FORT BLISS, Texas — “The greatest threat I face as a brigade commander on the battlefield is not [enemy] tanks, snipers or IEDs,” said Col. Chuck Masaracchia. “It’s defending the network.”
Masaracchia, who is the commander of 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, spoke just prior to the start of Network Integration Evaluation 16.1, or NIE, which runs from Sept. 25 to Oct. 8.
“I am more than confident of our force’s capabilities to destroy any force on the battlefield — as long as we can provide mission command,” he said.
The Army is currently facing potential adversaries who are adept at cyberattack, he continued. That enemy has “every capability we have and he will be attacking us” in any future conflict.
“How we try to defend ourselves and not allow him to corrupt the network” will be crucial to determining the outcome, Masaracchia predicted.
The colonel gave a tour of the brigade headquarters in a remote area of Fort Bliss. The headquarters included a tactical assembly area, a tactical assault command post, engineer and artillery battalions, a tactical operation center, a large mobile command center and a smaller mobile command center that mirrored the larger one and could be rapidly deployed to a remote location.
The brigade headquarters is “organic to the organization,” Masaracchia stated proudly. By organic, Masaracchia meant that the use of locals and contractors was not required for it to function, as was the case at forward operating bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here, Soldiers and Army civilians did everything, from maintenance and repair to operations.
Masaracchia’s brigade is the largest component of NIE 16.1, numbering 4,876 Soldiers among the total 9,000 or so participants. His brigade’s operating area is 18,900 square kilometers in Fort Bliss as well as adjacent White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico.
Besides being in a combat training center-like environment, the brigade will assist in evaluating new and current network equipment to determine if it works with joint and coalition partners. The Soldiers are doing the user evaluating and providing that feedback to vendors on the ground, as well as the Army’s own researchers and developers.
PEEK INSIDE THE HONEYCOMB
Two Warfighter Information Network-Tactical Increment 2, or WIN-T, antennas sprouted from a van surrounded by a honeycomb of air conditioned tents swarming with cyber warriors, intelligence analysts and an assortment of technicians. It was a beehive of activity inside the tents.
Disturb the hive and you will get stung, was the message Masaracchia delivered.
“I have [an important] guy who keeps the network secure,” he disclosed. That person is Chief Warrant Officer 2 Vladimir Leonard.
The feisty cybersecurity technician, who said he shares the same last name with the famous boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, said he doesn’t get much sleep.
“Simply put, we look for the bad stuff in the network, identify it and shoot it up to higher and make sure they’re out of the network as fast as possible,” Leonard said. He then rattled off a lot of acronyms of software and firewall tools he uses that give his cyber counterpunches extra sting.
Without going into classified info, he talked about identifying peculiar patterns in the network traffic and spurious or abnormal events that tip off an attack to their queen bee, which in this case is WIN-T and every system that travels over it. Such systems include the Distributed Common Ground System – Army, also called DCGS-A, blue force tracking tools, and intelligence feeds from the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency.
This suite of cyber defense tools is a “capability we didn’t have until now,” he said.
Masaracchia added that the network includes unclassified, classified and top-secret traffic, everything from voice and digital to video and databases.
In addition to all of that, there’s the coalition network, which is the primary means of communications during this NIE. “That is totally new to us,” he said.
“Right now, we’ve got about a 95 percent confidence level that everything is working as it’s supposed to be,” he said, referring to the coalition network that links all of the disparate networks of 14 other armies together that are participating in NIE 16.1 live or virtually.
A lot of Americans cut the cord and have been going wirelessly for a number of years now. Not so the Army, said Masaracchia. “Look around here and you’ll see that there’s a lot of cable wiring everything together,” he said.
However, that cabling “is about a third of what we’d normally have, so we’re running secure wireless in here and we’re going to be growing as we gain fidelity of the system. As we gain confidence in [wireless’s] ability to hold more systems we continually add more systems to the wireless, reducing the cable. Hopefully in the future you’ll see hardly any wiring in here.”
He explained that going wireless doesn’t just mean that there are no cables to trip on going inside the tents. Laying all those cables takes precious time. “It’s all about how fast we can set up and how fast we can provide mission command for the force.”
Also throughout the tents were stacks of servers, more than a dozen in just one tent. Masaracchia explained that those servers require the tents to be chilled to protect the sensitive electronics. That wastes precious fuel to do that.
