By Amy Walker, PEO C3T staff writer
Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) and other Soldiers in network-equipped vehicles conducted real-world mission threads in harsh desert terrain covering over 1,250 accumulated miles a day to evaluate recent improvements to the Army’s high capacity, mobile tactical communications network backbone, Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) Increment 2.
Soldier feedback from theater, the Army’s Network Integration Evaluations (NIEs) and user juries helped the Army make WIN-T Increment 2 easier to operate and maintain. Among the many system enhancements are drastically reduced startup and shutdown times; a new, easy to use graphical interface; improved and simplified troubleshooting tools and faster, easier calls that extend radio networks.
“The Soldiers don’t have a lot of complicated steps they have to go through anymore to get the system on-line; it’s pretty much pull the switch and it boots right up,” said Staff Sgt. Brandon Miller, a 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (4/10MTN) network operations manager, who deployed for nine months with WIN-T Increment 2.
The rigorous WIN-T Increment 2 developmental test was supported by Soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division; the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry) at White Sands Missile Range (WSMR), N.M, from 9-27 June. While some Soldiers were training on and using the system for the first time at the test, nearly a third of the Soldiers were from 4/10 MTN, who had previously deployed to Afghanistan with the system, enabling them to provide a unique real-world comparison of the new system enhancements.
“One of the great things about this particular developmental test is that it is being tested by Soldiers from various units assigned throughout Army Forces Command,” said WSMR Command Sgt. Maj. Jimmy Sellers. “The Soldiers’ experience, perspective and feedback during this test have been extremely instrumental as the Army continues to move forward and improve the WIN-T Increment 2 system before it’s tactically employed during the culminating test event of NIE 15.1.”
WSMR, which boarders Fort Bliss, Texas, is the largest land test range in the Department of Defense (DoD), with a sprawling land mass of 2.2 million acres. Its varied terrain, restricted airspace, fleet of instrumentation and logistics support make it an ideal location for operationally relevant testing of military equipment and network communications capabilities like WIN-T Increment 2.
“You have all the terrain you would ever want to work with out here as far as training and testing,” Miller said. “If you go out far enough you get into mountainous areas, so it’s the perfect place for a test like this as far as line-of-sight and satellite communication.”
The new WIN-T Increment 2 enhancements, designed to improve system reliability, simplicity and usability, have now been assessed during two intensive developmental tests that were coordinated with multiple DoD organizations including the Office of the Secretary of Defense; Director, Operational Test and Evaluation; Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Developmental Test and Evaluation; Training and Doctrine Command; and Army Test and Evaluation Command (ATEC). The first developmental test was completed at the Aberdeen Test Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG), Md. in late February. The second more extensive developmental test (DT2) was completed in late June in the operationally relevant deserts and mountains of WSMR, where temperatures often exceeded 110 degrees.
The DT2 laid the foundation for the WIN-T Increment 2 Follow-on Operational Test and Evaluation scheduled for NIE 15.1 in October-November, at WSMR and Fort Bliss. NIE 15.1 will also be the first NIE to utilize new configurations of WIN-T Increment 2 that include network-equipped Stryker vehicles. DT2 provided the opportunity for technical verification of three WIN-T Increment 2 Stryker variants in advance of NIE 15.1.
WIN-T Increment 2 provides enhanced capabilities over the previously fielded at-the-halt WIN-T Increment 1 and its upgrades, including network-equipped vehicles that provide the on-the-move communications and situational awareness that commanders need to lead from anywhere on the battlefield. The changes to the system enhance the capabilities of the WIN-T Increment 2 Soldier Network Extension (SNE), which provides network communication and extension capabilities at the company level and other non-traditional users, and the Point of Presence (PoP), which enables mobile mission command at the battalion level and above. The changes to WIN-T Increment 2 are in line with the Army’s overall effort to simplify the network so it is intuitive and more resembles technology that Soldiers operate in their daily lives.
“WIN-T Increment 2 is a simple system to use; not difficult to learn how to use and operate,” said Sgt. 1st Class Andre Dixon, 2/82 Airborne Division platoon sergeant, who used the system for the first time during the test. “It’s a big benefit to the Soldiers using it every day. It provides ease of reporting and additional benefits to perform our jobs. It enhances everything we do on a daily basis and during our missions.”
During the test, Soldiers were on the move in their PoPs, conducting a wide variety of real world mission threads that included mock village reconnaissance, route clearance, key leader and enemy engagements, and calls for fire. During these missions, they were required to exercise all of the improvements, applications and capabilities in the WIN-T Increment 2-equipped vehicles including mission command applications, email, chat, and fires communication.
As part of the recent improvements to WIN-T Increment 2, the Army automated the startup for the PoP and SNE, significantly reducing the complexity and length of the process. More than a dozen buttons and switches were reduced to a single startup switch, dropping the total time to get a networked vehicle up and running from over 12 minutes to four and a half minutes.
“When we were overseas we had a lot of problems with Soldiers hard-shutting the vehicle without going through all the steps and that hurt the equipment a lot; we had to re-image a lot of the hard drives in the vehicles,” said Sgt. Cody Lotter, multichannel transmission systems operator-maintainer for 2nd Battalion – 4 Infantry Regiment, 4/10 MTN, who previously deployed with the system. “The way it is now, you just hit the switch and it’s on, or hit the switch and it’s off.”
Among the most important improvements to WIN-T Increment 2 are simplified and streamlined troubleshooting capabilities for the PoP and SNE, moving from an in-depth interface designed for the Signal Soldier to one more suitable for a general purpose operator. The intent is to enable operators, in a matter of minutes, to troubleshoot and resolve a majority of the issues themselves. The Army also cut in half the time it takes to launch mobile communications applications, and simplified the user interface and the SNE’s Combat Network Radio Gateway, which takes advantage of the vehicle’s on-the-move satellite communications systems to help extend lower tactical internet radio networks and keep Soldiers connected.
While vehicle instrumentation and various data collection methods monitored the performance on the back end, NCOs and other Soldiers provided feedback on system performance and usability on the front end. WIN-T is the Soldiers’ tactical communications network backbone, the Army uses their feedback to improve and simplify the network, easing Soldier burden, enhancing mission performance and extending and increasing situational awareness throughout the entire force.
“These NCOs played a critical role here on WSMR in enhancing the reliability, usability and simplicity of the WIN-T Increment 2 system,” Sellers said. “Their insights will pay huge dividends in the way we execute testing and network improvements for some years to come.”