Hooah! The Army's Warfighter Information Network-Tactical is ready to kick some bytes

Hooah! The Army's Warfighter Information Network-Tactical is ready to kick some bytes

Summary: The more prepared you are to fight a war, and the more prepared you are to win the war, the less chance there is that you'll have to go to war.

TOPICS: Networking

Making a network isn't easy. I'm not talking about plugging a bunch of CAT5e cables into a couple of switches and a router, configuring SharePoint, and setting up WiFi. I'm talking about making a network from scratch.

Let's increase the challenge a bit. Let's say you've suddenly walked through a time portal and find yourself in the mid-1990s. Bill Clinton is president, Monica Lewinski is on the front page of every newspaper (there are still newspapers), Grunge is almost mainstream, Mark Zuckerberg is 10, Google doesn't exist, Apple is being run by John Sculley, Michael Spindler, and Gil Amelio, NCR and AT&T think 802.whatever would might someday be useful for cash registers, and cell phones are starting to transition from bricks to flip phones.

You look around this 1995-ish world and realize you're in a meeting in the Pentagon. General officers are everywhere and you're being given an assignment: make sure soldiers are able to communicate with each other -- in real time -- on the battlefield.

You're from 2012, so you think, "Heck, give them an iPhone or an Android, set them up with a Twitter account, pat them on their backs, and wish them luck. Easy-peasy." Except you hate the phrase "easy-peasy," so you probably wouldn't think that.

In any case, you're from 2012, but the soldiers, generals, and even the enemy are all back in 1995. There is no Twitter. There is no iPhone. There's barely a World Wide Web. Broadband is available, but it costs thousands of dollars a month, and far less bandwidth than you have on your 4G iPad 3 is meant to serve an entire university campus.

Meanwhile, you're given the task of somehow giving soldiers 2012 in a box they can carry in their packs. It's not easy. Not only do you need the communications gear, you need all the software, security systems and -- of course -- some way to operate a wireless network in a battlespace, without too much lag time, all while people are shooting and blowing things up.

This is gonna take some time.

And for the U.S. Army's Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, it has taken time. Nearly two decades, in fact.

Now, back in 1995, the Army didn't quite know how important this sort of tactical network would be. Sure, they knew communication was important. All generals have read Sun Tzu and, besides, America has always won wars because of better logistics and communications. So it was a natural extension of the warfighting strategies to add real-time networking to a soldier's kit bag.

But they didn't know that America was soon to be in its longest wars, fought in two different countries. They didn't know how many America soldiers would serve, how many would die, and how challenging the field of battle would be.

Even so, by the time the U.S. Army bottled and packaged its full-throated "Hooah!" and sent the battle cry spirit off to Iraq and Afghanistan with every American trooper, it became even more clear how important real-time battlefield communications at the soldier-level would be.

Unfortunately, the technology wasn't in place in time for the soldiers of the 2000's. Even in the civilian world, we didn't get 3G wireless networking until about 2009 or so. In a desert and in far-away countries filled with hostile cities, towns, and villages, implementation is far more of a challenge than in the relatively benign environments here at home.

For many years, the project was called Nett Warrior and it had a bit of a rough road. Different groups managed different aspects of the program, from the communications protocols to the radio units themselves to actually providing bandwidth. For years, there wasn't much to show for all that work and all that money.

More to the point, the soldiers in the field were still using last-century communications technology.

A bit part of the problem, reports Wired, is that each piece of the system was developed independently and had to fit together. We in the Web world may be all about APIs, XML, JSON, REST, and the rest, but for the Army and its myriad contractors, that sort of distributed development didn't work out all that well for a network that's really a single, large organism.

So, about a year and a half ago, the Army decided to rethink the problem. Rather than developing everything from the ground up, they decided to use off-the-shelf parts where they could. I looked into this last year, when I conducted an exclusive deep-dive interview with Dell about mil-spec Android devices.

See also: Is Android secure enough for mission-critical government and military use? (Exclusive video)

The net-net-net of all this net work is a working network...finally! After 16 years of hard work by many dedicated teams in the Army and private industry, WIN-T is now part of the winning team. It's up and running, and when they deploy in October, thousands of American soldiers will be equipped with real-time battlefield networking.

That's definitely worth a Hooah!

Of course, the way Wired wrote the story, they'd have you believe that both wars are over, there's no more fighting to be done, and all the troops are coming home, so the new battle network is too little, too late.

Wow, Wired, way to rain on the Army's parade!

Now, you folks all know I think these wars are inadvisable from a strategic national perspective. But we still have Americans out there, in harm's way, serving their country and following orders of the National Command Authority. Whether or not you think these wars are advisable, if we're in 'em, we should make sure we can win 'em, and the WIN-T battle network will help accomplish that goal, while helping to keep soldiers safe...and the enemy far less safe.

That, alone, is a worthy accomplishment.

More to the point, America wins on logistics. I mentioned that earlier and it's worth repeating. Even if all our men and women came home tomorrow and there was peace and joy in Mudville, we need to be prepared to fight the next war, and the next one after that.

