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Newest Networks Now for the Military

July 2011
By Rita Boland, SIGNAL Magazine
E-mail About the Author

 

Gen. Peter Chiarelli, USA (c), the U.S. Army’s vice chief of staff, holds a prototype handheld device with applications to track friendly forces and exchange photos. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is working with the Army on a tactical edge network initiative to provide geospatial intelligence to soldiers’ handheld devices at 3G speeds. Developers also are looking ahead to 4G capabilities by designing datalink boxes that can be changed out for updated versions.

Faster and fastest data rates are preparing to roll out.

As commercial carriers around the globe begin to offer 4G networks to customers, the U.S. government is looking for similar capabilities in its organizations. A pioneering project is scheduled to move onto the battlefield soon to provide disadvantaged users with 3G capabilities for intelligence dissemination, but even as that moves forward, the next-generation wireless capability will become available.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) is working on a project that will give geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) to U.S. soldiers at 3G speeds. The effort is one initiative of the tactical edge network, which is designed to push information to users at the tip of the spear. NGA officials plan to deploy their first base station in the project to Afghanistan this summer. These stations and the associated hardware pieces will provide GEOINT to warfighter handheld devices.

Cmdr. Robert W. “Space” Kraft, USN, the military deputy for the sensor assimilation branch in the acquisition division at the NGA, says the U.S. Army is his organization’s primary partner on this work because that service branch is making strides to adapt its technology to accommodate 3G speeds. The NGA bases its use of the terms 3G and 4G on the 3rd Generation Partnership Project’s (3GPP’s) definitions. The 3GPP works to build technical specifications and reports for mobile systems across the globe.

Though he declines to specify current data rates or those expected with 3G implementation, Cmdr. Kraft does call 3G the cutting edge. He believes the allure for the U.S. Defense Department is similar to that in the commercial world: There is more demand than ever for data sharing as handheld devices perform more functions and users consume more data. Unlike the commercial world, however, the military is working hard to equip dismounted troops with devices that can access information otherwise available only in vehicles.

The NGA’s efforts aim to keep pace with the Army’s fielding of 3G capability. Cmdr. Kraft explains that soldiers have robust ambitions for the next-generation wireless network and that, “They’re a very big consumer of GEIOINT.”

Charles Lau, an electronics engineer within the Space and Terrestrial Communications Directorate’s Communication Technologies Integration and Evaluation Branch at the Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center, says that 3G is important to soldiers on the battlefield because it offers high-speed network services to tactical edge users. This allows them to communicate, transport digital contents, access military applications and improve situational awareness.

With the upgraded networks, troops will be able to access more bandwidth over which they can push data—a major concern for the military, especially with the increasing presence of high-definition video in theater. Cmdr. Kraft says one important facet of his project is allowing dismounted warfighters to access the intelligence or command and control data they need through their personal communications devices. He also believes the project is important because of social demographics. Young troops are “coming in using 3G in civilian life so they’re very comfortable with this technology,” the commander explains.

In the initial fielding, the project will support unclassified GEOINT such as that used in provincial reconstruction projects. “As we say, ‘everything takes place somewhere,’” Cmdr. Kraft states. However, in the fiscal year 2012 time frame, the NGA expects to have designs enabling users to push classified data over the 3G networks.

Though the NGA mainly is working with the Army on this project, Cmdr. Kraft says that in the current acquisition and battlefield environments, technology must be approached in an interoperable manner. Information technology budgets preclude proprietary systems. He explains that the NGA not only has a worldwide mission to support battlefield operations but also a domestic one to assist during disaster scenarios. The agency’s GEOINT capabilities have to work with commercial equipment and standards as well as those of the military. Cmdr. Kraft says that the NGA partners with groups that have 3G initiatives where it makes sense to field GEOINT capabilities.

The Army has processes in place to ensure the interoperability of Internet protocol (IP) technology within its ranks. Lau says that, “All wireless technologies offer data networking through the IP backplane. The OSI IEEE-802 Layer 3 IP networking standard allows ability for all IP-enabled devices to interoperate. With that said, the Army is looking at all available commercial wireless solutions rather than to be tied to any specific technology or vendor.” The Army’s Training and Doctrine Command is generating requirements that address interoperability.

