In October, the Army will do something it’s wanted to do for more than a decade: send a pair of combat brigades to a warzone equipped with a new data network, and the hardware to operate it. It’ll let more than a thousand troops rapidly send voice, text, imagery and data across a warzone and to a soldier on patrol. It’s a milestone, following years of aspirations, setbacks and adjustments. And it arrives pretty much too late for the wars.
When the 3rd and 4th Brigade Combat Teams of the 10th Mountain Division reach Afghanistan in October, between 1,200 and 1,400 soldiers will take with them a rejiggered Motorola Atrix running Android that’s the heart of a communications program called Nett Warrior. When they go out on patrol, their devices will load mapping applications layered with data about where they are and where their buddies are. When they encounter insurgents, homemade bombs or Afghan civilians, they’ll be able to record that information, which will appear on those digital maps as icons dotting layers of data.
Using the Rifleman Radios plugged into their Motorola devices, they’ll be able to transmit that data in a series of relays from one radio to another, across their units, into their trucks and back to their company headquarters. When the data reaches the computers within a tactical operations center, their captain and first sergeant will be able to see their battlefields like never before, as they change, in near-real time. And those officers will be able to ping that picture up the chain of command, to the battalion and then brigade headquarters — and, should a colonel decide it’s necessary, onward and upward, all the way back to the Pentagon, thousands of miles away.
And it works both ways. When the captain decides that there’s information at his or her level that a squad leader needs to know — say, a suspicious car moving at a high rate of speed toward the squad, captured on video from an Army drone overhead — the captain can send it out to the squad leader. A new icon will appear on the mapping app on the Atrix.
“This is a capability we have never, ever been able to provide,” says Brig. Gen. John Morrison, one of the key figures behind the Army’s new data network, called the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, or WIN-T.
He’s not kidding: WIN-T has been in the works since 1996. For most of that time, it lived as the dream of Pentagon officials — and the frustrations of soldiers in confusing, arduous fights in Iraq and Afghanistan, who didn’t have the tactical information they needed when they needed it. Army colonels and generals who announced the deployment of WIN-T to Afghanistan at the Pentgon on Thursday used terms like “sea change” to describe it.
Only that change may have come too late.