Army finds communications on-the-move tech outside WIN-T

Officials want to address satellite communications needs with cost-effective commercial technologies

Because the Army's Warfighter Information Network-Tactical program is the 800-pound gorilla when it comes to communications on-the-move, observers could understandably assume that WIN-T is sapping all the energy of the COTM world. The program might completely dominate COTM discussions in several years when General Dynamics C4 Systems starts delivering WIN-T hardware in bulk. However, until then, combatant commanders want interim COTM technologies that the Army can immediately put into service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Army is spending tens of millions of dollars on its Commercial Satcom Terminal Program, which falls under the auspices of WIN-T at the Army Communications-Electronics Command based at Fort Monmouth, N.J. The goal of CSTP is to augment current and emerging satellite communications needs with cost-effective commercial COTM technologies.

Soldiers in ground vehicles must stop and set up a ground-based satellite antennae to connect to the Global Information Grid. But with COTM advances, soldiers can connect to the GIG through vehicle-mounted satellite antennas while traveling as fast as 60 mph. The same antennas permit radio communications with other similarly equipped vehicles when line-of-sight communication is not possible.

Georgia-based DataPath is a company that has benefited from such urgent requirements. The company received a multimillion-dollar contract in November 2008 under CSTP to demonstrate a pair of COTM systems on mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles. After successful tests earlier this year, company officials said they had demonstrated 0.5 megabits/sec downlink and 2 megabits/sec uplink capabilities. The Army deployed the two COTM systems directly to Iraq. In early April, the Army exercised options for eight additional DataPath COTM systems with technical support. The company said the systems would arrive in Iraq by early May.

COTM "is key to moving the high-bandwidth network edge farther out to provide greater situational awareness, speed and flexibility to small, quickly moving units of warfighters," said Steve Lindeman, DataPath’s vice president of business operations.

The initial order included a satellite communications hub terminal and two COTM systems that have low-profile antennas for maintaining satellite connectivity at vehicle speeds of 80 miles per hour. In addition, DataPath has provided its MobiLink system for testing as an integral part of the COTM system. MobiLink is a compact device mounted on a Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System MT-6352 tray that links land mobile radio (LMR) and satellite COTM. With a push-to-talk interface, MobiLink users can shift between satcom and LMR links.

COTM-enabled MRAP vehicles with MobiLink will act as communications hubs, providing an everything-over-IP network link that soldiers can use to establish line-of-sight and beyond-line-of-sight networks. With this communications hub moving on the battlefield, other users and vehicles can tap the beyond-line-of-sight connectivity to establish mobile, high-bandwidth connections for sending and receiving video, data and voice communications.

WIN-T expectations

WIN-T is a program of record, which means that it receives the majority of COTM funding. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t smaller opportunities available for companies such as DataPath and California’s ViaSat, which are providing COTM systems. Opportunies also exist for hardware providers, such as Virginia-based iDirect, which specializes in modems, and RaySat Antenna Systems, which offers a number of low-profile, two-way antennas for COTM.

For example, the Satellite 2009 trade show in late March in Washington, D.C., featured dozens of companies that touted bits and pieces for various COTM systems geared not only to the Army but also to the Marine Corps and Navy.

“I do expect that once the latter WIN-T increments are activated, then most of the [COTM] business will be steered to that contract,” said Nelson Santini, DataPath vice president of sales. “However, we still believe that the technology that we and others have will be very much in demand to fulfill needs not addressed by WIN-T.”

That could include the need for 5-10 megabits/sec throughput to simultaneously download and process data from multiple unmanned aerial vehicles. It could be a long time before WIN-T might be capable of that level of throughput.

“We’ll take a hit in volume [when WIN-T deploys], but the need for specialized solutions at a reasonable price will exist," Santini added. COTM "is in the infancy stage, but it’s getting to the tipping point where the technology is affordable and it works.”

Santini estimates that in the next two years, there could be as many as 200 COTM-equipped vehicles operating in Iraq and Afghanistan, all of them procured outside the WIN-T program.

WIN-T testing continues

In March, WIN-T prime contractor General Dynamics said a demonstration of Increment 2 on-the-move technology that lasted several months was able to support the networking needs of 4,000 soldiers. In a tactical environment, a network of that size would support an Army division and associated brigade, battalion and company elements.

It was the largest mobile network of its kind and included more than 35 network nodes, said Bill Weiss, vice president of tactical networks at General Dynamics C4 Systems. Besides General Dynamics, the WIN-T team includes Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, Harris, L-3 Communications and Cisco Systems.

Successful testing of WIN-T Increment 2 technology is critical to the future of the Army’s LandWarNet, which is the service’s contribution to the GIG. When the WIN-T program was restructured in 2007 because of technology delays and cost overruns, the second increment changed the most. Now focused almost exclusively on fielding mature technologies, it is expected to soon begin pushing COTM technology to the company level.

Increment 2 builds on the quick-halt technology that is part of the program formerly known as the Joint Network Node (JNN), since renamed WIN-T Increment 1. More than half of the Army’s forces are equipped with WIN-T Increment 1 technology, and the service continues to spend millions of dollars on fielding at-the-halt satcom capabilities.

During a recent test at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., the Army also evaluated the maturity of technologies and components that comprise WIN-T Increment 3. Under that phase, the technology will need to demonstrate increased network capacity and security and enhanced on-the-move capabilities. The systems must do so with the size, weight, power and cooling requirements necessary to be part of Future Combat Systems vehicles. Limited user testing is scheduled for 2011.

There is a fourth increment of WIN-T, but that remains unfunded and uncertain. It is designed for protected satcom and is tied to the oft-delayed Transformational Communications Satellite.

At-the-halt still going strong

The Army will continue to field Increment 1 JNN/WIN-T technology while it waits for the true COTM technology from increments 2 and 3. Nearly every month, the Army announces a contract to purchase satellite transportable terminals for at-the-halt communications.

Wireless networking technology also gets a lot of attention from Army buyers as a way to augment COTM. It is not uncommon for a COTM system to include an 802.11 wireless mesh network that meets DOD’s 8100.2 standard and the Federal Information Processing Standard 140-2 standard for data encryption and authentication of sensitive but unclassified wireless networks. While on the move, this mesh wireless capability allows multiple vehicles in a convoy to travel to the incident site as a single moving network. Upon arrival, it provides a quick ad hoc setup to create an instant network that meets the federal government’s requirements for IP-based interoperable communications.

Virginia-based Telos holds one of the major Army contracts to manufacture secure, tactical wireless local-area network modules that provide “last-mile” connectivity from warfighters to their logistics networks. The Combat Service Support Automated Information System Interface (CAISI) is a communications system in transportable cases that is being fielded to logistics organizations worldwide. The contract calls for 13,000 modules, and as of late March, Telos had delivered about 9,500.

When linked to satellite communications, CAISI provides a capability to connect back to sustainment organizations. Each module uses wireless bridging to support a logistics support area as large as four miles in diameter, and the modules can stand alone or connect with other modules to create a mesh network.

“It is a good extension to the on-the-move aspect of the network,” said Winston Payne, Telos CAISI program manager. “It can work with whatever on-the-move technology comes down the pike.”

About the Author

Barry Rosenberg is editor-in-chief of Defense Systems. Follow him on Twitter: @BarryDefense.

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