Breaking down the Army's new network plan

The Army wants to be able to freely send data back and forth from its legacy and business systems to the tactical edge. Key to doing that is its strategy to unify tactical and enterprise networks and creating a common "data fabric." But will it work?

enterprise network (Sergey Nivens/

The Army wants to be able to freely send data back and forth from its legacy and business systems to the tactical edge. Key to doing that is its strategy to unify tactical and enterprise networks and creating a common "data fabric". But will it work?

The Army released its Unified Network Plan Oct. 8, detailing the path over the next 10 years to create a foundation needed to improve its data sharing and analytics capabilities -- a need highlighted during the Afghanistan withdrawal that concluded in August.

"We had the legacy network in place. But, you now have a force that wants to do everything we just described, you have a generation of folks that want to be able to do things right away," Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne division, told reporters Aug. 12 at the Association of the U.S. Army's annual conference.

"Everything that happened out there, we were able to overcome and figure out what we needed to do. But you had the network that you have, so...when you look at where we know we want to go....We have to be able to share this information back and forth."

The unified network plan, which aims to be a detailed focus of how the Army plans to sync up its tactical and enterprise networks over the next 10 years, should change that. The plan builds on the incremental development and deployment schedule via capability sets that drop every two years with technologies for each set prototyped, tested, and tweaked on a continual basis. Tech from some of these capability sets are slated to be demonstrated in its annual Project Convergence exercise coming up in November.

Brig. Gen. Jeth Rey, the director of the Army's network cross functional team, told reporters at AUSA that the withdrawal taught the Army that data was not readily available for commanders on the ground.

"Currently, our network centric environment is just [the commander] going to reach for data when he thinks he needs it. We want a data centric environment to produce information for the commander to make informed decisions. That's why we need a data fabric that we're now having at [Project Convergence '21 in November], we're using it there, to inform what the future is going to look like," Rey said.

Maj. Gen. Thomas Pugh, the director of networks, services and strategy for the Army's deputy chief of staff, G-6, said the Army was currently staffing the implementation plan with a focus on what can be done in 2022 and 2023 to begin integrating the enterprise network and making the unified network operational by 2025.

"There's a little bit of the integrated tactical network that is in there, but the integrated tactical network is integrated already. It just needs to be slightly improved upon, but the enterprise is not integrated at all. And so there's a lot of activities that have got to occur to achieve the integrated enterprise network so that we can then converge the two," Pugh told reporters.

But the questions that kept arising during discussions of the newly unveiled plan were what was truly different this time and is the new direction the right one.

Terry Halvorsen, the former CIO at the Defense Department turned general manager and client development leader for IBM's federal and public sector business, told FCW that he thinks the Army has the right plan, especially with regard to the focus on data, but the execution -- particularly with regard to resources -- will be key.

"The Army, in some ways, has the biggest challenges…the Army's got to do this network convergence within the Army but they also do with their allies, and it's a lot harder for the Army than say maybe the Air Force or the Navy just because of the size of the allies, size of the ground forces. And a lot of the army allies are also working to do joint [networking], but ...they're not quite as technologically advanced, some of them, as the U.S. Army is," Halvorsen said.

The former defense CIO said DOD as a whole has a lot of legacy data that can't be moved at the same pace as commercial data: "It's just too much, lots of applications that are very specialized that are old. So how do you do all this convergence, and then stay within budget? And that's going to be the trick."

Halvorsen noted that the Army will have to negotiate in a difficult budget climate, but has the right idea by trying to get a return on investment from "business systems by applying, maybe even more directly, commercial software commercial products, driving that cost, taking some of that ROI and putting it into the mission systems [for] modernization."

But challenges are coming as the DOD is under a continuing resolution, which Halvorsen expects will extend into the New Year, and a potentially trimmer budget for the Army in 2022.

"That's going to hurt all services, including the Army, as they try to execute with a continuing resolution, not being able to get their new money to new budget allocations and start some new projects. So they've got a hard environment to negotiate in, but they do have a really good plan."