The US Army’s Unified Network promises epic levels of consolidation for its disparate communications links at tactical, operational and strategic levels.
Multi-domain operations (MDO) form the doctrinal cornerstone not only of the US Army, but of all services of the US Armed Forces. While definitions vary, put simply, MDO envisages a level of supreme inter- and intra-force connectivity at all levels of war – from tactical through operational to strategic. Connectivity will link every person, platform, base, weapon, sensor and capability, henceforth known as assets. Not only will intra-force connectivity join these assets, disparate services will share similar links. The goal of MDO is to improve the quality and speed of decision-making vis-à-vis those of one’s adversaries. The US Department of Defense’s (DOD) MDO vision is to be facilitated by the Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) system; JADC2 is the hardware and software that will provide these levels of connectivity. If MDO is the vision, then JADC2 is the facilitator.
In 2021, the US Army published its Unified Network Plan, which stated that it must become an MDO-capable force by 2028. Key to this effort is what the Army calls its Unified Network which will enable the Army, as part of a wider joint or coalition undertaking, “to integrate and operate simultaneously and seamlessly in all domains, all environments, across all geographies and all warfighting functions”. The document noted that this approach would enable the Army “to calibrate a force posture and converge capabilities at the point of need”. The US Army’s Command, Control and Communications Technology Programme Executive Office (PEO C3T) is overseeing the Unified Network’s introduction.
The Unified Network directly relates to the Army’s information technology resources and the links connecting them. Succinctly, the plan covers “all hardware, software, and infrastructure from the very forward edge of the battlefield back to our posts, camps and stations”. The Army says that the Unified Network is a secure, survivable end-to-end system. The network will provide inter- and intra-force, and allied, secure and robust links. One way to visualise the Unified Network, and the motivations for its creation, is to see the Army’s communications networks evolving from being just those, to being a weapons system in its own right, as outlined in the Unified Network Plan.
Several components comprise the Unified Network; a Common Operating Environment (COE), Common Services Infrastructure (CSI), a transport layer and Unified Network Operations (UNO). US Army documents state that the network will carry both classified and unclassified data. Taking each of these components in isolation, the COE covers computing standards and associated technologies. Despite seeming mundane, these standards and associated technologies will allow the secure and interoperable software applications underpinning army MDO. Software applications to be delivered via the COE include data-driven, decision-making tools, according to the Unified Network Plan. The CSI, meanwhile, provides the hardware and software to secure, store and process the data these software applications will rely upon. These applications will be globally available thanks to the communications links the Unified Network provides.
Data is but one part of the CSI, since artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) tools also form part of the CSI. Both AI and ML will be vital to help users make sense of the data sorted by the hardware and software. As US Army documents note, Cloud Computing is one technology considered integral to the CSI. The transport layer provides the communications links to connect users to the CSI and in effect comprises all the communications networks at the Army’s disposal. These links encompass everything from DOD strategic satellite communications to radio networks at the tactical edge.
Alongside these established, conventional conduits, the Army fully expects to exploit emerging communications technologies. These technologies will include fifth- and sixth-generation cellular communications protocols. A key consideration for the Army is to create a militarised ‘Internet of Things’ (IOT). Formally known as the IOMT (Internet of Military Things), these communication links will network assets so that they are able to continually upload the data they are collecting and download relevant information to support their missions. The IOMT forms a key aspect of facilitating the levels of connectivity that MDO relies on.
Last, but by no means least, is the UNO, which the Army says will provide the protective aspects covering the network. In the Army’s own words, this includes “the capabilities, required to secure, configure, operate, extend, maintain and sustain the cyberspace to create and preserve the confidentiality, availability and integrity of the Unified Network”. In a nutshell, the UNO ensures the cyber security and protection of all the Unified Network’s constituent parts. Cyber security and protection will be realised through “a common suite of hardware and software” all of which employ ‘zero trust’ principles. Microsoft defines the zero-trust approach as “never trust, always verify”. In essence, anything connecting into the Unified Network, or any data moving across it, must be treated as hostile until it can be determined otherwise.
Taken together, the UNO, alongside the transport layer, CSI and COE will, in the Army’s own words, enable “cross-domain manoeuvre”. Manoeuvre will be achieved via “the application of strategic, operational and tactical effects at the speed and range required for the Army and the joint/coalition force in the rapidly emerging battlefield of tomorrow”. Taking all these components together, the Unified Network will allow the Army’s MDO mindset to become a reality.
UNO – it makes sense
Software plays a major role in realising the Unified Network. Paul D. Mehney, the PEO C3T’s director of public communications cites UNO as an example. UNO is a “software-based capability” that will be hosted on existing hardware already used by Army formations and “is intended to be hardware agnostic, meaning it can reside on any hardware platforms (in) any formation echelon”. UNO provides network management applications for corps, division and brigade network managers that they can use to “plan and see their network use across terrestrial and satellite communications connections”. On a practical level, UNO will allow a single soldier to plan, manage, monitor and operate their network using a single workstation. Currently, according to Mehney, soldiers must perform these functions using unique system management applications. To put matters into perspective, Bill Seiss, director of US Army tactical communications programmes at L3Harris, says that UNO “will consolidate more than 20 network operation tools currency in the Army’s inventory into a simplified user-friendly capability.”