A simple truth is that the more prepared you are to fight a war, and the more prepared you are to win the war, the less chance there is that you'll have to go to war. Smart enemies often don't try to take on superior foes, and stupid enemies become training exercises for our troops.

And, even though it wasn't available for the whole of the Iraq war or the whole of the Afghanistan war, it's still good news that the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical is ready for prime time.

Oh, and you eventually came back home from your time traveling adventures. Sadly, you forgot to leave yourself a note, so you didn't invest in Google -- and you did invest in Facebook. Oopsie!

Topic: Networking


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • Roman wisdom

    Si vis pacem, para bellum. Still true.

      "If you would have peace, prepare for war," goes the aphorism from a 4th century Latin writer. Unfortunately for this statement, it is not good advice. Not to say weakness is strength, but we have no evidence that spending nearly a trillion yearly on "national defense" has brought us closer to any kind of peace, or averted several costly wars (whose cost, by itself, is long-term, collateral damage to our economy).

      If Bush's War (2003-2008) taught us anything, it is that having a bellicose foreign policy indistinguishable from a fascist regime from the 1930's is a standing invitation to further disaster. Essential to that militant posture is a trigger-happy war establishment. There are people who still believe the world is flat because it is so "obviously" true, and others who struggle to believe that war is peace, just as Big Brother, the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex say it is.

      In our case, we plunder public sector investments-- roads, bridges and yes, IT infrastructure-- for the sake of feeding costly weapons programs that have speculative value (if any value at all). We find ourselves surrounded by a growing surveillance state, and wonder why. We lament a ballooning budget, but decide, instead, we must take out social investments in health and education for the future of our people, because weapons must come first-- not the wisdom to avoid using them.

      Roman wisdom goes only so far-- all Rome's aphorisms could not save the empire from destruction only a century after "Si vis pacem para bellum" was written.
  • The military is....

    relying on tech too much. Some day someone will hack the network, issue false orders, and then all hell will break loose. Equipment fails. Soldiers need to still know how to do things the low tech way or once something goes wrong there will be a slaughter, not of the enemy but our own guys. A map and compass will still get you where you are going and set up coordinates when the battery in your gps goes dead.
    Test Subject

      Technical change is not always improvement. In the Vietnam conflict, soldiers in the heat of battle discarded their high-tech M16s for AK47s taken from dead NVA. Their reason? They found the M16 impossible to maintain on a muddy battlefield, and problems had developed with the ammunition, jamming their weapon.

      Complex systems are vulnerable systems. The PRC surveillance program "Titan Rain" is a massive, long-term probe of the US data infrastructure to determine how best to take it out, blind it or otherwise render it dysfunctional. We surely do the same to the PRC and other states, but that merely underscores the fact everyone is aware of the vulnerability, but none have a remedy.

      Pentagon thinking is dangerously deficient-- not innovative, visionary and creative, but heavily influenced by the war profits industry. That industry offers only one, endlessly repeated lesson-- more national security means spending more money. Appropriate, effectively simple systems are almost never on the agenda. As a result, our generals continue spending tax dollars on pointless and ineffective boondoggles like the V22 Osprey, whose mission value is already duplicated or exceeded by existing aircraft.
  • Network War

    Thank you for your contribution to this effort.

    My only objection is to your use of "win" for these particular wars. We can never win a war against terrorism, unless we dictate behavior to citizens.

    Also, hopefully if these weapons are every used against ourselves, we can figure out how to jamb the signals.
  • "Push", Old Dogs, COTS and getting the job done

    I have been playing with electronics ("juggling electrons") since I was 12, and spent some 21 years in the US Army, starting in 1962 as a tactical multichannel radio operator, and ending up some 21 years later in a Signal Brigade tasked with some extremely critical links in Germany. Some of our switchboards dated to 1951, so I thought the Tactical Automatic Switching System was really cool even though that still had to be programmed with punched tape.

    Meanwhile, our unit radio operators weren't any better at voice radio messages than the "hams" (yes, I am one) were. Worse, actually. I was serving when people were just beginning to talk about what would become SINCGARS -- and THAT wasn't fully fielded until the 1990's. So I understand delays.

    But I've also worked on some few defense items since getting into civilian life, and I know you can't do everything with COTS. COTS can be obsolete in three years, parts end-of-life in five , and unobtainium in ten just when you need them. The Air Force is flying airplanes older than its pilots and maintainers, and I've seen types of equipment I trained on in 1965 STILL flying.

    I also remember the "new squelch" solid- state VHF FM radios we got then, with push buttons on the front for preset channels. Odd are, unit IP addresses will be called a "push" forever.

    I should have known, back when I was preparing Battalion maintenance statistics on a personal TI 58 for my clerk to punch onto cards for the Army's IBM 360, that this was the way it would always be; the new and the old side by side. But I refuse to knock the 20th Century; some of those old dogs cans still do good tricks.

    Sometimes they can still get the job done.

    I don't do much Hooah. But I am amazed by those my brothers and sisters who now fight our wars. Amazed. Can we be as good as they are?
    • signed...

      Cortland Richmond
      SFC USA, Retired