Voice and data: role reversals in
mobile-subscriber equipment planning

Or "what is a paradigm shift, anyway?"

by MAJ Jeffrey Girard

In the last decade, computers have proliferated; computers and automation have become an important part of our day-to-day lives – both in the civilian arena and in the military. I believe the increased presence and use of computers on the battlefield have made it necessary to alter the way we engineer our communications networks. I contend that data circuitry is now just as, if not more, important when engineering the mobile-subscriber equipment communications network. Further, I intend to show how we as 21st-century communicators must embrace this new understanding if we’re to meet the communications needs of digitized forces and the Army 2010 and beyond.

Brief history of MSE

The first division set of the new MSE was fielded Oct. 16, 1987, to 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas. The 13th Signal Battalion trained extensively on the equipment for a year, and on Oct. 25, 1988, the first MSE Signal battalion was deemed fully operational.

This initial system was based entirely on supporting voice subscribers. The original "plain vanilla" MSE system could provide more than 900 telephones to both mobile and fixed subscribers. Connecting the UXC-7A facsimile machine to a digital nonsecure voice telephone, however, provided the only data support. The system provided the ability to digitize an analog source document, send the digital data across the MSE network, and then convert it back to an analog product at the receiving end.

In 1990 the tactical-packet network was added to the MSE system as the data-transport subsystem. TPN was designed as a data-transport system for battlefield Army tactical command-and-control systems, now referred to as Army battle-command systems. TPN was designed to fulfill the anticipated data-transport requirements of ABCS computers, which are:

Maneuver-control system for the maneuver battlefield operating system;
All-source analysis system for the intelligence and electronic warfare BOS;
Forward-area air-defense C2 system for the air-defense BOS;
Advanced field-artillery tactical-data system for the fires BOS; and
Combat-service-support control system for the logistics BOS.

Introduction and explosion of personal computer

The early 1990s also began the explosion in the home personal computer and Windows operating system. The number of home-PC users began an exponential increase with the release of Windows 95 in summer 1995. Suddenly it became very easy and cheap for individuals to own and use computers at home. The increase in home-computer use also sparked an increase in the networking savvy of the home-computer user. A generation of people born in the late 1970s and early 1980s grew up being computer and network literate.

Simultaneously, with the explosion of the PC market in the civilian world, a corresponding – but much smaller and slower – increase in the population of desktop and laptop computers occurred in the Army. Company orderly rooms were populated with Zenith desktop computers loaded with Windows and the standard Army training system. As the years progressed, computers became cheaper. More desktops were purchased, and laptops became economically feasible.

Finally, many more Army computer systems were fielded. These included the tactical Army CSS computer system, the forerunner to the current standard installation/division personnel system-3; Tacfire, the forerunner to AFATDS; and ASAS. While not based on the same operating system, these computers continued to reinforce exposure to technology in the field environment. Commanders and staffs became accustomed to drawing information from computer sources, and soldiers expected to use their computers connected to TPN.

The natural result of combining TPN’s advent and the population explosion of computers in units is that more computers were taken to the field. TPN began to carry more and more data around the battlefield. I believe this growth can be broken into three stages.

Crawl stage

This stage began with the introduction of TPN to the MSE system. Soon thereafter, the early MCS systems, Tacfire computers and TACCS boxes were common sights in unit tactical-operations centers. In response to lessons-learned in Operation Desert Storm, the logistical community realized it needed some mechanism to connect the standard Army management information systems computers to TPN. An interface solution was built for these legacy systems. This interface box, the CSS automated information-systems interface (CAISI or "concentrator"), also consolidated the large number of STAMIS computers into the ports available on MSE assemblages. Between September 1992 and January 1994, 39 concentrators were fielded to the XVIII Airborne Corps and 1st Cavalry Division. Since the concentrators were developed, STAMIS computers have become a mandatory part of the logistical support network for all field exercises.

This is also the stage in which enterprising automators throughout the Army began to "push the envelope." They began bringing office computers to the field and using TPN to create TOC local-area networks. These LANs were simple peer-to-peer networks using Windows for Workgroups and using shared folders and printers. These LANs weren’t sophisticated by today’s standards; however, they were significant in that they were initial attempts at expanding boundaries and using technologies to their best advantage.

In the mid-90s, with the proliferation of the Windows NT-server operating system, more enterprising automators began to take the first "crawl" steps. NT servers were taken to the field and set up as worldwide-web servers and Microsoft Exchange electronic-mail servers. Now the commanders and staffs used email to communicate across the battlefield. Web-based reporting systems were developed in places like 1st Infantry Division in Korea and 11th Signal Brigade in Fort Huachuca, Ariz. Again, enterprising automators were using technologies available and expanding boundaries. Now commanders and staffs didn’t have to use the radio or telephone to gather their required information – it was available to them on a continual basis with just a few clicks of the mouse.

