Battlefield broadband: Reinventing warfighters' communications

Wireless broadband supporting data, not just voice, is essential to battlefield operations

In February, the Defense Department issued its Quadrennial Defense Review, a comprehensive look into DOD's strategy and priorities. The QDR underscores the department’s focus on providing the support required for service members fighting wars on multiple fronts and recognizes the necessity to plan now for challenges on the horizon.

As part of this support, the 2010 QDR notes that the “capabilities, flexibility, and robustness of U.S. forces across the board will be improved by fielding more and better enabling systems, including intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, electronic attack capabilities, communications networks, more resilient base infrastructure, and enhanced cyber defenses.”

A component that must be considered a priority is adopting a true broadband network for the warfighter — not broadband in the wired sense but tactical wireless solutions that provide broadband quality networking in areas where there is little or no central control, no available infrastructure, and limited satellite capacity or availability. When personnel, sensors and vehicles are introduced into an austere environment, wireless broadband solutions enable those distributed assets to connect to a network without the installation delays and management complexity associated with traditional wired options.

However, much of the technology used today focuses on voice communications, with only limited data capability and throughput. Deployed data networks often can't be extended to a battlefield’s edge because of distance limitations or requirements for significant installed infrastructure. And even with those limitations, they often fail to keep up with the flood of video and data being created and consumed in warfighting operations.

A perfect example of today’s challenges is a military convoy moving through a mountainous region of Afghanistan. The convoy cannot rely on fixed or existing infrastructure to help with critical information sharing because none exists, and satellite coverage is often affected by the terrain and circuit availability. Therefore, a convoy in motion loses its ability to exchange key information regarding situational awareness, command and control, and asset tracking except through voice radio. How much more efficient, effective and safe would the convoy be if it had complete visibility from the front to the rear, knew the location of all warfighters and vehicles, and maintained the ability to stream information through live video/audio from advanced units? Tactical wireless networks with broadband capabilities can help make that vision a reality.

Wireless mesh networks also provide the ability for warfighters or complete units to leave and join the network as required through a self-forming, self-configuring mechanism that enables a node to move within the area of operation and access any other authorized node in the network. That also allows the network to connect to devices such as cameras, unmanned aerial vehicles, unmanned ground vehicles and sensors to provide a more detailed situational awareness perspective.

Convoys tend to move at a slow pace and from Point A to Point B. Imagine the impact this type of capability would provide in a true tactical maneuver environment, where speeds are faster, missions more complex, and the requirement for on-the-spot situational awareness is greater.

Security is another concern — how do we know that information sent across the network won't be compromised? The urgent and increased demand for secure wireless communications throughout the U.S. military and its coalition partners is driving the desire to use commercial secure wireless systems.

However, there is a strong desire to use integrated secure communication solutions, instead of bolting on security overlays, to deal with those needs. The use of open standards provides interoperability among different implementations. And it uses strong public algorithms that make it easier to release implementations to coalition partners and state and local governments. As an additional benefit, using commercial noncontrolled crytographic item security technology removes the burdens and complexity of communications security handling requirements, a particular advantage for units of battalion size and smaller.

The 2010 QDR couldn’t be clearer in its focus on building and supporting an agile and flexible military force. Adopting tactical wireless broadband solutions — already available today — directly addresses that goal and, most importantly, better enables the warfighter. 

About the Author

Janet Kumpu is vice president of corporate development and marketing for Fortress Technologies.

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