On the 'Net. (Communications).
With internet-based information technology transforming modern life it is far from surprising to learn that armed forces around the world are actively working to harness its power in attempts to transform how they fight.
It has long been recognised that the technology of digitisation has the potential to transform the way military operations are conducted at all levels from the high strategic down to the tactical. Many armies have espoused grand visions of digital transformation only to find that the technical challenge is too great or the cost prohibitive.
The result is uneven progress, particularly among west European nations, which threatens to lead to the development of a `military apartheid' dividing the military forces who have this revolutionary technology from those who do not. Those armed forces without the ability to plug into the military version of the `electronic superhighway' for almost every aspect of operations from command and control through to logistics could well be relegated to little more than conducting humanitarian operations in benign environments. With training increasingly conducted in `virtual realms' over internet-style links, low-tech armed forces would even be a liability during training exercises.
At the heart of military ambitions to use internet-style technology is a vision, which has become known generically as `network centric warfare'. While originally an American concept, several other armed forces have begun to talk in these terms, including the British, French, Germans, Dutch and the Swedes.
Essentially, this concept revolves around using information technology to close the loop between weapons systems, sensors and decision-makers. This is known as the `sensor-to-shooter chain'. The idea is that commanders in hi-tech command posts will be able to monitor information from long-range sensors in real-time and instantly task precision-guided weapons to destroy targets with pinpoint accuracy.
At the same time, all other parts of an armed force, such as intelligence, personnel management and logistics, will be connected seamlessly to this communications network, so ammunition re-supply can be ordered automatically, intelligence databases monitored in real-time and replacement soldiers given notice of future deployments.
Turning this hi-tech vision into reality is the focus of current efforts to create the digitised armed forces. Due to the high costs and technical challenges involved, most armed forces have to adopt an evolutionary approach to digitisation. Unlike the civilian Internet, which relies on landlines or cellular phones as its bearer, the military version flows over a variety of communications systems, including radios, satellite networks, fibre optic cables and microwave links. It is also more accurate to say the military version is a network of networks rather than its universal civilian counterpart.
The challenges involved in fielding both the hardware and software necessary to put the network centric warfare vision into action are immense. Creating the software to run on these networks is a major part of this effort. On the hardware side, the key is the fielding of high-capacity digital radios and their linkage in compatible networks, so information can be rapidly moved around, either as individual messages, real-time `pictures' of the battlefield or as web-page style databases that can be remotely accessed.
Establishing the communication networks necessary to set up and run a `tactical internet' is far from simple and no armed force, not even the US military, has yet been able to fully achieve this, mostly due to the high costs involved. Piece-meal evolutionary approaches have to be adopted to link legacy systems to new technology systems as they come on line. This results in a series of linked networks, using so-called `gateways' to allow data to flow across different legacy communications systems.
At the strategic level, satellites are the main communication system bearer but are being augmented by high capacity fibre optic cables. These systems allow internet-style connectivity and the real-time sharing of data. Military headquarters around the world use this technology to pass information, allow access to databases and monitor surveillance data, such as video feeds from unmanned aerial vehicles.
At the theatre level, air and naval forces have led the way with high-capacity data links that have allowed the establishment of common air and naval pictures. These links are, in effect, radios tailored to transmit large amounts of data that can be displayed as `tracks' in graphical forms, which contain key information such as location, movement, velocity and target identification. Every user is linked to the network, which is automatically updated, and shares data on the location of both friendly and enemy forces in a specific theatre of operation. This allows commanders to make timesensitive tactical decisions.
Ground forces communications are nowhere near as advanced as their air and naval equivalents. It is the ambition of most armies to field high capacity radio systems that carry both a realtime `picture' of the battlefield and voice communications simultaneously.
Air and Sea
Since the 1970s, Nato air and naval forces have routinely used datalinks to establish common `pictures'. These systems are now highly developed to allow for the high capacity transfer of data between a large number of multiple users. Their development has been closely mirrored in the development of identification, friend or foe (IFF) technology, to ensure the rapid and safe identification of both friendly and hostile forces in the theatre of operation.