Walk stage

This stage began with the introduction of the tactical high-speed data network. Task Force XXI/Division XXI experimentation at Fort Hood in the mid-90s created a requirement for greater bandwidth in the MSE system. The makers of MSE assemblages responded to the need by engineering the high-speed multiplexer cards and associated equipment that are all part of THSDN. This equipment provided for much greater bandwidth to carry data with no loss of voice channels.

THSDN also provided for a new capability: the ability to conduct videoteleconferencing using the MSE backbone. In concert with this experimentation, the intelligence communities (both tactical and national) began connecting the secure Internet-protocol routed network to the tactical network. This expansion allowed the tactical intelligence officer to reach out through the networks and retrieve national-level intelligence, all from the TOC’s safety. The beauty of this meshing of networks is it allowed this intelligence officer to draw information down directly into his ASAS box in the TOC. He didn’t have to use separate computers that were separated by an "air gap," as with previous methods of drawing data from a satellite feed.

Finally, the logistics community began to expand their use of the MSE system to support their STAMIS computers. Company/battery-level units began to connect their ground unit-level logistics system computers to the MSE network. This provided them the capability to transfer their data electronically, versus hand-carrying disks and/or computer tapes to computers located in the support battalions.

During this stage, almost every leader and staff officer down to platoon level had a computer. A vast majority of soldiers enlisting in the Army were computer literate. We took more and more computers to the field. Product improvements in the MSE system tried to keep pace with the demand for bandwidth. We meshed and integrated different types of networks, networks of different classification levels, and used a variety of physical media for our networks.

The use and demands we placed on TPN’s data-transport capabilities and on the Signal battalion exploded. Finally, it was during this stage some commanders looked around and realized the unit automation officer was becoming a critical member of the commander’s staff.

Run stage

This is the stage into which I believe we’re transitioning. In this stage, the warfighter has the ability to connect to SIPRNET and nonsecure IPRNET – all from the tactical IPRNET. The current generation of MSE equipment with the THSDN upgrade allows us to do this; however, the next generation of equipment, the Warfighter Information Network, will make it much easier by using asynchronous-transfer-mode technologies.

ATM is currently used to support high-speed networking worldwide. Sending reports to higher headquarters is no longer conducted over radio or DNVT telephone calls. Web-based reporting systems are the standard. Intelligent automation systems automatically push data to databases located in the warfighter’s TOC. Battle captains no longer rely upon paper maps being updated by pushpins indicating unit locations. Instead, battle captains sit in front of large screen displays as icons move on the battlefield in real-time.

All categories of data are immediately available for the commander to make informed decisions. Sound unrealistic? Well, it’s not. The technologies exist today and are largely being used in the experimental force at Fort Hood. All this capability is, and will be, available to the warfighter only if the data network – the "pipes" – are laid correctly to carry all the data around the battlefield.

EXFOR influences

The Army dramatically increased its use of automation assets as part of EXFOR activities in 4th Infantry Division at Fort Hood. It’s not my intention here to describe the activities and goals of Task Force XXI/Division XXI advanced warfighting experiments; there are many documents available that provide these details. It’s my contention that Fort Hood’s AWEs solidified and increased the need for automation systems on the battlefield.

As I said, the current warfighter is almost entirely dependent on computers and networking to accomplish his mission. Past methods entailed receiving situation reports via tactical radio or DNVT while moving pushpins on a paper map. Current technologies enable battle captains to access, and update, all data in near-real-time. The EXFOR warfighter moves icons on a computer screen and accesses status reports and database information from worldwide repositories. These repositories range from active sensors that have been employed by the military-intelligence soldier to data maintained by the National Security Agency. Only occasionally does the EXFOR warfighter pick up a phone or microphone to talk to another warfighter. Most instructions are passed digitally. The digital TOCs in the EXFOR contained hundreds of desktop and laptop computers connected to both internal LANs and an external wide-area network.

The end result is experiences gleaned from the EXFOR exercises indicate that the increase in automation systems in TOCs is beneficial to the warfighter and enables him to accomplish his mission.

Paradigm shift

I contend that – directly resulting from the increase of automation systems on the battlefield, and the impact those automation system have on conducting current and future battles – a paradigm shift has occurred. Signal officers must realize data circuits are now more important than voice circuits when engineering a network. As I’ve discussed, the population of automation systems on the battlefield that use the MSE system has grown exponentially, while voice circuits have declined slightly over the same period.

