Lessons in commercial-off-the-shelf

by 1LT Brad Rhodes

The Signal Regiment’s mission is changing rapidly. Commanders at every level expect a smooth transition from garrison to the field; for instance, 82d Airborne Division’s commander expects to deploy to Bosnia from Fort Bragg, N.C., and be able to check his email. Meeting commanders’ expectations is no easy task for the Signal soldier who must now interface Army communications with commercial-off-the-shelf equipment. Unfortunately, as more COTS equipment is added to the Army’s inventory, the number of experienced operators decreases. The challenge for the 21st-century Signal Regiment is to keep soldiers abreast of current technologies while integrating existing communications equipment.

Recognizing this, 93d Signal Brigade has focused on training COTS and testing it in the field. One test of COTS was last summer, when 93d Signal Brigade soldiers deployed across the United States to support Grecian Firebolt ‘99. Signal soldiers employed a variety of COTS equipment during GF ’99 to meet customer requirements. The mission was difficult; it’s no easy task to interface Army communications equipment with COTS equipment.

There were three primary lessons-learned during the GF mission. First, the customer requires connectivity that’s both reliable and manageable. (With COTS’ introduction, terms such as reliable and manageable took on a whole new meaning.) Second, solutions to customer needs via COTS equipment should be flexible, scalable and adaptable depending on the environment. Finally, more Signal soldiers need to know more about COTS. The small number of individuals with COTS knowledge during GF ’99 made the mission successful, but more training is needed on COTS to expand the present limited knowledge base.

Connectivity: reliable and manageable

When 93d Signal Brigade deploys, its main means of communications out of theater is AN/TSC-85B and AN/TSC-93B tactical satellite terminals from 235th Signal Company, 67th Signal Battalion, at Fort Gordon, Ga. Often referred to as TACSAT, the terminals from 235th Signal Company interface with standardized tactical-entry points located around the world. STEPs provide the tactical customer with access to such resources as the Defense Switched Network, nonsecure Internet-protocol routing network, secure Internet-protocol routing network and Automated Digital Network.

During the Grecian Firebolt mission, manageable and reliable connectivity was imperative for command-and-control of the theater. If the brigade commander was unable to contact his subordinates located throughout the United States, information, personnel and supplies didn’t move. To ensure reliable connectivity, TACSAT operators from 235th Signal Company used spectrum analyzers to monitor links for signal fluctuations. Care was also taken to maintain consistent contact with ground-mobile-forces controllers who control actual satellite access. To supplement the switching tactical network, AN/PSC-7 (MST-20) single-channel TACSAT radios were used as the long-range C2 network.

COTS add a new layer of complexity to reliable and manageable networks. During Grecian Firebolt, COTS solutions were used to provide customers with videoteleconference capability and Internet access. In each case, reliability was an important performance factor. If TACSAT operators weren’t monitoring the satellite link, VTC users experienced picture degradation and poor sound quality.

Local-area-network usage is another factor to account for in COTS implementations. During the mission, the brigade’s automation section used tools such as Hewlett Packard’s Openview and Real Secure (Internet scanner) to monitor network traffic.

In the aspect of network manageability, COTS is becoming an extension of standard Army communications equipment. Signal soldiers are now required to understand a variety of COTS. Routers, certain cable modems and servers can now be managed and monitored from a single location using Simple Network Management Protocol. Programs like Openview and others can query network manageable equipment for statuses.

Reliable and manageable connectivity help today’s Signal soldier to keep the information moving. There are two factors to recall in this area. First, TACSAT operators must monitor their links continuously. In many cases the STEP entry will be the primary means of communications out of a theater. Second, COTS implementations must be monitored to ensure reliable communications. Remember, the more traffic on a limited bandwidth connection to the Internet, the slower that connection will be.

Flexible, scalable and adaptable

Located at Fort McCoy, Wis., during GF ‘99, 67th Signal Battalion provided a variety of COTS solutions to its customers from 3d Medical Command. Flexibility was the key to meeting customer needs.

Upon arriving at Fort McCoy, 235th Signal Company tied into the STEP at Fort Detrick, Md., providing DSN phone trunks to the MEDCOM. Led by CW2 Wes Oldfield, MSG George Cockrell and SFC Orlando Perez, 67th Signal Battalion’s S-3 team interfaced with Fort McCoy’s directorate of information management to provide NIPRNET and SIPRNET access to 3d MEDCOM headquarters. After installing network access at MEDCOM headquarters, the next task was to provide access to 67th Signal Battalion headquarters.

Using a scalable COTS solution, S-3 soldiers employed LAN modems from Tut Systems to extend the Ethernet signal from a Cisco router at the MEDCOM building to a Cisco router in the battalion headquarters a quarter-mile away. As soon as connectivity was established, the battalion staff was able to check email back at home station and link to the NIPRNET and SIPRNET. However, the mission was just beginning.

The 67th Signal Battalion S-3’s automation section was responsible for installing the LAN on each medical site at Fort McCoy. In conjunction with the brigade S-2, the automation section also accredited each computer system used by the various medical units. In many cases, solutions had to be adaptable to user needs. Users with 10BaseT LAN cards were connected to hubs and Ethernet switches. Customers with 10Base2 LAN cards were connected in accordance with Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers 802.3 standards. Unix systems were configured and run on the same LANs as Windows NT Workstation machines.

