Commanders call for on-the-move broadband

Request sparks industry scramble to deliver wide array of COTM systems

Communications on the move isn't an easy problem to solve for a billion-dollar Army program of record such as Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T), let alone a commercial company internally developing such a capability at the urgent request of combatant commanders. A number of companies are rising to the challenge and demonstrating their terminals and antenna systems to anyone wearing a battle dress uniform.

“There are a lot of local commanders with urgent needs looking at what they need for an application and looking at the alternatives,” said Keith Gammon, principal product line manager at Rockwell Collins Satellite Communications Systems. “So you have a lot of demonstrations going on. The military is particularly interested in things like low-profile antennas, how much space the hardware takes up inside the vehicle, development of a field kit, and how it becomes integrated with the deployed systems they have.”

The Rockwell Collins division, which was formerly known as DataPath and became part of the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, company in mid-2009, has been more successful than other companies in inserting its communications-on-the-move technology into Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, 10 of its systems, including two spares, were installed in mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles. They all accompanied the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, a light infantry division based at Fort Drum, N.Y., that specializes in fighting in harsh and inhospitable environments, to Afghanistan for several deployments.

“What they wanted to know was how many of their applications they could run at the same time,” Gammon said. “How many phone calls they could make, how could they report back and get access to their servers, [and whether] they could conduct video teleconferencing and phone calls at the same time.”

These proof-of-concept systems have demonstrated 0.5 megabits/sec download and 2 megabits/sec upload capabilities with the company’s MobiLink device, which mounts on a Single-Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System MT-6352 tray that links land mobile radio and satellite communications on the move. The satellite antennas are commercial, low-profile antennas from RaySat Antenna Systems and L-3 Datron.

“Their operational scenario would be they would use one radio to talk to the local-area network over the land mobile network and use the other to connect back to the command post beyond line of sight and take up no more room in the vehicle than the existing radios already take up,” Gammon said.

Many of the non-WIN-T communications-on-the-move systems bought by the Army fall under the Commercial Satcom Terminal Program, a program of Project Manager WIN-T based at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.

Communications for the Aerial Tier

Although beyond-line-of-sight communications is necessary for warfighters on the ground, it's also becoming important for manned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions flying thousands of feet above the battlefield.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has pushed manned and unmanned airborne ISR capabilities to the forefront of his acquisition strategy to deal with the urgent needs of combatant commanders. In response, the Army has fielded Task Force ODIN — short for observe, detect, identify and neutralize — to hunt improvised explosive device bomb-makers. The Air Force is contributing by flying Project Liberty missions. Both efforts use manned surveillance platforms based on the King Air 350ER, which carries full-motion video cameras, electro-optical sensors, infrared sensors and other ISR devices.

Those aircraft typically stream their intelligence data to the ground but can sometimes lose line of sight or fly beyond the line of sight, which interrupts the flow of images, full-motion video and other intelligence. For the aerial tier, airborne communications-on-the-move systems have been developed to switch to satellite transmissions when line-of-sight communications is unavailable.

This summer, the Air Force deployed airborne communications-on-the-move terminals on board several-dozen Project Liberty aircraft. L-3 Integrated Systems is the systems integrator for the Liberty program, which includes ArcLight communications-on-the-move terminals and secure network services from ViaSat, based in Carlsbad, Calif. The ArcLight Ku-band mobile broadband system is designed to provide high-speed, beyond line-of-sight communications, and it configured in this application for data rates as fast as 1 megabit/sec from the aircraft to support ISR activities.

An Unknown Future

The ground-based communications-on-the-move efforts will continue to solve immediate operational requirements in theater. However, it's unclear whether any of these one-off communications-on-the-move systems will eventually be able to integrate with WIN-T systems when deployed to brigade combat teams in 2011.

The answer is maybe yes, maybe no, said Army Col. William "Chuck" Hoppe, WIN-T project manager at the Progam Executive Office for Command, Control, Communications-Tactical.

“The challenge we run into as a program office is that a short-term investment today may or may not have legs to the future in terms of where the Army is going,” Hoppe said. “If we bring in a waveform that is not going to be compatible with anything that the Army is doing in the future, then there has to be some decision criteria associated with cost/trade-off benefit. How much do we buy of that one-off solution set? Does it have legs to the future in terms of can it be made compatible with the network? Is it going to work with the stuff that the big Army is going to in its backbone program?"

“All the questions have to be wrestled with, and, in some cases, the answer is: It’s not. It’s going to be an in-theater solution space only. But that is a decision for the [operations segment] of the Army and the chief and vice chief of the Army.”

For their part, companies developing communications-on-the-move systems — that includes companies such as Lockheed Martin and ITT — are more optimistic about future roles for their technologies, particularly at the tactical edge. But that is not necessarily the sweet spot for WIN-T. That program of record is more geared toward on-the-move communications at the division-to-brigade echelon.

“I think that all the comms ops have not been fully put together, especially as you start aggregating these urgent needs,” Gammon said. “What we think may happen is that these solutions will play at the company level and farther out on the tactical edge, which won’t have the traditional WIN-T architecture." 

“And as the WIN-T program starts moving further out to the edge to start supporting these demands at company level, we hope to offer solutions to fold into that. The other piece for us is globalization and international partners, who will want interoperable communications with WIN-T. Even if we’re not part of the official program, we might be able to interoperate with WIN-T from that perspective.”

About the Author

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

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