New network tech heightens battlefield awareness

The military pushes situational awareness to the last tactical mile

Without getting too philosophical, communications inherently want to be born joint — meaning that well-designed networks share situational awareness as far as possible to the tactical edges. But for the most part, though, the network edge doesn’t stretch nearly far enough.

For example, Army, Marine Corps and Air Force networks don't interact with one another’s system. Nobody has a full view of all the networks, which means that vital situational awareness information that streams through one network is not visible to someone using another network. Commanders don't have a single view of all the critical information that flows through the separate networks.

“We don’t fight by ourselves in the real world,” said Rosie Bauer, branch chief of the network operations branch of the Space and Terrestrial Communications Directorate at the Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center. “We are joint with the Navy, Marines and Air Force. Whether we do it effectively is another question. But we fight the battle together. What we're trying to do now is make sure that whatever we develop is done on a joint perspective and not on a stovepipe.”

To break down those communications barriers, CERDEC has developed a virtual ad hoc network test bed, located at Fort Monmouth, N.J. The VAN is a network gatekeeper. Any application developed for the network must first prove it can interoperate with radios, waveforms and satellites via the VAN test bed before it can join a communications network.

“The reason we started the VAN test bed was to do high-fidelity testing in a laboratory of applications like network management applications to simulate the actual communications effects that it would see in the field,” said Keith Whittaker, project leader of the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s network management effort at CERDEC. “Within this mobile ad hoc network environment, we can simulate the [Joint Tactical Radio System] waveform, the [Warfighter Information Network-Tactical] waveforms and the legacy waveforms while also being on the move. The VAN is a one-stop shop where people can get that high-fidelity testing before going to field testing.”

Officials at the Office of the Secretary of Defense and CERDEC said they envision the VAN test bed as an intermediate step for testing equipment destined for the battlefield. They expect tests on the VAN to be the step that developers take before transitioning to an on-the-move test bed, such as one at the White Sands Missile Range, N.M.

“We would be what they call TRL 5 experimentation,” Bauer said, referring to the Technology Readiness Level scale, which determines the maturity of a technology. “It is considered a TRL 6 level experimentation when you’re doing on-the-move testing in the field. We take one step back, so before you get to the field demo, you come to the lab and see how it performs on whatever architecture you chose to emulate. This lets you do all the debugging before you take it into the field.”

Telcordia Technologies is the main contractor working with CERDEC on the VAN. The company based in Piscataway, N.J., has written the software code that permits testing in a simulated environment.

CERDEC also is testing how various devices, particularly commercial products such as smart phones, affect networks. For that, CERDEC is using Microsoft's Surface touch-table PC to illustrate how connecting an iPhone, for example, would affect a network.

“Soldiers are buying off-the-shelf products like the iPad and iPhone, and we want to learn how these tools can help them while understanding the consequences" of connecting them to a network, Bauer said. “We have to understand and manage how introducing these devices will impact the soldier and Army networks.”

A Wireless Extension

Satellite-based connections for communications on the move work great if you are riding in a command vehicle. But they aren't sufficient — and weren't meant to be — for situational awareness tools for warfighters at the tactical edge. So to link warfighters in the most austere territories to a satellite network, the Army is demonstrating the use of wireless networks that would act as part of the transmission chain from the troops to the satellite.

“I feel a sense of urgency to accelerate communications on the move, whether that is through WIN-T or other means,” said Janet Kumpu, president of Fortress Technologies, which specializes in wireless networking for communications and transmission of logistical data. “Every customer we talk to recognizes that the network is hybrid.… One technology doesn’t solve all problems. Satellite can’t solve 100 percent of the communication requirements; tactical radios can’t; Wi-Fi can’t. It is a combination of all these technologies in an architecture that ultimately makes sense to deliver the capability to the warfighter."

“We’re seeing a significant amount of interest and are engaged in a significant amount of testing relative to our value as a wireless extension to a satellite infrastructure for comms on the move,” Kumpu said.

