At a Communications Crossroads

The US military has been investing in advanced technology like artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR) and the Internet of Things (IoT). Now, in a bid to allow faster, more agile command and control capabilities, the Army aims to redesign signal units as part of the Expeditionary Signal Battalion-Enhanced (ESB-E) prototype. The following article reveals more.

Signal Units Transforming to Beat Tomorrow’s Threats

When Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf led coalition ground forces across the Kuwait border in 1991 to remove Iraqi forces from that country, he was able to harness the vast technological resources of the U.S. military to overwhelm and dominate a clearly inferior conventional military. Unity of command, in which all forces operate under a single commander, helped the allies swiftly suppress Iraqi aggression by marshaling a clear logistical and materiel advantage in the preceding months.

Against the backdrop of the First Gulf War victory, the subsequent internet explosion put communications networks at the center of the march toward globalization. One might theorize, however, that rather than building a hard-to-predict future network designed for globally connected networks, the military applied lessons learned from the Gulf War to build networks aimed at digitizing the acetate maps and whiteboards of a successful past war. Whereas these prior conflicts allowed for networks that were stationary, logistics-intensive and limited to hierarchical headquarters communications, today’s environment requires information technology (IT) that is rapidly deployable, always available and globally integrated across the enterprise.

Unity of Command, Effort

It appears that unity of command for operational commanders is increasingly dependent on IT unity of effort across multiple joint and coalition headquarters with overlapping-and sometimes conflicting-defense security interests on networks. The advance of commercial technology, and the cyber domain particularly, has made mobilization for military conflict a far more time-sensitive affair marked by globally connected systems and people controlled by different commands, agencies and organizations.

This means supported units should rely on-and should demand-that signal and cyber organizations work closely together to coordinate activities to ensure continuity between strategic and tactical networks.

Accordingly, the ongoing IT transformation strategy being implemented across the Army has required a fundamental shift from hierarchical network control to distributed coordination activities intended to amplify the unity of effort across the enterprise. Faster, lighter and more responsive communications capabilities, and more rapid decision rules, are being tested in all phases of conflict. A decision rule, derived mainly from statistics, is a formal rule or set of conditional criteria that could help improve consistency and efficiency in decision-making. The main idea has been to decentralize IT operations in support of operational unity of command, while ensuring more efficient unity of effort on IT capability experimentation, knowledge transfer and enterprise network decision rules down to the tactical edge.

Redesigning Signal Units

One way the Army has attempted to achieve unity of effort in IT network management is with the Expeditionary Signal Battalion-Enhanced (ESB-E) prototype. Through an effort within the scope of the Network Cross-Functional Team, together with the U.S. Army Forces Command, the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command’s Cyber Center of Excellence, the Program Executive Office for Command, Control, Communications Tactical, and XVIII Airborne Corps, the ESB-E prototype aims to redesign signal units into Joint Communications Support Element-like organizations, while simultaneously piloting brigade-level network operations enhancements to move complexity from battalion to brigade.

Joint Communications Support Element, DoD’s joint contingency and special operations forces-like brigade-level communications unit, comprises the processes and equipment that allow faster, more agile command and control capabilities not found in the conventional force.

The ESB-E implementation strategy accounts for unity of effort needs by combining both materiel and nonmateriel experimentation from across the Army. It not only leverages and improves equipment capabilities as in past technology upgrade efforts, but also enhances the systems that allow IT to keep pace with a globally connected battlefield.

ESB-E calls for a stress-test approach that presents an opportunity to evaluate the enterprise as a comprehensive system for establishing principles and best practices for the equipment fielding mix in parallel with network and organizational structural components. The objective is to push the new capabilities to the limit in tough, real scenarios early enough to get a sense for both deployment constraints and potentialities, while simultaneously facilitating rapid adoption and course corrections. The emphasis is on operational unit feedback, faster knowledge transfer and an overall experimental attitude toward finding and evaluating best practices.

Independent subject-matter expert assessment teams, end-user and signal soldier surveys, varied mission set and equipment deployment strategies, and an authoritative knowledge-sharing site are all part of a comprehensive ESB-E evaluation that is intended to test principles that can apply to diverse operational contexts.

More With Less

Generations of IT rollouts have proven that the Army does not want a field service representative-dependent solution. Now more than ever, the service needs the ability to deliver communications assets to locations that a firm’s technical support representative may not be able to reach. Signal soldiers must be well-trained, but it is equally important that they have equipment that is quick to employ and easy to adapt or sustain in austere environments.

ESB-E deploys in smaller, multifunctional teams. The intention is to put across nearly a third more signal teams and nodes with commensurately less equipment, training and mobility requirements than existing mechanisms. Rather than deploy with multiple teams and bulky specialized equipment as in the past, the ESB-E prototype delivers more with less complexity through cross-training on a lighter, scalable and easier-to-install system. The increased unity of effort within a signal brigade that supports ESB-E helps reinforce a flatter and more transparent implementation of communications assets in that the brigade now has increased network management tools, including better data analytics software and end-to-end tactical hub control.

