Army Looks To Replace $6 Billion Battlefield Network After Finding It Vulnerable

Hailed as a transformation in battlefield communications, the WIN-T program can’t stand up to foes versed in sophisticated electronic warfare.

Soldiers from 1st Stryker Brigade, 1st Armored Division operate vehicles equipped with Warfighter Information Tactical Increment 2 at Fort Bliss, Tx. October, 2014 (U.S. Army)
Soldiers from 1st Stryker Brigade, 1st Armored Division operate vehicles equipped with Warfighter Information Tactical Increment 2 at Fort Bliss, Tx. October, 2014 (U.S. Army)

The U.S. Army has concluded that its $6 billion battlefield communications system would likely be breached by Russia or China in the event of a big-power conflict, rendering it all but useless against sophisticated foes. The Army says it needs at least two years to come up with a new, more resilient system that can provide the tactical networking that soldiers have come to rely on in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Despite the vulnerabilities and flaws that the Army has identified in the program in recent months, the service will still finish fielding the system to the entire force over the next two years, officials said, while trying to quickly patch in upgrades where they can while they search for a new solution. Meanwhile, Congress is prodding the Army to find fixes for the communication system and is only offering half the $420 million the Army requested to finish deploying it in 2018.

The sudden demise of the system, known as the Warfighter Integrated Network – Tactical (WIN-T), which was until recently the Army’s top modernization and development priority, underscores larger institutional problems evident in how the Army buys equipment. And it comes amid growing Pentagon concern that U.S. forces are losing their traditional technological edge over strategic rivals such as China and especially Russia, which has proven its electronic war-fighting edge in combat in Ukraine.

“I think what happened in Ukraine set off a lot of warning signals,” said one person familiar with the development of the program. “The pendulum has shifted.”

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley last week called the system “very, very fragile,” and said it is “probably vulnerable to sophisticated nation-state countermeasures.”

And service leaders say it is going to take time — and money — to move past the system. “It probably will take a couple of years to get it right,” said Undersecretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy said during the press conference with Gen. Milley. “Changing the architecture of our network … the scale is massive.”

An Army official told Foreign Policy that WIN-T “does not meet the operational need” in an environment where an enemy has electronic jamming or hacking capabilities. “The network we have today isn’t the network we need for that fight,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Since its debut in 2004, the software, radios, and computer systems have been hailed as a transformational leap in battlefield communications. WIN-T allows soldiers in the field to track friendly and enemy movements on handheld devices, while watching video feeds from overhead drones and communicating with headquarters. The first iteration required vehicles to halt before the system could work; a more recent upgrade allows communications while soldiers are on the move.

When it was deployed to Afghanistan for the first time in 2013, the system proved that it could push information around the way commanders envisioned. But that was against an enemy with no ability to listen in, or jam communications.

As defense planners look toward more demanding battlefield scenarios in Europe, the flaws of WIN-T are becoming apparent. The system has little protection against electronic countermeasures, and it is bulky and takes two days to set up, requiring large command tents bristling with servers and antennae. Defense officials fear those command posts will act as a beacon, attracting attacks from sophisticated enemies.

And for any war in Europe, the Army is prioritizing speed and maneuverability, which would be hard to maintain with the current system.

“Soldiers can’t set it up quickly and potentially move it in a hurry if they need to,” the Army official said. “So if I’m in more than one place for an extended period of time, I’m dead.”