Flexible, scalable and adaptable COTS implementations allow Signal soldiers to meet customer needs. Key factors to remember here are limitations, equipment on hand, planning and training. Limitations include maximum cable lengths/grade (high-grade copper, WF-16), signaling types (Ethernet, non-return to zero), network standards (segmenting, users per segment) and operator experience.

It’s always best when implementing COTS in the tactical environment to have excess equipment readily available. This equipment may include extra routers, cable modems, cable, LAN cards, hubs and repeaters. Another important piece of hardware to have on the ground is a cable-making kit. The kit adds more flexibility, giving the soldier the ability to build a cable to meet a specific user requirement.

Inexperienced users may not arrive on-site with the right equipment; it’s important to be prepared. Prior planning will save hours of frustration at the outset of any mission when a heavy COTS implementation is expected.

And of course, trained personnel will make the mission successful.


In the beginning of this article, I said that Signal soldiers need to know more about COTS, that more training was needed for Signaleers to meet the new century’s needs. Here’s an example of what a Signal unit is doing to train its soldiers on COTS.

At Fort Gordon, in a corner of the 67th Signal Battalion motorpool is a small classroom building. The outside isn’t much to look at, but the contents are what matters. Circuit diagrams are on the walls, high-tech equipment is on the tables, and motivated military-occupation specialty 31S TACSAT operators sit in the chairs waiting for training.

The 235th Signal Company is continuing to develop its "data lab" to train soldiers to use current technology solutions. The 235th’s TACSAT operators are on the front line of the latest COTS integration, like in GF ‘99. Operators are now expected to install, operate and troubleshoot routers, cable-driver modems and commercial multiplexers. In many cases, what a soldier learns in class is directly applicable to real-world missions.

"The data lab will become a great training resource," said 235th Signal Company’s commander, CPT Gordon Dodson. "The idea is to train as many soldiers as possible in COTS applications. We want soldiers to be able to troubleshoot the most common implementations."

The key to training in the 235th’s data lab is the hands-on approach. Equipment such as DNE Technologies’ FCC-100 multiplexer, Cisco’s 2514 router and PairGain’s cable-driver modems are available for soldiers to experiment on. During each class taught in the data lab, soldiers receive hands-on training from handling circuit cards and connecting cables to programming the equipment. After each class, soldiers are required to complete a survey about the class.

COTS lab, classroom SGT Joe Pena, standing, and SPC Gerald Rutherford --  both of 63d Signal Battalion -- work with equipment in the FCC-100 course in 67th Signal Battalion's data lab.

"Hands-on practice helps me understand the equipment much better," one survey stated.

In addition to 235th Signal Company, 67th Signal Battalion’s S-3 is tackling the COTS issue. Oldfield taught the battalion’s first "data college" in October 1999, where 12 soldiers from across 67th Signal Battalion received two weeks of intensive training focused on COTS applications.

As the Army grows more dependent on COTS, it’s imperative that soldiers be trained to use the latest technology. The 235th’s data lab barely scratches the surface, but it’s a start. The data lab’s goal is to provide soldiers with a working knowledge of COTS. The term "special circuits" is used many times to describe implementation of connectivity using equipment other than what’s in the Army inventory – presently the knowledge base about special circuits is limited to a few soldiers. Another objective of the data lab is to expand the present number of soldiers with experience in special circuits and COTS implementation.

Lessons learned

Training and exercising our training are both important to improving our COTS knowledge. GF ’99 provided great insight into using COTS to support user requirements. We know customers expect Signal soldiers to provide connectivity that’s reliable and manageable. As COTS becomes more integrated, commanders in the field will expect status information on both Army and off-the-shelf communications gear.

The 235th Signal Company’s data lab is a step in the right direction for the future of the Signal Regiment. There’s no better way to install, operate, troubleshoot and maintain COTS than hands-on training. Our data lab’s dividends will shine during Grecian Firebolt 2000, scheduled May 28-June 27.

Lastly, a few helpful reminders and the greatest lesson-learned. Implementations using COTS need to be flexible, scalable and adaptable. Don’t forget the cable-making kits. If a cable can be fabricated on-site, mission delay will be minimized. Finally, the greatest lesson-learned: more training is needed to teach as many Signal soldiers as possible the latest COTS equipment.

COTS equipment is here to stay. The lessons learned from GF ’99 show the Signal soldier needs to be ready for challenges COTS will bring.

1LT Rhodes is a TACSAT platoon leader with 235th Signal Company. He has also been an assistant S-3 telecommunications officer for 93d Signal Brigade and an assistant S-3 battalion automation officer for 63d Signal Battalion. He holds a bachelor of science degree in aerospace studies, emphasis in computer science/applications and aviation safety from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz. He invites anyone who needs more information to contact him at (706) 791-8536 or via email at rhodesb@gordon.army.mil.

Acronym QuickScan
C2 – command and control
COTS – commercial-off-the-shelf
DSN – Defense Switched Network
GF – Grecian Firebolt
LAN – local-area network
MEDCOM – medical command
NIPRNET – nonsecure Internet-protocol routing network
SIPRNET – secure Internet-protocol routing network
STEP – standardized tactical-entry point
TACSAT – tactical satellite
VTC – videoteleconference

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