101st Airborne puts new expeditionary comms gear through the paces

U.S. Army Soldiers from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) watch as a CH-47 Chinook flown by Soldiers from the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne, sling loads the Tactical Control Node-Light at Fort Campbell, KY, Jun. 15, 2017. The training was part of 2BCT’s preparation for the upcoming Network Integration Exercise at Fort Bliss where they will be the first light BCT to participate. The Tactical Communications Node was originally developed on five-ton Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles (FMTVs). The new Lite (L) versions are integrated onto Humvees, which can be sling-loaded from a helicopter for significantly increased agility and operational flexibility. | U.S Army Photo by Sgt. Bradford Alex

FORT BLISS, Texas — On the heels of its deployment to Iraq, where maneuverability in austere conditions was crucial for mission success, Soldiers from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) supported the advancement of several expeditionary network capabilities during Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) 17.2 that could support future contingencies.

The 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) provides expeditionary air assault to conduct forcible entry and other unified land operations — a mission that enabled its Soldiers to provide valuable feedback during the evaluation on new vehicle mounted and dismounted mobile network communications capabilities.

During NIE 17.2, the unit supported the successful execution of the mobile Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) Tactical Communications-Lite (TCN-L) and Network Operations and Security Center-Lite (NOSC-L) operational test, in rigorous combat training environment of Fort Bliss in July. Additionally, it also supported a risk reduction event, for the satellite-based Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) used in combination with the two-channel PRC-155 Manpack Radio. The MUOS operational test is slated for early fiscal year 2019.

Spc. Michael Sanders, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), utilizes the satellite-based Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) supported by a two-channel PRC-155 Manpack Radio, during a MUOS risk reduction exercise at Network Integration Evaluation 17.2, at Fort Bliss, Texas, July 12, 2017. MUOS provides smartphone-like services to joint forces, with a beyond-line-of-sight (satellite) data link that enables them to securely talk, text and share critical mission data seamlessly over MUOS capable software defined radios, from almost anywhere in the world. | U.S. Army Photo by Amy Walker, PEO C3T

“In terms of technical capability with the network, we now have the means to communicate with our higher and subordinate headquarters to share information and to build a common operating picture utilizing equipment and capabilities not previously available to the brigade,” said Col. Joseph E. Escandon, who assumed command of 2/101 Airborne Division (Air Assault) in June, following the unit’s return from Iraq in January.

Operational Test

As part of the Army’s tactical network, the TCN provides beyond-line-of-sight and high-band line-of-sight network communications, both on-the-move in a convoy, at the quick halt, and at the stationary command post. Soldiers use the NOSC to monitor, manage and provide enhanced security to the tactical network. The Lite versions of these configurations provide the same networking and network management capabilities as their much larger predecessors, with significantly reduced system complexity.

Previously, these WIN-T vehicle configuration items were integrated on five-ton Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles (FMTVs), such as those employed by 2/101 Airborne Division (Air Assault) in Iraq. The heavy vehicle configurations provided armored force protection but were not easily air transportable, limiting the TCN and NOSC use during expeditionary, quick reaction and air assault mission requirements. Due to feedback from airborne and air assault units, the Army has now integrated these configurations onto High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV)s, which can be sling loaded by a Chinook helicopter across the battlefield or rolled onto an Air Force C-130 aircraft, providing significantly increased agility and operational flexibility.

Prior to the new Lite capabilities, light infantry units would have to wait for the five-ton legacy TCNs and NOSCs to come in on a ground assault convoy if they arrived on their objective by air. Now a commander has the option to bring them in via air assault and establish the network earlier in the fight.

“This increases unit capability early in the operational environment,” Escandon said. “I am able to communicate with my higher headquarters and push information to them in a more efficient manner. This allows them to see the brigade’s common operating picture both digitally and telephonically.”

Soldiers with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) used this Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) Tactical Communications Node-Lite (TCN-L) at a battalion command post during the TCN-L/Network Operations Security Center-Lite (NOSC-L) operational test, conducted during Network Integration Evaluation 17.2, at Fort Bliss, Texas, in July 2017. The TCN-L provides satellite and line-of-sight network connectivity, both on-the-move in a convoy and to the stationary command post, enabling mission command and advanced communications. | U.S. Army Photo by Amy Walker, PEO C3T

Along with making these configuration items easier to maneuver, the Army also reduced system complexity by leveraging lessons learned from integration done on other WIN-T configuration items in 2015. It extended the same kiosk-based user interface and automated troubleshooting tool approach it used for the mobile WIN-T Point of Presence and Soldier Network Extension, to simplify both the heavier legacy and lite versions of the TCN and NOSC. The Army also leveraged advancements in commercial technology, so even though they are in smaller packages, they are more powerful.

