War in Ukraine reinforces need for US Army network upgrades, generals say

U.S. Space Command boss Gen. James Dickinson speaks on the value of partnerships in space during the 37th Annual Space Symposium on April 5, 2022, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. (Mass Communications Specialist First Class John Philip Wagner Jr./U.S. Space Command)

PHILADELPHIA — The war in Ukraine validates the U.S. Army’s efforts to upgrade communication gear and beef up cybersecurity tools, according to officials driving the service’s network modernization.

“I think the things that we’ve observed have reinforced the campaign that we have been on, and that we need to continue this momentum and mode of execution,” Army Maj. Gen. Robert Collins told reporters May 10 on the sidelines of a technical forum.

As the program executive officer for command, control and communications-tactical, Collins helps oversee the rollout of what are known as capability sets, injections of hardware and software the Army needs for an intuitive, hardened and on-the-go network.

The conflict in Eastern Europe reaffirms the capability set process and its concepts by training the spotlight on the “basic blocking and tackling” of transmission and communications security, Collins said.

“Also, when you have a living and breathing threat,” he said, “you need to think about the things such as a contested and congested environment.”

Russian forces in Ukraine have used simpler and less-secure communication devices — cellphones, for example — to relay information. They have also stumbled over critical methods of command and control.

“We’re seeing them use a lot more unclassified communications because their classified communications capability is, well, for one reason or another, is not as strong as it should be,” a senior defense official said during a Pentagon briefing March 21.

The lapses leave Moscow’s war machine vulnerable.

“This is another one of those logistic-sustainment issues that we’ve seen them struggle with,” the senior official said. “They just weren’t fully prepared for operations of this intensity for this long on so many different multiple lines of attack.”

The U.S. can’t and won’t let the same troubles befall its forces in future fights, said Brig. Gen. Jeth Rey, the director of the Army’s Network Cross-Functional Team. So military officials are taking notes.

“That’s what we’re learning from this,” Rey said at the May 10 event. “We’re going to be so distributed in the fight, and we’re seeing how they’re distributed.”

Russia battered Ukrainian lines of communication ahead of its invasion in late February and continues to target them. The U.S. said last month it would send Ukraine secure, tactical communications equipment after providing the country upgraded radios to combat eavesdropping and jamming.

“We have to now pay attention. Is it commercial applications, are they truly what we want to use on the battlefield?” Rey told reporters. “We want to ensure that they have the security baked in early, so they’re not compromised and could put our forces at risk.”

The capability set initiative kicked off in fiscal year 2021. Compounding improvements, shaped by industry and soldiers, are expected every two years.

Capability Set ‘21 focused on infantry brigades, increased connectivity and making communications kit smaller, faster and more resilient. Some seven brigade combat teams received the upgrades, with two more to go.

Capability Set ‘23 focuses on Stryker brigades and is meant to enhance data sharing and mobility while folding in electronic- and cyber-warfare considerations. The Army wrapped its critical design review for Capability Set ‘23 technologies in April, and will later this year send the systems to Europe, where continued testing and analysis will influence fielding decisions.

“In previous wars, the difference between a good decision and a bad decision may be minutes,” Collins said during an April 26 demonstration at Fort Myer, Virginia. “In the future battlespace, that difference between a good decision and a bad decision may be seconds or milliseconds.”

Colin Demarest is a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covers networks and IT. Colin previously covered the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration — namely nuclear weapons development and Cold War cleanup — for a daily newspaper in South Carolina.





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Tony Beasley
Tony Beasley writes for the Local News, US and the World Section of ANH.