico and Fort Bliss, Texas, appropriately called Network Integration Exercises.
Among the lessons: shrink Nett Warrior down to a smartphone loaded with apps. (Well, a smart device; the 3G/4G and the Wi-Fi capabilities of the device are disabled for data-security purposes and you can’t make a call on it.) Don’t demand the defense industry produce gear that will quickly become archaic; buy existing tech off the shelf instead. Hughes isn’t married to the Atrix: He envisions a newer smartphone forming the basis for Nett Warrior maybe every year or every other year. Design tactical operations centers, or TOCs, that can be boxed up and moved closer to the fight, so as to ease the strain on the network. Newer TOCs that the brigades from the 10th Mountain will take to Afghanistan this fall can be moved in three hours; when the Network Integration Exercises began, it took 12. The Army estimates these tests saved it $6 billion.
“Just think of the power” that soldiers will be able to tap into, Morrison beams.
Now comes the hard part — taking it to war.
A closer view of the data displayed through the Army’s Warrior Information Network-Tactical, displayed on a giant flatscreen in a tactical operations center — this one on display in the Pentagon courtyard. Photo: Spencer Ackerman/Wired.com
WIN-T works well at White Sands, swear Morrison and Col. Dan Hughes, the Army’s director for systems integration and an amateur app designer. But however accurate and exacting the training scenarios for the network have been, Afghanistan is an acid test. Even technology that tests perfectly has a habit of breaking in wartime — especially if that technology has lots of moving parts, like WIN-T and Nett Warrior.
Then come the usage issues. A young, bored soldier with an Atrix in his hand might be tempted to send his buddy a funny video he shot. Stopping that, to some degree, is a matter of an alert sergeant growling at him to knock it off. But there’s also a technological solution: Back at the TOC, the captain’s staff will be monitoring for potential bandwidth hogs — especially if they seem to come from anomalous sources. More related to a mission, Hughes concedes that sending video out to a dismounted soldier’s Nett Warrior device is “harder to do,” given the file size and available bandwidth. That video might have to stay in the TOC, while the key bits of data become icons on the Atrix’s networked maps.
Finally, there are issues that technology can’t solve. Brig. Gen. Randall Dragon, head of the Army’s Brigade Modernization Command, says that the key data soldiers need are “where are my buddies, where is the threat, and where do I put effective fires.” But in a counterinsurgency like Afghanistan, a soldier on patrol may not know if the Afghan giving him the thousand-mile stare is an insurgent or a civilian. That complicates his ability to create a red — enemy — icon on his mapping application. Hughes says the soldier can input an icon annotated to clarify that the Afghan’s status is unknown — but quickly concedes that technology can’t fix basic intelligence problems.
Still, WIN-T has field-tested a number of anticipatable problems. Hughes says the data that soldiers send and receive is encrypted at multiple points, unlike drone video was in Iraq. The Army’s working on procedures to make sure that it isn’t bombarded with data, like the Air Force was when it started shooting terabytes’ worth of full-motion video from loitering drones. “The guys in the TOC, we don’t need to see everything,” says Maj. Shane Sims, another officer working on WIN-T.
The most bittersweet part of the imminent WIN-T deployment is the calendar. The Iraq war was one of the longest in American history, and it came and went without a modern Army data network. Danger Room boss Noah Shachtman wrote a blog post speculating that WIN-T might be deployed ahead of schedule; that blog post was published in 2005. The Afghanistan war, the longest war in American history, is winding down. The Army wants to outfit a total of eight brigades with WIN-T over the next two years. They will probably be the last combat brigades of the war. Networking soldiers was a major priority of the Army before 9/11 in a labyrinth of programs called Future Combat Systems that proved to be an expensive failure. WIN-T will surely undergrow growing pains when it actually meets the trial by fire in Afghanistan. It might only truly be a mature network after the Army is done with the war — leaving open the question of how relevant will be in the next one.
What remains foremost in the mind of the officers, themselves war veterans, that developed the network is how they and their soldiers needed something like WIN-T for the past decade and didn’t have it. “We took a lot of shortcuts,” says Maj. Gen. Gennaro Dellarocco, who runs the Army’s Testing and Evaluation Command. “We’ve paid for it, dearly, literally, with lives.”