Senate, Army chief cast new doubt on future of Army’s $6 billion tactical IT network

The future of the long-running, multi-billion dollar system that the Army considers the “cornerstone” of its network modernization strategy is somewhat in question, with the service’s top officer saying he’s ordered a comprehensive review of whether the program will actually work, and a powerful senator declaring it a “debacle.”

The $6 billion Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) is the Army’s program to securely move voice, video and data to, from and around the battlefield with a combination of land, airborne and satellite-based antennas, transceivers and computers. It’s been in development since 2007, and the Army plans to spend $420 million in 2018 alone to continue its gradual deployment to brigades and divisions.

But Gen. Mark Milley, the Army chief of staff, said in congressional testimony Thursday that he had directed a “rigorous and painful review” of WIN-T and other Army communication systems because of several concerns, including that the system is too “fragile” to survive a real-world battle.

“Frankly, my concern is these systems may or may not work in the conditions of combat that I envision in the future with the changing character of warfare because of issues with line of sight, electromagnetic spectrum, the inability to operate on the move, the inability to operate in large, dense complex urban areas or complex terrain. There’s a whole series of other things,” Milley said. “It is fragile. It is vulnerable. So, we’re taking a very, very, very deep, hard and wide look.”

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In order to launch the review, Milley said he had taken advantage of reforms Congress made in the 2016 Defense authorization bill that give the military service chiefs a greater role in acquisition decisions. He said he expected to receive final results within the next four-to-six weeks, because he wanted any necessary changes to be incorporated into the upcoming year’s Defense authorization bill.

“I don’t want to go into too much on it for classification purposes, but there are some significant changes and improvements that must be made in the short term on our ability to have assured communication. I’ll just leave it at that,” he said. “The communications architecture of the United States Army, and I would argue the United Department of Defense, is a critical capability and at the same time a critical vulnerability.”

But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said his committee had recently come into possession of information that led him to conclude that WIN-T is one more Army acquisition “failure” amid a troubled track record that includes billions of dollars in cancelled programs like the Comanche helicopter and the Future Combat System.

DoD Reporter Jared Serbu discusses this story on Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

“The Army’s modernization woes are undoubtedly connected to the service’s disastrous acquisition record over the last two decades,” he said. “Some of us feel frustrated. It’s hard for us to continue to fight for more money in the Defense budget when we see $6 billion wasted on one program.”

Although McCain’s views carry substantial weight in Defense policymaking on Capitol Hill, his is far from being the consensus attitude toward WIN-T — 176 House members and several senators have taken an opposite view in a letter to Milley that asks that the Army accelerate the deployment of the system’s second increment.

“I know that there were significant problems with the first version delays, but those seemed to be solved in the 2.0 version. And more to the point, there is no obvious substitute,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), whose state includes the General Dynamics business unit that holds the prime contract for WIN-T Increment 2. “As I understand it, under the current timeline, it’s going to take the Army about 20 years to fully field the upgraded WIN-T system. And in 20 years, that upgraded system is likely to be obsolete.”

Milley said he was unpersuaded by lawmakers’ arguments for an accelerated deployment schedule, at least until the review is completed.

“The bottom line is I have some serious questions that haven’t been satisfactorily answered as to whether this system is actually going to work,” he said. “As to why it’s taking so long, that’s one of my concerns: that it’s not going to get fielded. It’s already been in development for 10 years. A lot of this stuff is already out of date. So the entire acquisition approach, especially in information technologies, we need to review that. It’s one thing to build homogeneous steel and guns and tanks and vehicle systems. But the technological speed of advance in the commercial sector on information technologies is far more rapid than anything that the government’s acquisition system is capable of handling. It’s not just WIN-T, it’s much broader than that.”

Some of the concerns about WIN-T’s potential shortcomings had been raised previously by DoD’s oversight organizations.

In its latest annual report, the Pentagon’s semi-independent office of developmental test and evaluation warned that the complexity of the system presented serious usability problems for soldiers, that the land-based line-of-sight portion of the network would not meet the Army’s operational needs, and that the network as a whole was potentially vulnerable to enemy jamming.

“The network has demonstrated poor survivability in contested electronic warfare environments, which is the primary driver for the Army’s network modernization,” DOT&E wrote in late 2016. “Certain shortfalls such as the electromagnetic signature susceptibility are trade-offs in network design … in some cases, the capability to operate stealthily was not an operational priority when the Army originally conceived the network modernization plan.”

That’s likely because a lot has changed since the plan’s conception. At that time, the service’s primary adversaries were low-tech insurgent forces in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, conflicts in which the U.S. military had complete dominance over the electromagnetic spectrum and little worry about whether the enemy was sophisticated enough to eavesdrop on military communications or detect military formations’ presence by scanning for radio signals.

That circumstance can’t be presumed in future conflicts, noted Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.).

“I have seen credible reports that WIN-T  has an electromagnetic signature so loud that it practically would call for enemy artillery on the top of its users’ heads,” he said.