Engineers and designers have understood this concept by continually improving MSE assemblages to provide more and more bandwidth for data – from no data support with the original "plain vanilla" MSE in 1988 … to 16 kilobytes per second with TPN in 1990 … to 256 kbps with the HSMUX card and Cisco routers of THSDN in 1994 … to the planned conversion of full ATM switches in the beginning of this century. Signal doctrine, as taught by the Signal Center, still emphasizes that networks are engineered by allocating switches based on the density of voice subscribers at each location. This is the thought process we must change.

New design strategy

Just as we’ve been taught to lay out the density of telephones at each command-post location, we must now examine the density of computer systems at each CP. In addition to the density of computers, the MSE planner must also examine each computer’s purpose. From this detailed examination of data-terminal equipment, the MSE planner can produce a data-network diagram, much like the current MSE network diagram for voice circuits. For example, the MCS computer in the brigade TOC will most likely pass the majority of its data with MCS computers in the division main and division TOC. These correspond to data circuits.

In short, we’ve become plumbers. It’s our job to determine the location of the subscriber’s computers (where are the toilets, showers and sinks located); to analyze the data rate and bandwidth requirements for each subscriber (what water pressure is needed at the toilets, sinks and showers); and finally to engineer the network data requirements – not necessarily the voice circuit requirements. (I’ll need a six-inch main feed line here, a two-inch auxiliary line here, a shutoff valve here, etc.)

The planner must consider bandwidth requirements when planning the network. For example, a brigade that’s the division’s main effort will necessarily have a higher bandwidth requirement than one that’s in reserve. The planner may want to use the large extension node at the brigade’s TOC due to its high bandwidth capacity. The planner mustn’t be hampered by traditional support relationships. The planner may wish to support the brigade’s tactical-assault center that’s in the attack with a small extension node. This nontraditional support relationship may be justified based on an analysis of data and bandwidth requirements.

The final point I want to address in the new design strategy is NIPRNET and SIPRNET access and distribution. In the past, planners were only concerned with providing unclassified NIPRNET access to the logistical community to support STAMIS computers and the parts-requisition process. SIPRNET access was only required for the military-intelligence cell in DMain. I contend that to support our current sophisticated customer base, we must be prepared to extend NIPRNET and SIPRNET to customers spread across the division.

Commanders and staffs at all echelons will undoubtedly have requirements to access the unclassified NIPRNET for email and Web access. Email access will generally be to maintain communications with individuals at the sustaining base using reachback links. This requires the planner to consider the placements of network-encryption systems throughout the battlefield. These devices allow the unclassified NIPRNET to "tunnel through" the classified MSE system. As with unclassified data, the requirements for SIPRNET access are also growing dramatically. Unit intelligence officers need access to data that can only be accessed via SIPRNET. This requirement begins at home station to access the volumes of country data and continues onto the battlefield for up-to-date information on weapons and capabilities. The MSE planner must consider this data connectivity and bandwidth requirements when planning the locations of MSE assemblages.


Since the introduction of the MSE system in 1988, the public and individual soldier have become much more sophisticated and skilled at using automation. As such, automation systems that use MSE’s TPN have grown dramatically. I contend that we as Signal planners must grasp this concept to support our customers to the best of our ability. I believe data circuits and bandwidth requirements should be more important than voice-circuit requirements in future MSE planning and engineering.

MAJ Girard is 10th Signal Battalion’s executive officer. Previous assignments include 1st Brigade, 10th Mountain Division (Light) Signal officer, as well as assistant S-3 and Company D commander in 13th Signal Battalion. He has more than five years’ experience as a Signal officer in both infantry and armor battalions and brigades. Girard holds a bachelor of science degree in computer science from U.S. Military Academy and a master of science degree from Duke University. His military education includes Signal officer basic course, Signal officer advanced course, Combined Arms and Services Staff School and Command and General Staff Officer College.

Acronym QuickScan
ABCS – Army battle-command systems
AFATDS – advanced field-artillery tactical-data system
ASAS – all-source analysis system
ATM – asynchronous-transfer mode
AWE – advanced warfighting experiment
BOS – battlefield operating system
C2 – command and control
CAISI – c(ombat-service-support) automated information-systems interface
CP – command post
CSS – combat service support
DMain – division main
DNVT – digital nonsecure voice telephone
EXFOR – experimental force
HSMUX – high-speed multiplexer
IPRNET – Internet-protocol routed network
Kbps – kilobytes per second
LAN – local-area network
MCS – maneuver-control system
MSE – mobile-subscriber equipment
NIPRNET – nonsecure Internet-protocol routed network
PC – personal computer
SIPRNET – secure Internet-protocol routed network
STAMIS – standard Army management information systems
TACCS – tactical Army combat-service-support computer system
THSDN – tactical high-speed data network
TOC – tactical-operations center
TPN – tactical-packet network

dividing rule

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