Without Latest Version of WIN-T, Army Commanders Will Be Easy Targets in Next War
For the U.S. Army, the global war on terror is beginning to look like the good old days. It was a long fight that is not yet over, and as usual, the Army has suffered most of the joint-force casualties, but at least terrorists don't have long-range fires, tactical aircraft, heavy armor, sophisticated cyber weapons or electronic-warfare capabilities.
The next time around, the bad guys could have all those things and more. The Army can't even count on having local air superiority if it is forced to fight the Russians in Eastern Europe (Russian air defenses are really dense). Geography could prevent America's sea services from participating in a big way. So for the first time in its recent history, the Army might be completely on its own fighting Russia's rapidly modernizing military.
Which raises the obvious question of what the Army should be doing right now to get ready for a fight that might be only two or three years away. This is not a situation where new program starts are likely to be much help. The Army's leadership will have to improvise by upgrading, protecting and proliferating what it already has.
Probably the most important item is to assure commanders have a battlefield network that can survive. Without resilient links to maneuver forces, commanders would not be able to sustain an organized campaign against a numerically superior and well-equipped enemy.
Having a survivable tactical network in places like Eastern Europe requires mobility, redundancy, ruggedness, and resistance to jamming or cyber attacks. For commanders at the company level and higher, the Army has a grand total of one program that meets these requirements. It is called the Warfighter Information Network - Tactical or WIN-T. To be more precise, it is WIN-T Increment 2, the version that allows leaders to command on the move.
Increment 2 combines satellite links and line-of-site terrestrial radios to provide the backbone for mobile communications on the modern battlefield. The program meets all of its specifications and has been fielded to 23 brigades and/or headquarters. But Army units in Europe don't have it yet. They have the earlier version of WIN-T, which requires halting and setting up a fixed communications node to function.
Commanders who rely on the latter kind of system in a war with Russian forces will likely die during the early days of conflict. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley has repeatedly stated that nothing stationary will survive long in the high-intensity conflicts of the future.
WIN-T Increment 2 enables high-capacity voice, video and data transmission in an electronically-contested environment. It is resistant to jamming and cyber attacks. Its transmissions are double-encrypted, so they can't be intercepted and understood by the enemy. It can be modified to minimize signatures that adversaries might exploit for targeting. And most important, it is fully functional from tactical vehicles on the move.
In other words, the latest version of WIN-T is a rare example of something you never hear about in the media: an Army program that works. It doesn't just meet all its requirements, it is constantly improving. For instance, the General Dynamics workers who assemble it in Massachusetts have found a way of cutting the size and weight of the gear in half, so it can be carried by a wider array of vehicles. They update WIN-T software every 90 days to keep it current with threats (GD contributes to my think tank).
Like I say, you wouldn't know any of this from reading the media. What you would hear is that the Army has grave concerns about the survivability and functionality of its battlefield networks, and the way those concerns have been garbled on Capitol Hill, WIN-T seems to be a problem. The precise opposite is true: the system works exactly as advertised, and continues to evolve.
Not that the Army network is flawless, The handheld and manpack radios that connect smaller units to the WIN-T backbone have sub-optimal signals ("waveforms") that will probably need to be changed in the future. Nobody realized when they were designed that a modernizing Russian military might be the next enemy on the battlefield. But that has little or nothing to do with WIN-T Increment 2 -- it can adapt easily to changes in other parts of the network and has already proven itself in operational deployments.
Some commanders have doubts about the system. They say it is hard to train on, that it doesn't fit into a tank, and that it relies too much on satellites that might not be available in wartime. These would be reasonable concerns if there was a better option waiting in the wings. There isn't. All the available options are grossly inferior regarding survivability and functionality.
I've actually seen WIN-T Increment 2 in use and can testify it is not all that complicated. In fact, it is based mainly on commercial comms technology that has been ruggedized -- technology that people all over America have learned to use in diverse applications. It's only challenging if you are used to doing things the old (non-survivable) way.
It may not fit on a tank today, but it is getting smaller and besides -- why would you put fragile antennas on a tank where they would raise the profile for enemy targeters? Battalion commanders do not usually operate from tanks. Sure it would be nice to have a remote link that doesn't rely on satellites, but what would that be? There's no such thing currently available on the battlefield in the absence of cell phone towers or fiber hookups.
And "currently available" is the real issue here. Can WIN-T Increment 2 be better? Sure. It's already being improved. But what happens to U.S. soldiers in Europe and elsewhere if they have to go to war without the latest version of WIN-T? The answer is that many of them may die because there is no Plan B for mobile command. WIN-T on the move is the best option the Army has or will have for a long time to come. So let's not lose sight of what our real options are as the Army thinks through how to assure battlefield connectivity.
Loren Thompson is chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute and taught nuclear strategy at Georgetown University.