If you can't move on the modern battlefield, then you probably can't survive. So the fact that most of the U.S. Army's combat units rely on a tactical network that requires soldiers to stop moving before they can communicate with headquarters is really dangerous.
However, the Army is so strapped for modernization funds that it can't afford to implement a solution quickly, even though it spent years developing a secure mobile communications system that has proven itself in Iraq and Afghanistan. The system is called Warfighter Information Network - Tactical, or WIN-T.
The initial increment of WIN-T for communicating while halted was fielded fast because soldiers desperately needed better battlefield links in the fog of war that was Iraq. But the second increment, which uses satellite links and line-of-sight radio signals to provide secure voice, video and data communications on the move, is proceeding very slowly.
In fact, it will take 20 years to equip all of the Army's brigades and division headquarters at the rate the program is proceeding, which entails buying a mere two brigade sets every year. That's longer than U.S. forces have been in Iraq and Afghanistan, so a lot of bad things could happen to America's soldiers before they get the means to communicate on the move.
The dilemma Army planners face is that ground combat has become so lethal soldiers have to spread out on the battlefield to reduce the likelihood of catastrophic losses. But once the force is dispersed, it can lose access to vital information such as where the enemy is or what tactical plans are unless it is able to communicate with headquarters.
The current arrangement, at least for soldiers who haven't received the latest version of WIN-T, is to stop moving and set up a communications link. However, exercises at the Army's national training center have repeatedly demonstrated that fixed communications nodes can easily be targeted by enemies, cutting off units and unraveling campaigns.
It says a lot about how scarce Army modernization funds are today that planners can't find the money to fix this urgent problem fast. General Dynamics, the company that builds WIN-T (a contributor to my think tank and a consulting client), has come up with a plan that would complete fielding of WIN-T to most Army units in five years at a cost of $440 million per year.
That's less than one hour's worth of federal spending at current rates -- the government spends $11 billion per day -- and it would slash the cost of the whole program by $2 billion because new communications gear would be produced at more economical rates. The company calls its plan "6X5", because six brigade sets would be bought annually for five straight years.
The plan would give the Army 50 equipment sets counting those already deployed, allowing the Army to field a core fighting force that doesn't have to halt in harrowing circumstances to find out what it should be doing or where the threats are. The company figures production of WIN-T should end at that point as new technology begins to enable more advanced solutions.
Those advanced solutions could take a long time to field, but WIN-T is designed to incorporate improvements that counter emerging threats to communication such as cyber attacks and electronic jamming. The WIN-T system generates a self-healing tactical network that can sustain resilient battlefield links in the absence of local communications infrastructure.
That is precisely what the Army is going to need if it gets into a fight with Russia in Europe or China in the Pacific, because as the Army's chief of staff has observed, no fixed command post is likely to survive more than a few hours in combat with a capable enemy. The survivability and success of U.S. forces depends on being able to maintain links on the move.
The WIN-T equipment installed in Army vehicles delivers battlefield connectivity similar to that of a stationary command post without forcing U.S. soldiers to be sitting ducks. Whatever else may be going on in Washington, it seems like one hour's worth of federal funding should be available per year to bolster the survivability of soldiers who otherwise could be at great risk.