Center for Strategic Communication

A mock-up of the interface soldiers will see when they access the Army’s brand-new data network, known as WIN-T. Photo: Spencer Ackerman/

It took the Army 16 years to develop its battlefield data network. But just months before soldiers finally take that network to war, a powerful Senate panel is sharpening the budgetary meataxe for it. The first deployment of the new network could turn out to be its last.

The idea behind the Warfighter Integration Network-Tactical, or WIN-T, is simple, if arduous to develop: push unprecedented amounts of information down to low-level soldiers walking around on patrol. The Army proposes to do so by equipping them with modified Android phones, relaying data through a special Army radio waveform, loaded with apps for tracking each another, enemies, civilians and so forth. For the past two years, it’s been running the components of WIN-T in simulations it calls Network Integration Evaluations to see if it can withstand the dust, heat, grease and filth of war; in October, two brigades will finally take it to Afghanistan.

Just one problem: The Senate Appropriations Committee, one of two congressional panels that controls the military budget, isn’t convinced the network is a good idea.

In its version of next year’s defense funding bill, approved on Thursday, the committee cuts over $346 million in funding for the WIN-T network, removing about 40 percent from the Army’s request of $865 million. The funding cut isn’t law yet, and the Army says it won’t stop the 3rd and 4th Brigade Combat Teams of the 10th Mountain Division from taking the network to Afghanistan in October. But it’s a clear signal that the network is in the crosshairs of one of the most powerful committees in Congress.

The panel’s stated concern: the Army’s budget math is fuzzy. “The funding the Army requested would force the WIN-T vendor to hire additional workforce and invest in additional production capacity that would not be fiscally sustainable in the next budget request,” the Senate panel’s report reads.

Speaking of those next budget requests, the Senate isn’t sold on funding WIN-T in future years, either.

In addition to the current year’s funding, the Army asked Congress to approve $275 million in research and development funding for upgrading WIN-T — nearly triple its current R&D budget for the network. Not so fast, says the Senate committee. “[T]he Army is exploring alternate programs at the Network Integration Evaluation [NIE] that could deliver the necessary WIN-T Increment III capabilities to the warfighter at a lower cost,” the panel concludes. R&D funding for WIN-T will remain at $99.5 million, it decreed.

This is a big blow to the Army. In March, its acquisitions chief, Lt. Gen. William Phillips, called developing the data network “our number-one program moving forward.” That’s right — more important than a new ground vehicle, refurbishing its helicopter fleet, and its other big-ticket items. Ten years of irregular, confusing land warfare have taught the Army that dismounted soldiers desperately need rapid access to data if they’re to reduce the fog of war.

The Army would not directly comment on pending legislation. But in a statement provided to Danger Room, it expressed total faith in the data network. “Overall,” the Army statement says, “the WIN-T program is flexible and will leverage the Network Integration Evaluation and agile process, assess mature industry technology for insertion, and work to ease integration burdens on combat platforms.” Shorter version: the Senate panel doesn’t know what it’s talking about.

To be clear, the Senate moneymen aren’t killing WIN-T. But they’re doing the next best thing: putting it on notice. And they’re not just attacking WIN-T, they’re chipping away at its components and its testbed. The Joint Tactical Radio System, which will connect soldiers’ quasi-smartphones to the data network, will be cut by $190 million, a chop of nearly two-thirds. The committee’s report states prominently that it’s not seeing enough useful technology emerge from the Network Integration Evaluations. While the panel refrained from cutting the exercises, “the Committee may reconsider its position in future budget years based on the Army’s ability to reduce costs and to transition technologies into the acquisition process through appropriate processes where warranted.”

The Army is surely disappointed. But the Senate has a point: the Army’s process for buying stuff is a total, bloated mess. A 2011 inquiry found that between 35 and 45 percent of its R&D budget is simply wasted due to unrealistic requirements standards. The Joint Tactical Radio Program has been such a mess that the Pentagon quietly disbanded the office that runs it. And everyone remembers how the Army’s last expensive technological push, called Future Combat Systems, died a humiliating death. Much of the initiative behind WIN-T is actually a legacy of Future Combat Systems. Congress deservedly takes a lot of criticism for insufficient oversight of the Pentagon budget; it’s showing a lot right here.

At the same time, it’s not exactly applying that oversight evenly. The Navy and the Air Force are trying to trim their budgets by cutting cargo planes, drones, cruisers and transport ships they say they don’t need. But the Senate panel shoveled cash back into all that hardware. And unless the Army can convince the Senate panel that it’s got a tighter hold on WIN-T, soldiers might find themselves disconnected in the wars of the future.