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Node-Based Network Pushes Connectivity To the Tactical Edge

June 2010
By Henry S. Kenyon, SIGNAL Magazine


The French army is conducting more mobile operations in remote regions such as Afghanistan. The RITA N4 program will provide battalion-size forces with on-the-halt connectivity to higher-echelon headquarters.

System provides high-bandwidth data services to support rapid mobile operations.

The French army soon will deploy a tactical battlefield communications and data network that aims to provide battalion command posts with on-the-halt satellite and line-of-sight connectivity. The system is part of France’s ongoing efforts to convert its military into a fully network-centric force. In addition to extending high-bandwidth networking down to mobile command posts, the program also lays the foundations for a future fully mobile communications capability.

Highly fluid networked operations have been a major goal of the French military for many years. Beginning at the turn of the 21st century with the Bulle Operationnelle Aeroterrestre (BOA) experiment (SIGNAL, September 2004), the French army sought to study and determine the requirements for a network-centric future force. Those operational needs were formalized into the Synergie du Contact Renforcée par le Polyvalence et l’Infovalorisation (Scorpion) program (SIGNAL, September 2008) that set a development timetable for equipping units with the new technology. A key part of the Scorpion effort is the Reseau Integre de Transmission Automatiques (Automated Integrated Communications Network), or RITA.

RITA is a line-of-sight communications network that has been used by the French army to connect units operating in theater. RITA N4 is the latest part of this ongoing program, explains Gerard Jacque, director, Thales Tactical Network Business Unit, Colombes, France. This March, Thales signed a 240 million contract with the French Defense Procurement Agency (DGA) to extend RITA to operational level 4 of the French army, which consists of battalion level and combined-arms task forces. Also known as battle groups, these combined arms forces are self-sufficient mobile forces composed of various units assembled on short notice. The RITA N4 contract will connect these mobile forces with higher-echelon headquarters.

Scorpion’s goal is to digitize French army battle groups. Valery Rousset, director of command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) marketing and capability development, Thales land and joint systems division, Colombes, explains that RITA N4 will enable Scorpion by providing continuity of command and control between deployed and mobile echelons. “It’s in this way that RITA N4 is bridging the gap. It can accommodate high-tempo operations and multiple communication infrastructures such as Scorpion’s. It maintains the link,” he contends.

Jacque notes that the existing version of RITA first entered service in 2000 and has been supplied across the upper echelons (levels 1-3) of the French army. Since its implementation, it has constantly evolved to meet operational requirements. For example, an Internet protocol (IP) backbone was added to the system in 2007. RITA N4 will provide battalion and combined-arms task force command posts with secure, high-bandwidth IP communications. As French ground forces become more mobile, Jacque observes, they are more involved in operations in remote regions that place great demands on network services. “We have to bridge the gap between the brigade level and the battalion/battle group level with a long-range, high-data-rate capacity,” he says.

Communications systems such as RITA require a satellite uplink capability to provide quick communications on the halt. Because mobile forces require rapid connectivity with headquarters, Jacque says, there was a need to extend the current RITA system, adding that RITA in its original deployment was very effective in providing communications to the brigade level and above.

To bridge the gap between corps- and battalion-level forces, Thales is focusing on satellite communication equipment that will integrate into the legacy RITA architecture. In addition to satellite uplinks and terminals, RITA will continue to use line-of-sight radio links for battlefield networking and communications applications. RITA N4 will feature increased network bandwidth and wireless intranet services to mobile units. This improved capacity will be added to each RITA communications node, Jacque says.

As part of the RITA N4 contract, Thales will supply the French army with about 100 new communications nodes. The new nodes will provide battle groups with enhanced communications via satellite links. The nodes also include full IP capability and services. Additionally, Jacque explains, the latest version of RITA will provide more capability and a more seamless service. He shares that the network also uses a different, redundant architecture with no single point of failure.

In addition to offering these capabilities via the new nodes, Thales will modify the French army’s 200 current RITA nodes to be compatible with the new communications architecture as part of the RITA N4 program, Jacque says. This new system also will be more flexible for operational use, he says.

Each of the new nodes, especially those designed for use in mobile and armored vehicle applications, will combine a satellite transmission capability, IP routing services, encryption and cybersecurity equipment as well as local area network systems for access to the command and control system and to provide operator management tools. Regarding user interfaces, Jacque explains that the node must be very simple to operate because the users are regular warfighters, not communications specialists. He notes that in a vehicle node, most of the key systems are managed automatically, allowing operators to focus on combat.

Thales has integrated new systems into the RITA N4 nodes. These include a new satellite modem and line-of-sight radio communications equipment. The nodes also are compatible with IP systems, either legacy Thales equipment or other firms’ products. Jacque notes that the transmission capability is integrated with the existing communications infrastructure.

For IP switching and routing, Jacque says, Thales increasingly is relying on dual-use technology for routing, switching and some security features. He explains that commercially based technologies also facilitate integration with legacy systems.

Jacque notes that Thales is taking a two-fold approach to the RITA N4 program. The first aspect involves IP services. He says that this is part of a new company initiative to place value-added capabilities on commercially based IP systems. Because military applications require some specific requirements for mobility and ruggedness, the company refers to this as IP Services, or IPS. In this designation, IPS applies military standards and applications to any equipment of commercial origin destined for use by the French army.

The second value-added feature is management. Thales has developed a management-specific software layer that operates between the equipment and the operator. “We know that when you are using commercial systems, very often you have to be an engineer. We don’t want our customers to be engineers. So we developed software management tools to make the use of this equipment very easy,” he explains.

The RITA N4 program is part of the French army’s growing integration of C4ISR systems down to the lowest tactical levels, says Rousset. He explains that network integration used to be the realm of larger command posts and headquarters, but the military now is addressing how to provide data to smaller units. “Communications assets have to be as transparent as possible to the operational user because they have more limited support of dedicated signal units at this level. The battle group is pretty self-contained and autonomous,” he says.

Because French army battle groups are mobile and relatively self-sufficient, Rousset says, Thales developed a system integrating multiple communication assets to the tactical level to permit interoperability and operational information and communication services.

RITA N4 will provide communications on the quick-halt for the command post. “The idea is to enable the command post in a swarming mode of operations to quickly regroup, synchronize information and redeploy in the support of its individual battle groups,” he explains.

Rousset maintains that in addition to providing satellite and line-of-sight communications links, RITA N4 is a modernization and it represents a new generation of command systems. By sharing a common communications link via satellite communications, RITA provides the opportunity for more mobile operations. In fact, the next goal for the RITA program is communications on the move, he adds.

The program’s goal is to deliver communications nodes to the French army between 2013 and 2015. Rousset believes that the army wants to have the RITA nodes operational by 2014, but adds that it will be up to the military to decide when the system will go online.

The underlying infrastructure that the RITA system will have in place is highly compatible for mobile communications, Jacque says. However, he cautions, it will be up to the military to decide when to take that next step. When it does, he adds, the RITA N4 architecture will permit this. “We are laying the foundation so that mobile operations will rely on this information infrastructure. Then the customer will populate the on-the-move level with compatible communication assets,” he explains.

Rousset notes that satellite communications links offer an effective gateway between mobile and on-the-halt operations. If Thales can accommodate a common solution for both line-of-sight systems and satellite communications, then the satellite links can be developed into an on-the-move component, he says. 

French Defense Procurement Agency (DGA):