The service also inserted Network Operations (NetOps) improvements to simplify network management and defense. Together these enhancements result in a significantly improved user experience.

“In the past when a generator failed, it would cause a hard shutdown of the TCN, and Signal Soldiers would have to rebuild the TCN database. With the new simplicity improvements, all of that data can now be saved,” said Maj. Edward Timmons, 2/101 Airborne Division (Air Assault) S6 (signal officer), who was deployed with the unit in Iraq. “You can turn the TCN right back on with a one button push, and everything pops back up. Having that capability saves a lot of time and work.”

MUOS Risk Reduction

During last month’s NIE, the unit also supported a risk reduction event for the MUOS waveform using the two-channel PRC-155 Manpack Radio.

A Navy-managed program, MUOS provides smartphone-like services to joint forces, with a beyond-line-of-sight (satellite) data link that enables them to securely talk, text and share critical mission data seamlessly over MUOS-capable software defined radios, from almost anywhere in the world. MUOS uses satellite capability to transmit data via the MUOS software waveform.

Once fielded, the capability will enable freedom of maneuver, increase operational range, and provide radio retransmission capabilities, reducing the need for retransmission teams.

“Having the MUOS capability will allow the brigade to distribute its forces on the battlefield and cover larger areas of operation.” Escandon said. “These systems give us capability akin to that of a cell phone network.”

With MUOS, Soldiers can make tactical and non-tactical phone calls globally, whether they are in Iraq or at home station or anywhere in the world. A Soldier at the remote edge of the battlefield can simply dial a regular phone number and communicate all the way back to the U.S. with cell phone-like quality.

Using the MUOS waveform together with the two-channel Manpack Radio, a Soldier in a remote location on a handheld Rifleman Radio, talking over the Soldier Radio Waveform network, can be connected to one side of the two-channel Manpack Radio. That signal can then be retransmitted via MUOS waveform from the second channel of the Manpack, enabling direct communication between that dismounted Soldier in the battle and his command anywhere in the world, said Capt. Robin Swan, commander, Company C, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault).

“MUOS provides a light Infantry company commander with a lot more capability to extend his mission command while dismounted,” Swan said.

Based on NIE and operational unit feedback, the program office has worked to reduce the weight of the HMS Manpack radio for Full Rate Production models (NIE 17.2 MUOS events employed older Low Rate Initial Production models). The Full Rate Production radios are scheduled to go through operational tests within a year.

As part of the MUOS radio risk reduction event, Soldiers used the Joint Enterprise Network Manager (JENM) to provide the initial provisioning and planning for the radios. JENM is a consolidated software application that plans, loads, manages and secures/defends mid and lower-tier software defined radios and associated waveforms. JENM v3.3.2 was the new fielded baseline at NIE 17.2, and it provides new capabilities to plan and manage Wideband Network Waveform networks, and initial enterprise Over-the-Air Management capabilities.

The Army’s ability to communicate and quickly maneuver advanced network resources across great distances, enhances operational flexibility and provides a critical advantage over increasingly cunning threats. New expeditionary capabilities like the TCN-L/NOSC-L and MUOS will provide enhanced situational awareness sooner in the fight, and at greater distances, delivering the information commanders need to make rapid well informed decisions.

“Communication drives the battle, and if you don’t know what is going on, you are limiting yourself and potentially putting yourself into harm’s way,” Swan said. “Any system that can extend our communication range and keep us in contact is invaluable.”

The U.S. Army Program Executive Office Command, Control and Communications-Tactical develops, acquires, fields and supports the Army’s mission command network to ensure force readiness. This critical Army modernization priority delivers tactical communications so commanders and Soldiers can stay connected and informed at all times, even in the most austere and hostile environments. PEO C3T is delivering the network to regions around the globe, enabling high-speed, high-capacity voice, data and video communications to a user base that includes the Army’s joint, coalition and other mission partners.

By Amy Walker, PEO C3T