Members of the Army National Guard who could soon find themselves in the heat of battle or aiding victims of a natural disaster are beginning to train as they will operate. Several units, such as Florida’s 146th Expeditionary Signal Battalion
(ESB), are among the first to use communications equipment that has been in the making for several years. These up-and-coming capabilities more closely resemble the form and factor that many guardsmen have been using in their civilian jobs, creating a practically seamless transition from civilian to soldier.
1st Lt. Brian Wilkins, ANG, has seen technology advances from the vantage point of both the U.S. Army and industry firsthand. As a systems engineer with Florida’s 146th Expeditionary Signal Battalion, Lt. Wilkins engineers and plans operations. Outside of the Army where he is employed as a software and network engineer, the lieutenant handles similar duties.
“Many of the soldiers in the National Guard are network engineers,” Lt. Wilkins says. “A lot of them do this for Verizon. Instead of putting on a Verizon uniform, now they are putting on an Army uniform. So a lot of this involves taking that knowledge and applying it to a different area. It makes it very easy to find information.”
Today’s soldiers expect to use technology on the battlefield that is similar to what they find in their civilian offices, Lt. Wilkins adds. They want to send internal e-mail across forward-operating bases and communicate through a voice over Internet protocol telephone. “They basically want, in a way, an office in the field because that’s how we fight now,” he states.
The lieutenant has noticed the technological leap the Army has made with the new equipment he receives. “I feel like we can bring a lot more to the fight,” he offers. “We’re a more relevant unit.”
Technologically, the Army’s satellite-based networks, such as those that comprise Warfighter Information Network–Tactical
(WIN-T) Increment One, have moved the service to an even playing field with industry, Lt. Wilkins says. “As a whole, industry is using the same exact stuff. It’s just [that] we put it into a box, and we send it to the field.”
Formerly called the Joint Network Node–Network
, WIN-T Increment One provides battalion-level and above warfighters with the ability to connect to the Army's digitized systems that support voice, data and video via a satellite Internet connection.
The ESB network is assigned to the Warfighter Communications Solutions
(WARCOMS) division, Project Manager Tactical Radio Communications Systems
. It provides line-of-sight and beyond-line-of-sight communications to soldiers at higher echelons, along with the capability to support lower echelons through the cascading of equipment when needed. James Goon, deputy product director, WARCOMS, says the ESB network, which now includes the Joint Network Node, is really a gap-filler. It provides the warfighter with the latest technology that is commercially available today. “By modifying existing legacy shelters, it gives warfighters the capability to execute their mission today with a higher throughput of data, voice and video until WIN-T becomes available,”
Lt. Wilkins explains that Internet-based communications technology also allows for modular equipment so components can be removed and replaced with other peripheral pieces. In addition, issues with newer systems can be resolved with a telephone call. When a problem arises with older systems, soldiers might need to sift through outdated user manuals and instructions before taking steps to resolve it. Locating documentation for systems made in the 1970s is not an easy task, the lieutenant quips.
For a soldier, it’s important to stay on top of technologies because some might eventually be fielded to a military unit, Lt. Wilkins advises. Doing so allows soldiers to predict the technologies they might have to train on in the future.
Although the 146th ESB will continue to transition to ESB equipment through June 2008, it already has supported numerous hurricane relief missions using a scaled-down version of WIN-T. To get a jumpstart on training, the unit received Increment One equipment in February. This approach enables National Guard units to train on the system before they receive the latest ESB equipment, the lieutenant explains. Soldiers obtain experience with the switches and routers they will use in the future prior to receiving the rest of their equipment.
The system is being used in virtually every training drill period. This schedule is particularly beneficial for soldiers who have not been to school in a long time or who require further training, Lt. Wilkins relates.
Program Executive Office for Command, Control and Communications Tactical contractors have provided a great deal of support to the unit during the transition, the lieutenant shares. They have provided system training and have encouraged him to call with questions or issues.
WIN-T Increment One officially became a program of record in June 2007. The first WIN-T portion toward satellite communications will be released in Increment Two, and Future Combat Systems/WIN-T will comprise Increment Three. Increment Four will mark the release of the High Capacity Communications Capability.
The transition to WIN-T has generated excitement throughout the Army community, Lt. Wilkins offers. “We can get away from this antiquated stuff,” he states. “People feel relevant in the world when they don’t feel like they are using equipment that they are never going to deploy with.”