Soldiers take their offices to the battlefield

When soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, conducted their largest-ever
battlefield exercise over 10 days in February and March, they didn't have to give up any
of the office capabilities they're accustomed to back at the garrison.


Forty soldiers with minimal training set up more than 60 Microsoft Windows NT servers
to handle 500 desktop and laptop clients in the field. The client machines ran standard
word processing, e-mail, file transfer, scheduling, presentation graphics and database
applications under Windows for Workgroups.


In the past, Army officials hadn't thought it practical to deploy such a large tactical
network. When the 3rd Corps, headquartered at Fort Hood, engaged in a similar exercise
earlier, only the corps main, corps forward and corps tactical units were given office
capabilities in the field.


During that exercise, said corps automation officer Lt. Col. William Lewis, it quickly
became obvious that the three subunits had to exchange information with the brigade, the
two divisions at Fort Hood and commands below those levels. "We decided to expand
from those three elements to 15 to 16 units in the field, some of which have their own
subunits," Lewis said.


In the most recent exercise, each command post--for instance, the 31st Air Defense
Artillery Brigade--had its own server, typically a 66-MHz 486 machine with 16M of RAM to
32M of RAM. Each command post decided how many stations it should network and was
resposible for acquiring its own systems, hubs, cabling and other equipment.


At each command post, servers and PCs were linked via unshielded twisted-pair Ethernet
cabling with a thin coaxial cable into the Mobile Subscriber Equipment (MSE) digital
switching system. MSE, developed under an Army contract by GTE Corp. and first fielded at
Fort Hood in 1988, provides secure voice, data and fax communications at the corps and
division levels.


The exercise essentially created a tactical LAN covering a 20- by 30-mile area, with
the MSE supplying WAN service. It all operated as a secret-level, closed network; only two
units that needed to communicate with the garrison had connectivity to Fort Hood.


In parallel with the data network, the 3rd Signal Brigade also established an encrypted
videoconferencing network in the field so the commanding general could synchronize corps
main's activities with corps rear, with staffs of the 1st Cavalry Division and the 4th
Infantry Division from Fort Hood, and with the 3rd Republic of Korea Army.


The video network, built largely with equipment from Vtel Corp. of Austin, Texas,
operated over 256-kilobit/sec satellite links.


Software on the tactical LAN mirrored the software used in the garrison. "People
already know how to use these products," said Maj. Gary Collier, deputy automation
officer for the 3rd Corps. "We leveraged the same exact products in the field so we
wouldn't have to retrain anybody."


Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the exercise was that the personnel who set up the
servers were largely untrained in computer operations. "These were helicopter
mechanics, finance specialists, administration clerks," said Maj. Barry Crum.
"We took 40 soldiers who had never seen Windows NT or administered Microsoft Mail,
and we made them system administrators."


The automation officials themselves created from scratch the instructions for
configuring servers. They took industry training methods and crammed them into a five-day
course.


"We had one individual from personnel who was completely
computer-illiterate," Crum said. "He went out and bought the equipment based on
our instructions, and at the end of three days he was out there networking his own
unit."


Crum himself took the opportunity during a preparatory exercise in January to develop a
10-page user manual. He said it gives all the necessary instructions in straightforward
language for physically connecting a system to the network, how to log on, how to find
other computers on the network, how to transfer files and other helpful hints.


The 3rd Corps' tactical LAN doctrine makes users responsible for installing and
operating their own stations and cabling them to the nearest hub or tactical Internet
connection.


With the experience gained from the recent tactical LAN, 3rd Corps officials feel
confident their soldiers have the know-how to set up a LAN in a battlefield situation and
get it operating in about two hours once the MSE network is in place. "By the third
day, you can pass any kind of traffic and have 99.9 percent reliability," Crum said.


The MSE provides acceptable voice service, but data moves very slowly on its
9,600-kilobit/sec packet service--slowly even for personnel accustomed to working on a
shared LAN. Sending an e-mail or graphics file across an MSE network can take several
minutes compared with a few seconds in garrison.


Collier said users soon learned, for example, to eliminate extraneous graphics from
Microsoft PowerPoint presentations so less time would be spent in transmission.


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