Empire Challenge pushes network connectivity to individual soldiers

Event to focus on coalition interoperability

New communications and sensor technologies are getting a workout in the Arizona desert. The goal of the ongoing Empire Challenge 2011 (EC11) exercise is to test equipment for interoperability with coalition allies in an operational environment. Among the pieces of kit undergoing evaluation this week are smart phone systems designed to provide soldiers with access to intelligence and sensor data, and a new type of flying sensor platform.

This year’s Empire Challenge has three primary goals: interoperability among the various military services' Distributed Common Ground Systems, coalition interoperability, and interoperability and integration for new and emerging sensors. Because of rapid technological advances in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems, the exercise seeks to make sure that their information is interoperable with existing equipment and systems, John Kittle, EC11’s program manager, said May 26 in a media briefing. 

Hosted by U.S. Joint Forces Command, EC11 is taking place at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., with distributed locations at:

  • Camp Lejeune, N.C.
  • Joint Intelligence Lab and Joint Systems Integration Center in Suffolk, Va.
  • Langley Air Force Base, Hampton, Va.
  • Naval Air Weapons Center, China Lake, Calif.
  • NATO Allied Command for Transformation in Norfolk, Va.
  • Coalition sites in the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.

The exercise, which began May 23 and runs through June 3, focused on operations in Afghanistan. EC11 has also been expanded, with more emphasis on coalition forces. “We wanted to open up the scope of the participant level to additional ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] countries, because that is the current fight we’re engaged in,” Kittle said.

In addition to the traditional group of EC participants such as the U.S., United Kingdom, Canada and Australia; partners include Finland and Sweden. The entire ISAF coalition was invited to participate, Kittle said. To help simulate the Afghan mission space, the event’s main operations floor is an ISAF-releasable information environment. Besides coalition partners, other government organizations such as the National Security Agency, National Reconnaissance Office and Defense Intelligence Agency are also participating.

Among the new technologies being tested at EC11 are the Army’s Relevant ISR To the Edge (RITE) system, which is part of the service’s Land ISR Net. This capability is built around soldier handheld devices loaded with applications adapted for military use. “That’s what that program is really trying to get at — getting tactically relevant information to a soldier at the leading edge in a handheld device, taking advantage of great commercial technology and adapting it to our use,” Kittle said.

Systems such as RITE are being supported by 3G cellular communications networks that have been built into the event’s network infrastructure. RITE is a hardware-agnostic system using Android smart phones. This is the first time that handheld devices have been integrated into the network at Empire Challenge.

RITE runs on a variety of layers, from national agency provided data at the high end, to a terrestrial layer provided by ground based sensors and other units, followed by an airborne layer and space layer. RITE allows soldiers with handheld devices to draw data from any of these layers to meet their intelligence needs. This includes imagery and biometric data. The goal is for soldiers to use applications in the same way that they would use civilian applications at home.

Another technology is the Firebird, a small Northrop Grumman produced aircraft that can be operated in a manned or unmanned mode. A key part of this composite-built aircraft is its plug-and-play internal network that allows different sensors to be quickly installed and swapped out. The aircraft can also operate a variety of sensors in different combinations capable of cross-cueing each other or operating in tandem. For example, the aircraft can carry multiple high definition video sensors or another type of sensor. “That’s the real heart of that system and that brings the real utility of this type of platform,” Kittle said.

The network infrastructure is similar to last year’s. The exercise does not use operational networks such as the Secure IP Router Network. Instead the great majority of the event is taking place on developmental networks provided by the Defense Information Systems Agency and the Multinational Information Sharing Program Management Office, Kittle said. These closed-loop networks allow event participants to replicate real world networks, but without the risks of inadvertently injecting real world data into the event.

“We have different flavors of coalition networks,” Kittle said. One network is authorized to share data at the ISAF releasable level, which is the primary warfighting network for the event. There is a network for English speaking coalition nations, a U.S.-only network. There are also unclassified networks to pass data between the ranges to the command posts and secret networks.

About the Author

Henry Kenyon is a contributing writer for Defense Systems.

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