In addition to ESB-E design factors, the Army also is looking to innovate on the measures of how it manages IT tactical networks on today’s decentralized battlefield. In recent years, signal assets were deployed and controlled in historically isolated command and control operations. Network oversight and management may have leaned too far to the tactical edge without scalable enterprise-level resourcing to sustain critical external dependencies. This standard put far too great a burden on the supported unit to navigate DoD network policies that rely on globally connected systems outside tactical network control.

A key strategy to address these challenges is through reconstructing the signal brigade network operations capacity, which, at a minimum, improves tactical signal asset and network visibility in the space between the tactical and strategic level. Signal leaders think this has the potential to ensure signal assets available to a supported commander can be managed in a way that better enables operational commander intent, while more closely aligning with strategic objectives for cybersecurity and risk control.

Span of control theory suggests a narrower span of control enables more accurate decision-making and change management, while simultaneously allowing for technical work to be completed in a more efficient manner. Experimenting with a more robust brigade network operations function could help mitigate risks associated with the broad span of control inherent in the large number of command posts across the force that need enterprise resources.

This model advances the well-researched theory that organizational objectives are most effectively acted upon when senior leaders are informed enough to appropriately champion priority efforts, projects and systems that require top-down endorsement, approval or exceptions.

Overcoming Challenges

The Army is also moving forward with testing new technologies that accelerate decision-rule processes for granting secured access to its IT networks. The service has been saturated by hierarchical workflows for everything from satellite communications access to user account management for IT services. This tends to result in slow, bureaucratic planning cycles with multiple negative externalities, such as limiting common understanding of the operational picture, as well as diminishing warfighter confidence and trust in signal support to operations.

The Army is experimenting with defense and commercial off-the-shelf tools available now to overcome these challenges. Stress-testing decision rules through the ESB-E prototype are an example of this. The prototype is helping to unify existing common operational picture mechanisms used to provide disparate levels of situational awareness for Mission Command. These types of sensors are being stressed and converged through a series of exercises and technology “drops,” or upgrades, that not only improve shared understanding of communications networks, but merge operational command and control inputs with technical common operational picture feeds such that cyber risk can be better integrated with overall mission-risk decision-making for supported commanders.

Additionally, satellite communications airtime (bandwidth) allocation systems for ESB-E continue to be made more efficient through automated decision rules so soldier-in-the-loop workflows do not interfere with a future environment that inevitably will necessitate incorporation of richer, more bandwidth-intensive applications and services. Akin to the way subscribers receive bandwidth from their home cable companies, existing standard operating procedures are being evaluated and modified so individual signal-unit nodes receive baseline-dedicated bandwidth, with above-baseline requirements centrally managed at the brigade level.

Commercial Strategy

The use of commercial internet and cellular is a significant enhancement for ESB-E. The Army no longer depends singularly on a single satellite communications band to employ assets, and can more easily provide commanders with options in an electromagnetic spectrum congested or contested environment. Commercial services, to include the use of tactical brigade-and-below satellite communication hubs, the internet, and commercially owned-and-operated satellite ground terminals, are part of a strategy to give tactical units an unprecedented level of operational flexibility.

Many initiatives and compounding risks outside the scope of ESB-E are under review or being addressed by the Army. More fully incorporating coalition joint, air and vessel-based networks must be considered. And redefining how much of the cybersecurity apparatus can be decentralized to tactical formations must be evaluated in line with the way forward for emerging realities like artificial intelligence, reverse compatibility with legacy systems and the proliferation of far greater capability low-Earth-orbit satellite communications resources in the future.

We are at a crossroads of how Army technology is employed to win in a complex world. The Army has put itself on track to innovate in multiple directions beyond a singular focus on hardware upgrades to existing technologies. The confluence of decentralized decision rules for taking risk, paired with organizational changes and faster, wider-scale adoption of new IT, are all being prioritized to make sure our vast communications networks can be organized and massed to enable unity of command for today’s fight as well as tomorrow’s emerging threats. M

John Fossaceca; Chief Warrant Officer 5 Todd Doherty, U.S. Army retired; Amy Walker; Maj. Mike Ranado; and Maj. Jeff Forry contributed to this article.

Lt. Col. Ron Iammartino is commander of the 50th Signal Battalion, Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Previously, he served on the Joint Staff and the Army Staff, and as operations officer/executive officer of the 50th Signal Battalion. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, and holds a doctorate from George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

Col. Chris O’Connor is commander of the 35th Signal Brigade, Fort Gordon, Georgia. Previously, he was chief information officer for the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, Fort Bragg. He also commanded D Company, 50th Signal Battalion (Corps) (ForcedEntry) (Airborne), 3rd Joint Communications Squadron, MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, and the 50th Signal Battalion, Fort Bragg. He is a graduate of The Citadel and has master’s degrees from the Dwight D. Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy and the Naval War College.


This article was written by Ron Iammartino and Chris O’Connor from Army and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to