Unified Network Operations will yield a single, common interface through which soldiers can access several software applications or services. “The ultimate goal of the UNO is to create a simplified user experience with increased situational awareness and stronger cyber network defence,” according to L3Harris’ Seiss. Elsewhere, Dominic Perez, Curtiss-Wright’s chief technology officer stated that UNO will act as middleware connecting and integrating future components: “The Army is looking for solutions to make this happen.”
A new programme of record for UNO and a rapid prototyping effort is expected to commence in the 2023 fiscal year, according to Mehney at PEO C3T. These efforts will focus on a “foundational integration capability to deliver unified applications on a common software framework”. In 2025, UNO prototype capability will be assessed and evaluated. Mehney added that UNO components have been prototyped since 2019, with efforts focusing on lower and upper tier network planning and management. He also expects initial UNO capabilities to begin fielding by 2026 and for a single vendor to be selected to deliver an integrated UNO solution.
Building the Unified Network
The Unified Network will be delivered through five so-called Lines of Effort (LOEs). LOE-1 builds the Unified Network to enable MDO. LOE-2 configures force postures of the Army for MDO. LOE-3 works to preserve the security and survivability of the commander’s freedom of action in cyberspace. LOE-4 reforms processes and policies to improve performance and affordability. Finally, LOE-5 will sustain enterprise and tactical networks.
LOE-1 places a premium on synchronising network modernisation efforts across the Army. Basically, the Army’s tactical, operational and strategic networks will merge into the prevailing Unified Network architecture. Part of LOE-1 will see the development of the Army’s cloud computing structure discussed above. Also relevant to LOE-1 is ensuring that all the Army’s current networks meet stipulated security standards. This latter point is vital to ensure that tactical units can securely plug into the network and use it when they need to. For example, the Army is rolling out its Integrated Tactical Network (ITN), which, broadly speaking, is a deployed communications network for use at the tactical edge. The ITN creates a secure wireless network for the carriage of non-classified voice and data traffic within the Army and between sister and allied services. The philosophy behind the ITN is to use as much commercially available off-the-shelf hardware and software as possible. To that end, troops are receiving civilian-style tablet computers which can work with the ITN. It is imperative that the ITN can effortlessly and securely plug-and-play into the Unified Network to smooth the flow of information.
LOE-2 stresses the training and preparation of personnel, civilian and military alike, to fight in the MDO environment. Allied to this is the Army’s adoption of the Expeditionary Signal Battalion-Enhanced (ESBE) formation, which are being deployed across the US Army’s manoeuvre forces to provide uninterrupted mission command while rapidly deploying and manoeuvring. The battalions will have a plethora of communication systems and links at their disposal to improve redundancy against kinetic and electronic attack. The Army says the ESBEs will help reduce its manoeuvre forces’ dependency on the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T). WIN-T is a deployed tactical communications backbone, typically providing trunk communications within a brigade. The ESBEs are not intended as a permanent fixture and the Army says that these battalions will deploy and evaluate alternative network equipment and postures to reduce WIN-T reliance. The results of the ESBE’s efforts will then be used to inform the future configurations of the Army’s ESBEs.
‘Bits and bullets’ has become a mantra for contemporary and future military operations. The Unified Network places a high premium on the smooth and uninterrupted flow of zeros and ones around the battlefield. This imperative underlines the importance of LOE-3. The Army’s Unified Network Plan recognises that the network itself can only “provide the means to apply strategic, operational and tactical effects if it is secured and defended”. Implicit in LOE-3 is a comprehensive overhaul of the Army’s cybersecurity processes key to which is the adoption of continuous network monitoring and zero-trust approaches. Cybersecurity approaches stress data integrity, user authentication and data availability based on the user’s level of authorised access. Continuous monitoring will be facilitated by Cyber Protection Teams (CPTs), which will constantly hunt for adversaries within the network and those seeking to gain access to it.
Inevitably, realising the Unified Network will necessitate the procurement of new hardware and software. LOE-4 provides the management and governance framework for the Army’s Unified Network investments and also has a role to play in synchronising decision-making to ensure work is not unnecessarily duplicated. Finally, LOE-5 will ensure that the Unified Network “continuously evolves as technology and, just as importantly, the threat, evolves”, the Army states. The watchwords for the network are that it must remain resilient, defensible and manoeuvrable. LOE-5 will also stress the divestment of legacy technologies as much as it will emphasise the acquisition of new ones.
The Army’s plans call for the Unified Network to be ready to support an MDO-capable Army by 2028. The Unified Network Plan is rolling out the Army’s vision in three phases spanning from 2021 to 2024 (Phase 1) and 2025 to 2027 (Phase 2). Phase 3 covers the period from 2028 and beyond.
The MDO-capable Army is to be the prelude for the MDO-ready Army of 2035. The Unified Network Plan is therefore the sheet music the Army will use to guide the network’s introduction. The ambitious Unified Network has a myriad of inputs and components, some of which are already in the Army’s possession, while others are still to be developed. Fortunately, the plan has been drafted with the future in mind so that new hardware, software and capabilities can be integrated with a minimum of fuss. This philosophy is essential as the Unified Network represents the connectivity the Army will depend on to fight, and win, tomorrow’s wars.