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Tactical Communications Evolution Accelerates

November 2008
By Kent R. Schneider

Tactical communications have changed much over the years. This will not come as a surprise to anyone, but often we become caught up in the small, incremental shifts that occur each month or year and fail to recognize how fundamentally things have changed.

So I won’t bore you with personal recollections of tape relay to the tactical level, telephones with cranks, fixed-frequency line-of-sight tactical radios as our primary means of communications and 16 kilobits of data throughput on multichannel systems—well, no more than I just did. The fact is that the challenges of tactical communications have remained relatively constant over time: distance, terrain, weight, power, mobility, limited bandwidth, environmental conditions, security vulnerabilities and others. Technology has improved dramatically and rapidly while producing increased capabilities, but some interoperability problems linger.

Demands are greater than ever. Decision makers want relevant, actionable information on demand. Mission scopes have increased. Asymmetric warfare is prevalent. We fight almost always in a joint or coalition environment, with many nontraditional government and nongovernment actors. Bandwidth requirements, even at the lowest organizational levels, have grown at astounding rates as Internet protocol (IP) has been introduced in every part of the battlefield.

The move toward everything over IP, coupled with pushing IP everywhere on the battlefield, has allowed every type of information to be delivered in a timely way to every level of command. Each military service, the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) and our coalition partners—particularly in NATO—are introducing new sensors, automated systems, environments and services along with new ways to deliver bandwidth. Our warfighters in Iraq and Afghanistan are using laptops and personal digital assistants to assemble situational awareness and local intelligence summaries from military networks. Sensors are delivering everything from streaming video to target information down to levels not possible in the past. Distributed applications are allowing this information to be processed, analyzed, distributed and coordinated with unprecedented speed.

All of this is giving decision makers at every level unprecedented amounts of information to support good decisions. It also is taxing existing tactical communications systems and prompting extensive investment in new programs and expansion of existing capabilities.

Among these capabilities is satellite communications. Military satellite systems, supplemented with commercial satellite bandwidth, have become the backbone for communications to extend back to the Global Information Grid and for communicating with units and forward operating bases that cannot be accessed by line-of-sight. Satellite communications are providing the tremendously increased bandwidth necessary to support today’s IP-based requirements, connecting to tactical local area networks established in the theater. Several key military satellite modernization programs are underway. In the meantime, DISA is providing commercial satellite bandwidth to meet noncore requirements.

Another key capability is tactical radio, which remains the core asset to support mobile assets in the theater. The architecture provided by the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) already is providing reliable and secure radio communications in a lightweight form figure to support the warfighter. Increasing numbers of JTRS-compatible radios are being fielded. More work is being done on software-defined radios with improved waveforms, some of which are adaptive, providing better use of the available spectrum. Continued investment in research and production is needed in this area.

Battlefield networks also are key. Improved battlefield networks are being developed and fielded to support information distribution and sharing among tactical and operational units. The best example of this is the U.S. Army’s Warfighter Information Network–Tactical (WIN-T), the networking component of the Army’s Future Combat Systems. The Joint Network Node has become Increment 1 of WIN-T. Future increments (2 to 4) will provide increased capability. Increment 2, being fielded this year, will provide high-bandwidth capability to mobile users and expand network management to lower organizational levels. This provides significant bandwidth for voice, video and data to all users. Subsequent increments will provide extensions for airborne sensors and interface to the new Transformational Satellite System.

We will continue to improve information sharing and the use of information as a combat multiplier. With that improved use will come new demands on battlefield communications systems and services. Everyone in government and industry must continue to serve the warfighter with solutions that provide flexible, secure bandwidth throughout the battlespace. Progress has been tremendous. The momentum will continue.