More and more servers are now going in back of vehicles, he said, pointing to vehicles with stacks of servers in them. “As these servers get switched out to vehicles, the vehicles’ own [efficient] onboard power cools them,” reducing or eliminating the need for cables and generators.
Capt. Jason Patterson, a technician, said everyone experiences trouble with their computers at some time. The same thing in the field can and does happen. In the past, when there was computer trouble at a command post located in a remote area, it usually necessitated sending a technician out to fix it.
Now, Patterson said, trouble tickets can be handled by the technician remotely using the Unified Trouble Ticketing System, which was first demonstrated during NIE 14.1.
The new system saves a lot of time and reduces security requirements to protect the technician who is tasked with the trouble ticket, he added.
BAD GUYS OUTNUMBER GOOD
Maj. Robert Richardson is the brigade’s intelligence officer. His job is to identify, keep track of and predict the threat of the enemy and provide that information to the commander. In NIE 16.1, the enemy is formidable.
“We have a division worth of live and simulated bad guys on the battlespace, which makes this not a near-peer, but a peer or superior threat,” he said, explaining that the enemy has tanks, infantry combat vehicles, modern radios, optics, and advanced fire-control systems.
Besides that, he said the enemy is equipped with an entire suite of intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance equipment, to include micro-unmanned aerial vehicles and one lethal UAV. They’ve also incorporated electronic warfare and threat-computer operations. “They can bring all these systems to bear simultaneously.”
Going up against this massive threat is the brigade’s battalion and two additional companies, which will go up against the enemy’s division, he said.
Some of the battles that are taking place are live, he said, meaning on the ground, and other pieces are virtual, meaning conducted on computers or simulators, such as the ones at Fort Bliss’s Mission Command Complex.
Richardson said all of that virtual simulation comes back through the network and is visible on the screens in the tactical operations center. For him, the exercise “looks the same as would be seen in a real battle.”
LOTS OF STUFF
The point-men for getting all of this stuff out here — vehicles, communications equipment, experimental stuff — are Col. Terrece Harris, director, Capability Package and Kevin Fahey, director, System of Systems Engineering and Integration Directorate.
For the NIE, Harris and his team had to assemble systems that weren’t originally designed to do what they’re now doing, Masaracchia said, meaning communicating across the joint-combined networks on current and prototyped communications equipment.
An important and complex part of Harris’ job was coordinating with all the program executive offices across the Army to physically integrate network components and system platforms so that everything was up and running at the start of the exercise. Harris said planning for that took 16 months and his team is currently planning future NIEs as well as the Army Warfighting Assessment, which begins in October 2016.
Another thing Harris is tasked with is coordinating with U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command to take their concepts and translate those to solutions that satisfy those requirements, he said.
Kevin Fahey is responsible for identifying all of the materiel required for NIE 16.1. He said a lot of that work is done at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. There, a validation exercise takes place to ensure everything works the way it’s supposed to work before it’s brought out to Fort Bliss. The preparation takes anywhere from 12 to 18 months.
The other important part Fahey plays in the exercise is getting the funding stream needed for all the materiel.
CUTTING THE FAT
While the brigade is busy cutting the fat — cables, generators and other things that can bog an army down — they’re also busy cutting any fat that might accrue on their warriors.
It’s no secret that intel and cyber experts do the vast majority of their work sitting behind a bunch of computer screens, which doesn’t lend itself to physical fitness.
This is where Sgt. 1st Class Charles Meecham comes in. He’s the brigade’s master fitness trainer. He explained that because of the drawdown, there are fewer Soldiers in the Army. Fewer Soldiers means that it’s critical that they’re healthy so that they’re more productive and have fewer injuries that might sideline them.
As part of increasing their readiness, Meecham runs a TRX deployable fitness box, where 45 Soldiers at a time can work out with weights and other gear. He said keeping fit definitely correlates with injury reduction.
HIGH OPERATIONS TEMPO
Masaracchia concluded that “this is probably the highest op-tempo organization in the Army right now. Not only do we have a [U.S. Army Forces Command] mission, which requires we’re prepared and ready to go to combat, we also have the TRADOC mission, which is right here.
“It’s an incredibly heavy tax on an organization, but it’s a tax we’re willing to pay. With the fiscal constraints of the Army, we’re the only brigade in the Army that gets the equivalent of two to three combat training center rotations a year,” he said.