The Wi-Fi Army

It’s been awhile, but I’d like to do a bit about the army. I saw this article in the National Journal about the difficulties of setting up wi-fi capabilities on the battlefield.

“The kids here in the United States think it’s their God-given right to have a cellphone that can take pictures,” said Rickey Smith, a retired colonel now working on the FCS for the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command. “But the line soldier today does not have a cellphone capability. I can’t take a picture and send it to my buddy.”

It may seem strange that American soldiers lack the kind of mobile networks that American civilians with their iPhones and BlackBerrys increasingly take for granted. But all of our on-the-go conveniences depend on a multibillion-dollar infrastructure that is very much fixed in place. The only reason your cellphone is small enough to slip into your pocket is that its low-power transmissions are relayed by a system of repeaters and cell towers all over the country. The only reason your laptop can go online from your table at Starbucks is that its wireless signal has to carry only a few yards to the Wi-Fi access portal built into the wall.

In a war zone, that kind of fixed infrastructure is unavailable. The military equivalents of cell towers and wireless hubs have to be compact enough for soldiers to haul across the battlefield, which drastically limits the amount of data they can transmit and receive. As a result, a soldier’s radio “must radiate 10 to 20 times the amount of power as a normal cellphone,” said Chris Brady, a vice president in the military communications division of General Dynamics, which is developing the handheld version of what the military calls its new “Joint Tactical Radio System.” Moreover, Brady said, the radios “don’t have the benefit of a strong transmitter on a tower, so the ‘receive’ side of the radio must have a significant amount of processing power to interpret signals off a small antenna.”

Here’s one of the successes:

By the time Riley went back to Iraq for his second war, however, a revolution in military communications had taken place. On the eve of the 2003 invasion, select Army and Marine Corps units were issued a new mobile network called “Blue Force Tracker.” Linked to GPS satellites, Blue Force Tracker gave each user a computerized map display that showed not only his own current location — in itself a huge help in navigating across unfamiliar and unfriendly territory — but also the position of every other friendly unit (“blue forces,” in Army jargon) that was equipped with the system. Troops could even use the network and its satellite uplink to send text messages when conventional radio communications were blocked.

“You went from a paper map to a computer map that moved with you down the road,” said Maj. Bill Venable, who fought in Iraq in 2004 and now works as a liaison between the FCS program and Fort Benning. “My higher headquarters was able to track where all of my vehicles were, and rather than having to take time out of the operation to ask each of the platoon leaders, ‘Where are you?’ I could see that at a glance.” With Blue Force Tracker, Venable said, “I was able to conduct operations 40 to 50 miles away from my headquarters and still stay in contact.”

Blue Force Tracker and a more sophisticated cousin called FBCB2 became high-demand items in Afghanistan and Iraq. Originally reserved for commanders’ vehicles, the systems are now commonplace in Humvees on routine patrols. Troops use the network to see which roads go where and which are relatively safe from roadside bombs. “Intel is constantly updating,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Elizabeth Lopez, a seabee in the Navy Reserve who served as a Humvee gunner escorting convoys in Iraq. “Sometimes you’re on a road that’s ‘green,’ and five minutes later it’s ‘red’ because somebody got hit.”

In the end one of the biggest problems facing is coordinating the current programs into a single one:

Ultimately, military leaders envision a network that will connect command posts to foot soldiers and vehicles in the field. But the Army has complicated this technological challenge with a largely self-imposed organizational muddle. The service has four different programs developing equipment critical to making this networking vision a reality–and each operates under its own management and on its own schedule. At some point, the Army must synchronize all four.

The first of the four is the Future Combat System program itself, which is by far the largest single chunk of the Army’s modernization budget. But the FCS office is developing the network kits for vehicles only. Extending the network to troops on foot is up to the Ground Soldier Ensemble office, which remains an independent entity.

Both the FCS and the Ground Soldier Ensemble, in turn, rely on a third independent program, the Joint Tactical Radio System, to produce the radios that soldiers will use. Inauspiciously pronounced jitters, the JTRS program has been repeatedly delayed, restructured, and scaled down since its inception in 1997. The Fort Bliss task force currently is working with a set of proto-prototypes, literally hand-built, that fall far short of what the FCS requires in range and encryption. Yet without the high-bandwidth, all-digital radios that JTRS is meant to produce, there is simply no way to transmit the vast amount of data that the new networks will require.

Finally, the independent Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, or WIN-T, is developing the connections between the FCS-equipped brigades in the field and higher Army headquarters. An early, ad hoc version of WIN-T built from commercially available equipment is already in service in Iraq, but these systems are in such demand that the Fort Bliss task force does not yet have one to experiment with.

Crossposted on Soccer Dad.

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I'm a government bureaucrat with delusions of literacy.
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