Almost every Nato and pro-western naval vessel, maritime patrol aircraft, ground radar station, air defence missile battery, airborne early warning and intelligence gathering aircraft has an interoperable datalink, designated Link 1, Link 4, Link11, Link16 or Joint Tactical Information Distribution System (Jtids), Common Data Link and Tactical Interoperable Ground Data Link, to name but a few. Western fighter aircraft are also being fitted with these datalinks to allow them to be fully integrated into these networks. Old fighters such as the Boeing F-15C Eagle and Panavia Tornado F3 are being retrofitted with them but on new build fighters, such as Eurofighter Typhoon, they come as standard. New datalinks to the Link 22 standard will soon become widespread.
Datalinks are built to common standards by a variety of manufacturers, including L-3 Communications, Rockwell Collins and Thales. They work to the uniform data protocols defined by the Nato standardisation organisation. Secure encryption, jam resistance and frequency hoping are regular features on the latest models of these systems. While providing superb levels of connectivity, these datalinks are relatively bulky and expensive. Specialist companies, such as Aerosystems International and Litton Integrated Systems, have gained a niche in the market as integrators of datalinks onto platforms as part of communications networks.
For users with tighter budgets, there are a variety of smaller, and therefore less capable datalinks on the market. Perhaps the most well known is the "improved data modem" (IDM) family of datalinks that are fitted to the Boeing AH-64D Longbow Apache and a number of unmanned aerial vehicles, including the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) RQ-1 Predator.
These are in effect low-cost high data rate modems that turn conventional radios, such as the ITT Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio Systems (Sincgars) into datalinks. Both the US and British Air Forces have installed the improved data modem in some of its older ground attack aircraft, such as the Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon and Sepecat Jaguar GR.4, to allow them to communicate with ground-based forward air controllers or other aircraft equipped with improved data modem terminals. These are intended to allow still images of targets to be rapidly passed between users in these `mini-networks' to speed up target identification. Aerosystems International and QinetiQ in Britain, along with Symetrics Industries in America, have been involved in this experiment for the British and American Air Forces.
The use of datalinks has evolved considerably since the 1970s, when they linked Boeing E-3 Sentry Awacs aircraft into Nato's ground-based air-defence radar chain to create a common radar picture for the defence of western Europe. The British Royal Navy used data links to establish an air defence picture during the 1982 Falklands war.
By the 1990s, Nato had developed the use of datalinks considerably to allow the establishment of a common air picture over the Balkans by fusing radar data from Awacs aircraft, warships in Adriatic and ground based stations. At its Combined Air Operations Centre in Vicenza, Italy, the common air picture was used to control Nato air operations over Bosnia between 1993 and 1995 and during the 1999 Kosovo war.
The US Air Force was a leading player in this effort and has since expanded the concept further into the $350 million Theater Battle Management Core System (TBMCS) being developed by Lockheed Martin. Under the six-year programme, this system will be the core of a new family of Air & Space Operations Centers that will allow US Air Force commanders to plan, execute and control some 5000 sorties each day. So powerful are these systems that the US Air Force considers them weapon systems in their own right.
While datalink technology is well established, the US and Nato countries are now moving rapidly to institute high capacity communication networks to bring real-time still and video imagery into CAOC-style digital headquarters. America has invested heavily in satellite technology, such as its Global Broadcast System, to allow the real-time distribution of video imagery collected by Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk, TRW/IAI BQM-154 Hunter and Predator drones, as well as Lockheed Martin P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft. This technology was used successfully during the Kosovo and Afghan wars, leading to it being dubbed `Predator TV' by senior leaders who were able to watch the imagery in their offices in the Pentagon.
