Army streamlines process for integrating new combat technologies
Gary Blohm is a member of the Senior Executive Service and director of the Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center. CERDEC is one of the five organizations that make up Army Team C4ISR, along with the Program Executive Office for Command, Control, Communications-Tactical (PEO-C3T); Program Executive Office for Enterprise Information Systems; Program Executive Office for Intelligence, Electronic Warfare and Sensors; and Communications-Electronics Command’s Lifecycle Management Command.
While the other units focus mainly on production, fielding and support, CERDEC is tasked with developing command, control, communications, computers, information, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) technologies for the Army in a variety of areas, including command and control, space and terrestrial communications, night-vision and electronic sensors, intelligence and information warfare, and counter-IED coordination.
Blohm spoke with Defense Systems contributing editor Barry Rosenberg about the integration of C4ISR technologies with existing platforms, the upcoming C4ISR On-the-Move exercise and third-generation/fourth-generation networking technologies.
DS: What’s at the top of your list of objectives with CERDEC?
Blohm: One of the major initiatives we have is looking at system engineering from across the C4ISR domain, or the big network, and how everything ties to that from the sensor to the transport communications, as well as the applications and data fusion. From a command perspective, we are looking at it integrated across a Brigade Combat Team (BCT). We do that understanding that the network has to interface to the platform, integrate across platforms and provide capabilities.
DS: What are the specific Brigade Combat Team platforms that you’re addressing?
Blohm: We start with today’s legacy platforms to include the mine-resistant ambush-protected platform. CERDEC doesn’t build that platform, but our technology is all over it. As an example, how do we use the external real estate for antennas, both for jamming and the communications mission? We work with [the Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center] and [the Tank Automotive and Armaments Command, now known as TACOM Lifecycle Management Command] community to model and simulate the placement of those antennas to understand the interference issues and come up with an ideal placement. Then, of course, we test that, but we reduce our test time because of our capabilities to model that upfront.
We also look at Stryker and other current platforms such as Bradley and Abrams when we look at integrating C4ISR technologies into those platforms. Of course, we’ll also support the upcoming [ground combat vehicle].
I’d also like to mention the Victory architecture. It started out at PEO-C3T and now includes all the vehicle PEOs and the C4ISR providers to work toward a common data bus infrastructure.
We need to have more ability. One of the criticisms, I think, is that when new technologies get out there, we’re too slow to implement [upgrades and modifications]. Having a common architecture, a common interface both for power and for sharing data across the vehicle, is essential for use to be more modular. We’re looking to work this Victory architecture across the Research, Development and Engineering Command.
DS: That covers integrating technology to platforms. What about integrating technology to soldiers?
Blohm: With soldiers, we’re certainly working very closely with PEO-Soldier. For example, one of the things we want to look at from a soldier platform is power and energy. Now power and energy certainly includes the batteries and potentially fuel cells that soldiers may carry. But that’s only one piece. Too often in the past, we looked at power and energy as making a better battery. It has to be more than that. [We need to have a better understanding of] what are the power consumers on the soldier. It is not a good thing if I build a radio that draws too much power. We’re working with Natick Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center to look at the soldier power solution as a complete system of systems.
And that also includes power management. If the soldier is carrying batteries and needs to recharge them, where in the BCT, where in the vehicle, where in the rucksack, where in the platoon squad is the recharging capability? That is one example of integrating onto a soldier as a platform.
DS: What are the engineering and technical challenges of developing the modular, plug-and-play systems that you referenced earlier with the Victory architecture?
Blohm: This is probably more of an organizational challenge in getting agreement to a standard across the board. The technical challenges are to put enough standards and detail in there so it is interoperable, yet not too much so that it is limiting for future growth. We want to try to use as many commercial standards as possible yet understand that there has to be a difference that truly needs to be there. We need to challenge ourselves every time we say we need something unique. I believe that across the board — and not just in my organization — that we can work these standards together with industry.
DS: What are the communications/electronic technologies that you’re developing that are most suited to the asymmetric fights in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Blohm: If you’re thinking about the IED threat, then CERDEC is very active in that, first of all in integrating the Counter Remote Control IED Electronic Warfare (CREW) system. We don’t build the CREW system, [a radio frequency system to jam the signals from RF triggers that detonate the IEDs], that comes out of the PM, but we work with the PMs and the acquisition community from both the communications and the electronic warfare sides to understand what load sets they have inside them. We help evolve those based on the threats and how they change because as we’ve been adaptive to their threats, they’ve been adaptive in evolving them.
