SCHOFIELD BARRACKS, Hawaii -- During a recent field test highlighting the Army's push for more distributed mission command, a 25th Infantry Division brigade successfully held secure communications between light combat vehicles at three sites thousands of miles apart.
The teleconference over the Army's mobile tactical network allowed brigade leaders in Hawaii to speak on a secret line with battalion leaders inside specially-configured Humvees as they conducted training in Louisiana and Thailand.
As the service's first brigade to fully field a lighter version of the Warrior Information Network-Tactical, or WIN-T, the 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team has been testing what the new equipment can do since November.
"It enables the commander to receive information to make more informed and timely decisions, and have collaborative meetings and sessions while away from the actual tactical operations center," said Maj. Michael Fraas, the brigade's S-6 officer.
The lighter components of the networking gear come as part of WIN-T Increment 2, which includes a lighter tactical communications node, or TCN, and network operations and security center, or NOSC.
Much of the capabilities can be used "on-the-move" as the mobile command post maneuvers to another location. Previous systems could only work "at-the-halt" or when vehicles are stationary.
The lighter version is also fitted onto Humvees, which can be sling-loaded and transported by helicopter. Heavier WIN-T systems have previously been placed in larger vehicles, such as the Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles, or FMTV.
The 101st Airborne (Air Assault) Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team has also since been fielded with the lighter version. Additional priority light infantry Brigade Combat Teams will receive the gear over the next several years, according to Paul Mehney, spokesman for the Program Executive Office Command Control Communications-Tactical office.
"Reducing system size, weight, power and complexity to enable delivery of the TCN and NOSC lite kits was in direct response to operational user needs to better enable airborne and light infantry 'fight tonight' maneuver capability," Mehney said.
As part of the Army network modernization strategy, he said, production of the WIN-T Increment 2 capability will halt this fiscal year. Procurement includes enough systems to finish fielding to all regular component infantry and Stryker Brigade Combat Teams by fiscal 2021.
Armor Brigade Combat Teams will remain on Increment 1, but will be "pure-fleeted" on the Joint Battle Command-Platform -- the Army's next-generation friendly force tracking system -- to provide enhanced on the move situational awareness, chat, and Blue Force Tracking capability.
The program and the Command, Control, Communications, and Intelligence Cross-Functional Team is currently working with industry partners and the science and technology community to further enhance the network transport capability.
"The goal is to make network systems as modular as possible with well-defined, standards-based, hardware and software interfaces," Mehney said. "This will enable competing vendors the best possible chance of identifying and providing well integrated improvements over time."
In Hawaii, the lighter systems have made it easier for signal Soldiers to perform their duties for the light infantry brigade.
The 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team has eight of the systems and 36 key-leader vehicles, which are mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles that can receive line-of-sight and satellite communication from the systems.
"We've been putting it through its paces and learning some of its unique properties in the past couple of months," Fraas said, "and we're going to continue to do that for the foreseeable future."
Portable satellites that automatically find a signal in the field as well as 30-foot masts that can relay tactical Wi-Fi internet access to nearby key-leader vehicles also come with the systems.
New capabilities also allow battalions to access satellite communications that were once only found at the brigade level.
The enhanced equipment on a smaller chassis was ideal for the brigade, which switched from a Stryker to a light infantry unit about a year ago.
"That's the big win for us," Fraas said of the lighter system. "Now we have this mission command on-the-move capability and robust satellite capability pushed down to the battalion level."
In May, the brigade is expected to test and provide feedback on an experimental prototype of an early entry command post vehicle, which is basically an upgrade to the TCN-lite system. That system, he said, is intended to better counter electronic warfare threats than the current version.
Compared to previous systems, the lighter version has drastically cut set-up time for units to get onto the tactical network.
"It's just a 100 percent improvement all the way around," said Sgt. Cody McCarty, who operates one of the brigade's TCN-lite kits. "It's more efficient to set up, to tear down, and to get communications up."
With WIN-T Increment 1, it could take about three hours to set up, while the lighter version can be ready to go in half the time.
"Once we got this, it was shocking how we [were able to] set up," said Sgt. Gary Membreve, in charge of the system's satellite tactical terminal. "It was just push a few buttons and there you go, you're on the satellite."
During a training exercise in mid-March, McCarty explained the system can provide users the ability to send emails, pictures or voice calls over a secure tactical internet.
"If you can think of anything that you can do on your cell phone, you can do it in the system," he said. "Cell phones aren't a secure method of communication, especially on the battlefield, so TCN-lite takes care of that and it becomes your cell phone."
The brigade, he said, plans to pass on any knowledge or tips they learn from the system to other signal Soldiers who may one day use it.
"It's been an eye opening experience," McCarty said. "I'm really excited to see where we can take it."
The major described the lighter system as the next step in warfighting communications technology, but not the last.
The Army's goal, he said, is to have a mobile command post and network that can be set up within 30 minutes.
"Are we there yet with Increment 2? Not quite," he said. "Are we moving in the right direction? I would say yes."