Operating dedicated satellites or hiring commercial versions is very expensive. Few outside the US military can afford this capability. Other countries rely on line-of-sight datalinks, such as the Common Data Link (CDL) made by L-3 Communications, to download imagery from UAVs or fast jet photo reconnaissance aircraft. Several European countries have programmes to field real-time data links to their photo reconnaissance aircraft. In France, Thales Optronics is developing the New Generation Reconnaissance Pod for use on French Air Force and Navy combat aircraft for delivery in 2006. The RAF is due to field the Raptor reconnaissance system on its Tornado GR4 aircraft in the autumn of 2002; this is fitted with an L-3 Communications CDL to downlink real-time imagery from Goodrich DB-110 digital sensors to a ground station being built by QinetiQ. In July 2002, the Ministry of Defence announced it was launching a major initiative to create a higher level network centric communications architecture to allow imagery downlinked from the Raptor, the new Watchkeeper drone, the millimetric radar imagery from the AH-64D's Longbow radar, the Raytheon Astor ground surveillance radar system and other sensors to be merged into a `common ground picture'. Sweden has an advanced project along these lines and other European countries are looking at these concepts. Without these efforts any information gained from sensors will remain stuck in so-called `stove-pipes' and not available to network links.
Typical of the efforts to open out the stovepipes and allow data to be shared over multiple networks is the Deployable Air Command and Control System (Daccs) being developed to support the RAF. The Daccs will provide a computer-based deployable capability for air-space control and early warning involving ground based deployable radar systems, air planning and tasking functionality and a mobile Jtids/Link 16 datalink facility. The project will be taken forward through competitively awarded incremental assessment and development contracts to allow the full system to enter operational service with the Royal Air Force from 2008.
The US Navy has also pushed ahead to radically transform how they use datalinks, beyond just sharing radar track information between ships. The need to engage ballistic and cruise missile threats in very short time spans, measured in fractions of seconds, has driven the US Navy to invest heavily in what it terms Co-operative Engagement Capability (CEC). This technology will allow a single commander to use a datalink network to centrally integrate the information from all the sensors on scores of platforms, both airborne and sea based.
The CEC fuses high quality tracking data from participating sensors and distributes it to all other participants in a filtered and combined state, using identical algorithms to create a single, common air defence tactical display. The result is a superior air picture based on all sensor data available that permits significantly earlier detection and more consistent tracking of air contacts.
Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Solipsys and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory are some of the many companies and organisations involved in the US Navy CEC effort. Lockheed Martin was selected earlier this year to spearhead the Royal Navy CEC effort, along with BAE Systems and QinetiQ.
In the land forces arena, moves toward digitisation have been slower in the face of different challenges. The very size and scale of the networks means land forces require large numbers of small radios to equip armoured vehicles and dismounted infantrymen, as well as providing headquarters-based systems. This in turn means the costs are prohibitive for many armies.
The physical dynamics of communicating by radio in mountainous and urban terrain environments makes it almost impossible to maintain the continuous communications links required by network centric warfare systems.
In the late 1980s, many western armies fielded digital trunk communications networks, such the Siemens Plessey (now BAE Systems) Ptarmigan used by the British Army and the Thomson-CSF (now Thales) Rita that was adopted by the French and US, and as the Mobile Subscriber Equipment (MSE) used at higher-level headquarters. These systems operate in the same way as civilian cellar phone networks but lacked the data-capacity or bandwidth to do much more than basic voice and e-mail type data functions. They are in the process of being replaced by more modern technology that includes larger capacity, which allows video imagery and a common ground picture to be passed along them. Fibre optic cables and point-to-point microwave links provide additional capacity. The British Army is running a competition to replace its Ptarmigan with a system dubbed Falcon, that will see BAE Systems compete against a team led by the telecom company Marconi Mobile. The US Army is fielding the Near Term Data Radio based on the ITT Mercury wideband network radio for high-level headquarters.
