Next-generation battle tech gets put to the test
Extensive lab and field testing ensures military forces can share data seamlessly
- By Terry Costlow
- Jan 14, 2011
For centuries, military forces have sought access to the most up-to-date information. In recent years, U.S. strategists have been developing a range of networking technologies to mitigate the problems that arise when forces can’t quickly share information.
Military planners and developers have run a number of tests during the past few years to ensure that warfighters can quickly share data from many sources. The goal is to enhance basic, time-tested communications between squad members and commanders. Information from sources as diverse as unmanned sensors, satellites and officers located on distant continents is necessary to help warfighters accomplish their missions.
But getting all those information sources to mesh in a seamless network is no small problem. That led to a major change in strategy a couple of years ago when the Army’s Future Combat Systems program was killed.
However, the Army deemed that many of the network systems of the ill-fated project were too valuable to die with the overall concept. During the past couple of years, the service has conducted a number of field tests that prove that major benefits are possible when troops can freely share data.
Although integrated systems are critical to the free flow of information to warfighters, it can be difficult to connect equipment designed by multiple companies for different branches of the military. To ensure that newly developed technologies can share data, the military must conduct plenty of testing in labs and field situations.
In summer 2010, the Brigade Combat Team Integration Exercise at White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico proved that the overall integration concept brings value to warfighters and military strategists. The effort to connect isolated networks was so effective that some programs are now on accelerated timetables for deployment.
“BCTIE provided a demonstration to show how we could bring all these stovepiped networks together,” said Lt. Col. Darby McNulty of the Army Program Executive Office for Integration. “We don’t want to wait until 2015. We’d like to have things ready in 2013 to 2014.”
But integration won't be easy because many technologies are necessary to link all the military's systems. The Warfighter Information Network-Tactical network will be the backbone for many types of communications, while the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) will support many mobile systems.
Other techniques are at work to enable troops to share voice communications, imagery, maps and other data that can help them execute missions. Waveforms are one technology designed to support networking tools that suit various groups' needs.
Software-defined radios are one of the technologies that enable usage of all those communication schemes. Unlike conventional fixed radios, software-defined radios can adapt to various inputs, giving them the flexibility needed for multiple battlefield environments. Waveforms can target radio parameters for different military groups.
Another benefit of software-defined radios and standardized waveforms is that they open a market to a range of vendors that can create radios for use in various environments. The drive to commercial hardware could hasten the development of new technologies, and costs might also come down as vendors compete in a standardized environment.
Those factors have convinced many military leaders that communications technologies can play a critical role in the technical tools of the future.
“It’s clear after the efforts during BCTIE that advanced radios and waveforms are the way to go,” McNulty said. BCTIE is only one of many tests. Other field programs have proven that the individual technologies work as expected.
“The recently completed JTRS [Ground Mobile Radio] System Integration test displayed improved performance in the ability to transfer data through the network over a 900 square-mile range, utilizing the new Wideband Networking Waveform and Soldier Radio Waveform (SRW), as well as current force waveforms [Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System, satellite communications, Enhanced Position Location and Reporting System, and high frequency] in the field,” said Boeing spokesman Matthew Billingsley. Boeing is the prime contractor for the JTRS GMR program.
Although the test results have impressed military officers, staff members note that there’s still plenty of work to do to ensure that all the pieces work well in harsh conditions.
“It takes a lot of effort to configure these networks,” McNulty said. “A lot of the network management tools are manpower intensive. Over the next two years, we’ll be working to ensure that everything works together seamlessly.”
After each test, product developers make progress based on lessons learned. “All the hardware and software issues raised from Limited User Test 09 were addressed" by this year’s limited user test exercise, Billingsley said. “We executed more than 160 corrective actions, including 86 design changes, to make sure that we are meeting the requirements for the program.”Studying waveforms
One of the major efforts is to enhance waveforms. Waveforms reside at a crossroads of user bandwidth, available radio frequency spectrum, cryptographic protection and primary power sources, and they also must account for environmental factors such as dense foliage and the irregularities of the Earth's surface.
There’s a push to improve the performance of waveforms, but that’s a difficult task because users and technology developers in various fields have different needs and goals. “What you want depends on where you sit,” said Bob Wilson, technical adviser to the chief of staff at the Army's Program Executive Office for Command, Control and Communications-Tactical.
Wilson said that when spectrum managers consider waveform advances, they want to conserve radio frequency bandwidth and have the ability to operate anywhere in the world. Cryptographers want an unbreakable code.
“Dismounted soldiers want enough bandwidth to browse the Internet, talk while doing it, have situational awareness such as a moving map and be able to wear it on their back without having to change a 5-pound battery every hour,” Wilson said.
Technologists are moving forward on many of those fronts. Battery lifetimes have improved with the transition to nickel metal hydride and lithium-ion products. Battery use has reduced because radios go into sleep modes when they aren’t actively communicating. Advanced electronics and software trim power demands during transmission.
“In many cases, radios automatically adjust their transmitted power to what is minimal to reduce unnecessary battery consumption as well as the side benefit of tactical signature on the battlefield,” Wilson said.
Those advances extend to autonomous products. “SRW also incorporates advanced wake-up/sleep features to lengthen battery life, particularly for unattended sensor operations,” said Capt. Jeff Hoyle, Navy program manager for the JTRS Network Enterprise Domain.