As the battlefield readies for 3G, 4G quickly is becoming the buzzword for commercial users. Cmdr. Kraft says that 4G data rates are attractive to his organization, especially because it must push out large data sets. And even as it works to implement the 3G capabilities, the NGA naturally is looking toward the next step up. However, no plan is on the books now to move to 4G, and for a specific reason—the organization’s acquisition strategy is for the NGA not to be at the forefront of technological advancement—“because the leading edge is very expensive,” Cmdr. Kraft explains.

Knowing that the network upgrade eventually will reach an attractive price point, the commander’s project is designed to one day incorporate it. The datalink boxes used in the tactical edge network initiative can be swapped out for faster ones when the government decides to purchase them.

One technology that performs at the faster speeds is scheduled to be available in August. Though Northrop Grumman Corporation is the prime contractor on the NGA tactical edge network project, a subcontractor has invested its own money to create a family of products that provide 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) solutions to areas where traditional communications infrastructures are insufficient. Cmdr. Kraft explains that he is familiar with this technology, but that NGA currently has no specific plans to pursue it or a product from another vendor.

Oceus Networks, formerly part of Ericsson Federal, developed the Xiphos commercial solution to enable the latest broadband speeds to reach personnel on the edge of communications, whether those people are military or first responders. Doug Smith, chief executive officer of the company, says that military-led, custom-built wireless projects such as the Joint Tactical Radio System have become “too little, too late, too slow, too expensive.” With technologies such as Xiphos, government users can introduce the latest technologies more easily, he states.

Enhanced data-rate capability is growing in importance as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms become more prevalent in operations. Providing products from the collection resources to troops more quickly will help protect both military members and civilians, Smith says. “It’s going to save lives; it will save lives,” he states. The capability will do that by putting real-time information into the hands of warfighters so they can make better operational decisions. Higher speeds will change the dynamic of data sharing, according to Smith.

In addition to showcasing the product to the NGA, Oceus has worked with other organizations in the military and intelligence communities. “Everyone has the same needs,” Smith explains. These requirements include supporting multiple high-definition data streams. Xiphos tools have the capacity to reach data transmission speeds of 346 megabits per second (Mbps) for downlink, 112 Mbps for uplink and in 2014 should achieve 1 gigabit per second downlink rates.

Despite the speeds the products can produce, they remain relatively small in size so they can deploy on various platforms such as Strykers or unmanned aerial vehicles. The main section of a case-mounted Xiphos box will measure approximately 9 inches high x 22 inches wide x 30 inches deep and have six remote radio units. The company also is working on other versions including a smaller manpack design. Soon after Xiphos’ initial availability, users will be able to cover larger areas and achieve higher total aggregated capacity by linking Xiphos units.

Smith expects the technology to reach users in two ways: through direct purchases and through integration with other systems. He also believes that for the majority of users, the move to 4G mostly will be transparent. Troops already are becoming familiar with 3G systems, particularly as the military moves toward its own private applications stores. Ultimately, Smith believes,  the Defense Department and intelligence community are aiming for 4G LTE to be deployed widely in 2012. Because the LTE is a worldwide wireless standard, technologies using it on the battlefield can still work back in the United States.

No special security issues arise specifically from the higher speeds, according to Smith. Xiphos is designed to support encryption all the way up to Type 1 depending on what users require. “That’s typical for all communications systems,” he says.

Smith explains that when 3G first rolled out for commercial users, customers had hundreds of technologies to choose from in less than a year. The same curve likely will occur with the newest network. He emphasizes that 4G availability is not a pipe dream in the distant future but a reality available to the government for its needs.

The Army is examining all commercial wireless technologies, according to Lau, whether they are 3G, 4G, Wi-Fi or WiMax. “4G is the next step in evolution for the Army to evaluate and determine feasibility of deploying 4G to the battlefield,” he adds. However, as with NGA, the Army is familiar with Xiphos but currently is not looking for specific 4G as it architects solutions to be vendor agnostic.

WEB RESOURCES
3rd Generation Partnership Project: www.3gpp.org
National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency: www.nga.mil
Oceus Networks: www.oceusnetworks.com