At the tactical level, many armies have projects in hand to field high capacity data radios that allow the establishment of tactical Internets as well as to provide secure voice communications. The ambition of these projects is to provision every combat soldier and vehicle in manoeuvre battalions with secure personnel radios that also feature GPS navigation devices with which to broadcast their positions back to headquarters. Software applications in headquarters generate a common ground picture of friendly forces and then overlay data from ground surveillance radar and other sensors to pinpoint the position of enemy troops.
This technology will give commanders a `God's eye' view of the battlefield, and when linked with software applications to cue direct and indirect weapons automatically on target it is hoped to dramatically speed up the `sensor-to-shooter chain'. By linking automatic reporting of ammunition and fuel consumption into the network, logistic planners will be able to better engineer their efforts to re-supply the frontline.
To date, no army has been able to field this technology to its full potential. The most advanced application has to be by the US Army, which conducted divisional level trials under its Force XXI initiative in the late 1990s. This saw large numbers of armoured vehicles fitted with laptop style data input devices, high capacity data radios and software to link them together. Portable data devices were provided for dismounted troops to link into the network. TRW was the prime contractor for the Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below (FBCB2) battlefield Internet software. An application called the Common Tactical Picture (CTP) displays a terrain database (map), friendly (blue) icons, reported enemy unit (red) icons and geo-referenced messages (bridges, obstacles, NBC contamination, etc). FBCB2 similarly maintains a common operational picture via dynamic geo-referenced messaging linked to Raytheon's Enhanced Position Location Reporting System. The bearer system for the US Army's tactical Internet is the ITT Sincgars.
The results of early digital war games were mixed. While higher-level headquarters personnel found the new technology had much potential, tank crews and infantrymen were less enthusiastic. The huge power requirements were not catered for by contemporary battery technology, leading to the network beginning to breakdown when the batteries of key nodes ran dry. Only vehicles with running engines could be relied upon to support the systems, but this was not possible in some tactical scenarios.
Unstable software also led to networks crashing at key moments, freezing the individual at inappropriate junctures in the battle and forcing crew members to re-boot their computers.
The huge cost of fielding this technology has even made the US Army blink and it has recently begun to rethink its ambitious plans for digitisation. The Transformation Process that began in 1999 saw the US Army reshuffle its efforts, switching its main focus from heavily armoured divisions to lighter mobile forces that it believes are more likely and much easier to be deployed to crisis zones.
During 2001, the war in Afghanistan highlighted the path the US Army is taking when its Special Forces detachments were provided with data modems for satellite radios to allow target co-ordinates from laser range finders to be uploaded in real-time to Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bombers. Within minutes these co-ordinates had been uploaded into GPS-guided Boeing Jdams, which were then dropped on the target.
Outside the United States military digitisation efforts are progressing at an uneven pace. The British Army's much delayed Bowman programme, which uses ITT and Harris radios, is still to be delivered although prime contractor General Dynamics says it is on scheduled to field the system for the first battalion level trials next year and have the whole of the army equipped by 2007. The contractor is drawing on the experience of Computing Devices Canada with its BattleWeb and Athene digital battlefield projects for the Canadian armed forces.
French army digitisation efforts are currently being led by Thales. In Germany, Dornier/STN Atlas, Krauss-Maffei Wegmann. Kontron and ESG are working on the CCIS digitisation project, and Sweden's defence material agency is leading the Atle tactical Internet effort for that country's army
Tactical Internet technology will be at the heart of the US Army's Future Combat System (FCS) and Boeing is currently leading studies into the technology that will be involved.
Turning the vision of the tactical Internet into reality is proving to be an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary process. Air and naval forces have led the way but ground forces are beginning to catch up.
The potential of network centric warfare was shown during the US campaign in Afghanistan, when American commanders at the Central Command headquarters in Florida were able to view the battlefield through video imagery beamed via satellite from a Predator. Once targets were detected, they were destroyed by AGM-118 Hellfire missiles fired from the Predators.
The amount of satellite bandwidth required to conduct these operations was huge and only practical against very high value targets. The challenge for proponents of the tactical Internet is to migrate that capability to more mainstream military forces at an affordable cost.