Although battery life is important, there’s a broader effort under way to enhance the waveforms. That begins at one of the highest levels, the Wideband Networking Waveform. WNW provides a tactical mobile ad hoc networking backbone for ground and airborne joint warfighters at the company level and above.
It enables secure IP networking without requiring direct line of sight among all WNW nodes. Throughput is high, and advanced algorithms make it easy to share data.
“Through nodes configured as gateways, WNW can also provide connectivity between geographically separated networks at lower echelons in the tactical Internet — for example, multiple SRW subnets connected to a WNW backbone network,” Hoyle said.
WNW algorithms have been updated to improve performance in large networks based on rigorous testing conducted as part of the GMR System Integration Test at the Electronic Proving Ground at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., in fall 2010.
“Work is under way to add a telemetry operations enhancement to SRW to enable control of unmanned air and ground vehicles with SRW while simultaneously streaming video over SRW to the controller, with completion of this effort expected next summer,” Hoyle said. “SRW telemetry operations enhancement will significantly increase the throughput and quality of service to support necessary requirements for simultaneous video and control traffic over the air.”
One important aspect of communications is the ability to remain operational as troops and commanders move. Although that helps everyone, it’s an especially big advance for commanders in the field. They can stay up-to-date even when they leave command posts and go mobile.
“When you have broadband down to the soldier, whether they’re in MRAPs or dismounted, there’s a significant increase in combat capability,” said retired Army Maj. Gen. Dennis Moran, who now works at Harris. “Now they have access to the same information while they’re on the move that they have when they’re in the tactical operation center.”
The increasing availability of networked data is a cornerstone of military strategies, and observers say the majority of U.S. troops are eager to access data at any time from any location.
“Young soldiers and sailors are used to mobile devices,” Moran said. “They demand it because they’re familiar with it. They expect to be able to do things like communicating and, in some cases, accessing video from a Predator or other [unmanned aerial vehicle] to they know what’s over the hill.”
In addition, there’s a demand to make it easier to find relevant data and get it in a format that’s easy to understand, even when operating conditions make it difficult to concentrate. Product developers are striving to come up with new human/machine interfaces.
“We need to have fusion so things don’t have to come together in the soldier’s head,” McNulty said. “Now, information appears on different displays with different human machine interfaces. They’re seeing four types of formats on four displays. We’d like to see a common waveform interface so we can get data into the simplified format soldiers want.”
That data will come from many sources. Although communications among people are getting the bulk of the attention, a growing number of inputs come from unmanned sources. Compact electronics are making it easier for soldiers to hide sensors in remote regions, and their use is growing rapidly.
“Unattended ground sensors are a first line of defense designed to be deployed very remotely,” said Dave Scaringella, director of ISR systems at Textron Defense Systems. “They’re primarily defensive for monitoring remote roads or trails. These are networked sensors that are compatible with the JTRS network. They are not stovepiped. Roughly speaking, they double the range of current sensor systems, sending a three-frame movie so soldiers get a slightly different view that will help them understand what they’re seeing.”
As networking technology improves, it’s becoming easier to put those remote sensors in critical locations. And the variety of available sensors also is increasing. For example, radiological detectors can connect to the network.
The cameras that dominate the usage model have more functionality, using the increased bandwidth to send multiple images so users can better identify people and objects. The sensors also do more filtering so users aren’t bothered with unwanted alerts.
“Not only will the sensors determine a target, but they will classify it,” Scaringella said. “They can distinguish between a tank and a pickup truck. The algorithms cut down the number of false alarms. A lot of sensors out there now trigger on rodents and other things that aren’t interesting.”Safe and secure
Security is a major problem, whether data comes from an unmanned sensor or a soldier. And security encompasses many potential issues. Foes can’t be allowed to send bogus messages through military networks. Legitimate data must be protected so outsiders can't intercept messages. Networks must remain operational even when enemies attempt to bring them down. Those security concerns require solid technology as products are built and networks are maintained.
“For military products, requirements for encryption, anti-tamper, and anti-jam often keep us from seeing a military cell phone that does not cost a mint to own and operate,” Army technical adviser Wilson said. “We are doing a lot more to automate cryptographic updates. We are also building and installing more strategic cyber defenses.”
That protection requires advances in hardware and software. Encrypting and decrypting signals quickly enough to meet the real-time requirements of military personnel requires a lot of computing power. Cryptographic techniques are also being pushed as developers attempt to stay ahead of foes.
Adding those security advances while improving capabilities and compatibility isn't simple. Military planners are planning an ongoing series of evaluations to ensure that the technologies work effectively and efficiently in combat environments.
Wilson said forces plan to hold an annual tactical networking integration exercise to examine technical and operational strengths and weaknesses of systems. They will determine whether systems from government programs of record, commercial acquisitions, existing government technologies, and developments from the Research Development and Engineering Command and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency can come together in a single network.
“Additionally, a plan is in development to identify a place to perform all technical end-to-end lab integration testing, in support of the [Army Evaluation Task Force] that will perform the operational end-to-end integration testing,” Wilson said.
A process will then be established that links the functions of the annual C4 On-the-Move demonstration at Fort Dix, N.J., held each summer, with network certifications historically preformed at the Central Technical Support Activity at Fort Hood, Texas. In the end, a plan for progression of technology and products from various sources is the goal to build a more unified approach to network investments and strategic change, Wilson said.