Army wraps up major IT upgrades at 21 bases; 44 more planned in 2017

After more than a decade of relative neglect, the Army says it’s picking up the pace to modernize the IT infrastructure on its installations: 21 bases received major upgrades in fiscal 2016, and another 44 are planned in the coming year.

Among the features: dramatic expansions of the bandwidth that connects each base to the broader DoD Information Network, built on multi-protocol label switching (MPLS) technology, upgraded routers and switches throughout a given base, and a collapsing of security architectures to bring them behind the Joint Regional Security Stacks (JRSS) the Defense Information Systems Agency is building for all of the military services.

The JRSS effort will eventually consolidate about 125 separate points of Army cyber defense into 25 shared, regional centers to protect both classified and unclassified networks, said Maj. Gen. John Baker, the commander of the Army Network Enterprise Technology Command (NETCOM).

“Just to put it into perspective, in the last decade and a half before we started two years ago we had done zero complete modernization initiatives, and now we’ve done nearly two dozen,” Baker told reporters at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference in Washington. “When we do these, we get enormous cost savings because we’re buying this network equipment in bulk and we’re using our own soldiers to install them so it’s a sunk cost on labor. And that modernization effort is also showing us parts of the network that have literally sprung up over the years and need to be put back under a process of security accreditation and control. We’re using the modernization as an opportunity for that.”

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After several years of discussion and laying the groundwork to transition the Army’s historically base-centric IT into a more enterprise-like construct, the installation upgrade initiative is only one of several in which the Army made widespread progress during fiscal 2016, said Lt. Gen. Robert Ferrell, the Army’s chief information officer.

He said the Army is also making genuine inroads into reducing the number of networks its various components and commands operate, making it easier for Army Cyber Command to monitor and defend them.

“We have so many separate and disparate networks in our enterprise, and we have an effort ongoing to collapse those onto one Army enterprise,” he said. “This past year, we had planned to migrate the Army Reserve, the Corps of Engineers and the National Guard. So far we’ve migrated the Reserve behind the Army network and JRSS, and hopefully by the second quarter of 2017 we’ll finish with the Corps of Engineers and the Guard. The next cycle of units we’ll migrate will be Army Medical Command, Army Test and Evaluation Command, Installation Management Command and Army Materiel Command. We’re all moving down the road to the Joint Information Environment with one infrastructure and one common standard.”

And last week, the Army released a long-awaited request for proposals to largely replace the hodgepodge of aging voice and video technologies used on its bases throughout the world. Under the banner of “Unified Capabilities,” the RFP asks vendors to deliver a software-based, contractor-operated service for voice, video, instant messaging and chat, presence, and desktop sharing to about a million users — including about 100,000 at the classified level.

Officials want all of those services to be available from desktops, laptops and mobile devices to “untether” soldiers from their offices. The Army wants to buy the software-as-a-service solution on a per-user subscription basis for up to five years, and expects to award a single firm-fixed price contract to whichever vendor it determines offers the best value.

“This is one of the foundational lines of effort to allow us to deliver the enterprise services that everybody demands,” said Minish Patel, the CIO within the Army program executive office for enterprise information systems. “What we’re trying to do is set the conditions whereby we can deliver these kinds of services today and in the future, because we know that demand is simply going to grow.”

Ferrell also pointed to progress the Army has made in eliminating the differences between the IT systems soldiers use to perform their missions while they’re deployed compared to the ones they use at their bases.

The Army now has 18 Home Station Mission Command centers that replicate and interact with its tactical networks at all of its active and National Guard division headquarters, and is beginning to install the same capabilities on the rest of its bases.

“We’ve completed surveying all of those installations to bring them to a common standard, which is not something we had during Afghanistan and Iraq,” Ferrell said. “That survey allowed us to see what we need to do to complete a tech refresh. We’ve just about completed four installations, and we project to do six more next year so that soldiers will have the same tactical capabilities they have at the distant end at their stations back at home.”

Once soldiers are able to work with the same data systems both at home and while deployed, the next step is to make sure leaders have real-time access to classified networks while they’re in the air, en-route to their next mission.

“At this time last year we had equipped five Air Force C-17s with high-capacity satellites and roll-on-roll-off modules, and by the end of 2017 we will have equipped all 35 aircraft with the capability for en-route mission commandm” said Gary Martin, the Army program executive officer for command, control, and communications-tactical (PEO-C3T). “It’s a great capability, long needed for early entry capability. The second is the T2C2 (Transportable, Tactical Command and Control) program, which is two versions of a small satellite capability that can be put onto commercial aircraft – one can go in the overhead compartment, the others get checked in the cargo hold. They provide several megabits of capability, and they’ll be a standardized program of record that replaces a variety of different products that units have been buying though urgent operational needs statements.”