We’re also working with a number of agencies to understand where the threat is going and try to get ahead of the curve of the changing threat.
DS: CREW is thought to be more effective in Iraq, which has a much larger radio frequency capability than, say, Afghanistan does. Can CERDEC play a role in countering IEDs in Afghanistan, given that many times, the IED trigger is not radio frquency-based but of a more basic tripwire and pressure plate nature?
Blohm: Yes, we can use some of our sensor technology to identify tripwires. We’ve been working the counter-IED solutions from the beginning. There have been things that we developed that eventually went back onto the shelf because they were not being applied anymore [in the radio frquency environment of Iraq].
Some of those are being dusted off [for use in Afghanistan]. You see the enemy react. They see what’s successful and what is not successful. As things are not successful, they go away from it, but that doesn’t mean they won’t try again in the future. So we’re taking some of solutions off the shelf, and working through Joint IED Defeat Organization and others, we’re adapting them to the field again.
Even though the electronic threats may be adjusting a little bit over time, we still see that we need to address the changes that they’re incorporating into their approach.
DS: Defense Secretary Robert Gates has called for more ISR assets, such as the Army’s Task Force Observe, Detect, Identify, Neutralize (ODIN). What role is CERDEC playing in this area?
Blohm: We are right in the middle of adapting the technologies to fit onto platforms like Task Force ODIN. We are providing those both out of our Night Vision and Electronics Sensors directorate as well as our Intelligence and Information Warfare directorate. Whether it is building the next generation of those technologies or integrating the current generation, our folks are involved day to day. I have people deployed all the time supporting these systems.
In addition, we are in the middle of evolving the Distributed Common Ground Systems-Army (DCGS-A) integration software. We are going through very short turnaround cycles to update that software and field it in a very timely fashion. It’s on the order of months now. We do that for PEO-IEW&S and PM DCGS-A. We’re able to turn that software around very quickly by having the integration lab capability right in the CERDEC facilities.
DS: You’re about to kick off the annual C4ISR On-the-Move exercise. What do you expect to be the highlights of this year’s exercise?
Blohm: We want to continue some of the work we did last year to bring together all the emerging waveforms the Army is working on, whether it be for the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical or the Joint Tactical Radio System program, and get them working together in a very dynamic on-the-move environment. I’m talking about the Wideband Networking Waveform, the Soldier Radio Waveform, the high-band networking waveform from WIN-T, as well as the Net Centric Waveform.
We are also working at doing a validation of capability sets 13, 14, 15 and 16. When I talk about capability sets, those are the networking pieces of BCT modernization. We’re looking at them in two-year increments to increase the capabilities available to the BCTs. We work closely with Army Training and Doctrine Command and others to define what potential capabilities could be added. We’ll take the concepts that TRADOC is coming up with, and based on what we think the technology can do in a short period of time, we’ll test that in the right architectures to make sure it works. That includes making sure it works with old legacy systems like Single-Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System and Enhanced Precision Locating and Reporting System. A new technology may work great on its own, but we need to have it integrated.
DS: In last year’s C4ISR On-the-Move demonstration, you were able to run the Command Post of the Future and Tactical Ground Reporting applications on top of the WIN-T network for the first time. What are you expanding that to this year?
Blohm: We’re looking at commercial applications. That capability may not be ready today, but we want to know how we take advantage of commercial apps. How can we, at a minimum, let that capability be given to our soldiers in garrison so an NCO doing maintenance of a system can have access to an app for procedures or training? Eventually, we’ll want to see how we can even get that out to a tactical environment.
DS: What’s happening in the commercial world that you think can make a major difference in Army communications/electronics capabilities?
Blohm: One of the things I get excited about is the 3G/4G technologies. There are some challenges there, from security to spectrum. We have a whole generation of soldiers out there that grow up with this technology that is second nature to them. They can write their own apps at home on the iPhone or maybe the Droid or future BlackBerry. We’re not taking advantage of their capabilities.
How do we get them onto our network? What do we have to do on security? There are some policy things we have to work through. But the technology is exciting, and I think it will let us be more agile. A frustrating thing for our soldiers is that they see a capability they have at home, and they go out to the field and leave it at their homes. We’d like get that out into their hands.