For example, Fortress is working with the Marine Corps to bring a wireless network to the Mobile Modular Command and Control (M2C2) vehicle, which is a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle equipped with communications-on-the-move gear.

Wireless communications also will play an important role in the joint Army/Marine Corps effort to introduce the Joint Battle Command Platform, which is a new technology that resembles the Blue Force Tracking system.

“In a larger C2 program like JBCP, there is a strong interest in addressing not only the vehicle-to-vehicle comms and vehicle-to-command-post but also vehicle-to-dismount,” Kumpu said. “Our view of the world is that wireless extensions provide a great complement to that communications infrastructure for high-bandwidth situational awareness, streaming video, data, voice, etc. So our entire strategy has been targeted around that aspect of solving the problem.”

So programs such as M2C2 and JBCP are exploring wireless as an affordable commercial system to bridge the gap for vehicles that cannot rely on satellite comms. “They can hop through each other to get to a vehicle that does have satellite comms,” said David Aylesworth, director of program management at Fortress Technologies.

In the Hands of the Troops

Wireless devices also proved earlier this past summer that they can extend the capabilities of WIN-T, when the largest — in terms of nodes — comms-on-the-move demonstration took place at White Sands.

The four-day Army Brigade Combat Team Integration Exercise coordinated for the first time JTRS radios and waveforms, an aerial tier of manned and unmanned aircraft, and an over-the-horizon-to-space tier facilitated by WIN-T.

The successful exercise was a coming out party for General Dynamics C4 Systems, the WIN-T prime contractor. Among other technologies on display, the company prominently featured a simulation of the White Sands exercise at its booth at LandWarNet in August.

Besides WIN-T, the integration exercise demonstrated a number of other important technologies for transmission of command-and-control messages, location information, voice communications, electronic chat and imagery while on the move. JTRS devices top that list, including the JTRS Handheld, Manpack, Small Form Fit (HMS) single-channel Rifleman radios for connecting squad leaders with their teams using Land Warrior Systems and the larger, two-channel JTRS HMS Manpack radios that integrate with command posts and vehicles. The White Sands demo was the debut for the Manpack radio.

The Army considers the HMS radios to be critical because a networked radio in the hands of every soldier greatly extends communications to the tactical edge. Many soldiers have never had a point-to-point radio, let alone a software-defined one.

“The networking capability at the tactical edge for the disadvantaged user is the key benefit," said Army Col. John Zavarelli, JTRS HMS program manager. “The Rifleman and Manpack radios are purpose built for the soldier at Tier 1, the most austere and disadvantaged part of any formation. With HMS JTRS, we’re giving them the ability to be part of the network with hardware that’s usable, as lightweight as we can make it, and consumes as little power as it can for the purposes of networking. All these elements reduce the burden on the soldier.”

With 60 radios in play at White Sands, the HMS JTRS office got its best look at the program earlier this year. Using ground radios and an aerial tier that included Apache and Black Hawk helicopters, in addition to the Shadow unmanned aerial vehicle, soldiers were able to communicate over a distance of nearly 20 miles using the Soldier Radio Waveform and Rifleman radio. The Manpack radio also communicated over that distance, but it could do so without the need for an aerial tier.

The HMS JTRS office is working to earn Milestone C and low-rate initial production for the Rifleman radio before the end of fiscal 2011.

Other communications technologies demonstrated during White Sands included the HMS JTRS Small Form Fit radio that was integrated into unattended ground sensors at the terrestrial tier, and Shadow UAV and UH-60 Black Hawk and Apache helicopters at the aerial tier; as well as the Command Post of the Future (CPOF) and Tactical Ground Reporting (TIGR) software applications to equip command posts with command and control capabilities traditionally reserved for higher echelons.

Chris Marzilli, president of General Dynamics C4 Systems, noted at the time: “This exercise was a great opportunity to show the value of tight integration across command, control, communications and computing domains. WIN-T, JTRS HMS, Land Warrior, CPOF and TIGR integrate very effectively and demonstrate the importance of the network to bringing critical mission data to the warfighter.”

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