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Land Warfare From the Sky

March 2002
By Henry S. Kenyon

Airborne facility offers flexibility, interoperability, increased operational tempo.

The U.S. Army has developed an airborne tactical command post that enhances company-level units’ situational awareness with real-time voice and data connectivity. Mounted inside a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, the center features an integrated command and control system hosting an extensive communications suite and five fully automated workstations linked to a central computer that can operate a variety of battlefield software.

Receiving crucial information at the right moment during a battle can make the difference between victory and defeat. The U.S. Defense Department has elevated battlefield information sharing and awareness to an art, connecting forces across a theater of operations in a real-time information grid. By deploying lightweight, mobile data systems, even commanders of small units can cut through the fog of war to accurately perceive their place in a fluid combat environment.

The Army airborne command and control system (A2C2S) will provide warfighters with a highly mobile decision-making center that could filter and relay real-time data while on the move. Evolved from efforts in the early 1990s to develop command and control kits for Black Hawk helicopters, the system’s original goal was to replace aging AN/ASC-15B/C communications consoles mounted in command variants of the aircraft. According to Maj. Anthony Potts, USA, assistant product manager for A2C2S, Army Airborne Command and Control Project Management Office, Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, the last of these voice-only radio racks was built in 1986.

Maj. Potts describes the A2C2S technology as a revolutionary step beyond the old AN/ASC-15B/C system because it pushes situational awareness to the lowest command levels. The hardware interfaces with higher echelon systems, provides line-of-sight and beyond line-of-sight communications, and is flexible enough to change configuration to meet specific mission needs. Because the lighter, smaller equipment can be mounted in a variety of vehicles, it offers true battle command on the move, he says. The system allows increased operational tempo through constant data feeds and links to sensors and other units.

Although the command center is fully functional in the air at 300 kilometers per hour, the major believes that in actual use it probably will spend 65 percent of its time operating on the ground. However, the system’s high mobility will allow commanders to move quickly to important areas of a battlefield.

A2C2S contains the equivalent voice and data equipment of a tactical command post but in a much smaller space. Voice, data processing and data interoperability capabilities interface with neighboring units and receive commands from higher headquarters and other services. The system is also voice compatible with U.S. government and civilian agencies and allied nations’ armed forces.

The heart of A2C2S is a multiprocessor unit (MPU) consisting of six single-board computers—five UNIX-based SPARC Ultra IIi and one Pentium processor. Maj. Potts notes that the next version will consist of two four-processor MPUs. The equipment is designed to host the Army battle command system software on a common processor. Current battlefield automation systems exist on stand-alone hardware systems, but a number of these systems can operate on  A2C2S.

MPU is a single system roughly the size of one stand-alone piece of battlefield automation hardware, but it can host six battlefield automation systems software applications simultaneously. A2C2S currently hosts software for the air and missile defense workstation, the all source analysis system (ASAS), the maneuver control system, the advanced field artillery tactical data system (AFATDS), the combat service support control system, and future battle command brigade and below systems. Work is also underway to host the Global Command and Control System, Maj. Potts notes.

Another innovation of A2C2S is the development of interchangeable “bricks” consisting of software loaded on removable hard disks. This method was developed to accommodate battlefield automation systems such as ASAS and AFATDS, without their console units. Because it is not practical to have multiple aircraft configurations for each system, the software resides in the data bricks operating through a common multipurpose console connected to the MPU. This arrangement allows commanders the flexibility to mix and match the software to suit their mission requirements, Maj. Potts explains. Up to six bricks can be loaded into A2C2S in a variety of configurations.

Because the command post’s operators cannot move around in the aircraft when it is in flight, it was necessary to develop key-sourced video and mouse (KVM) switches that allow users to access or share data or software.  KVMs access all A2C2S radios and processors and permit users to mix and match software in flight. Operators can work simultaneously on the same application in collaborative planning sessions, and the switch allows any crew member to direct video output to one of two common display screens in the forward part of the helicopter’s cabin, Maj. Potts explains.

Weight was a crucial factor for the A2C2S equipment because it was originally envisioned as an airborne command center. This presented a challenge to the program because radios, consoles and automated systems had to be combined inside a Black Hawk helicopter’s crew cabin without diminishing the aircraft’s performance.

One aspect of this research was the development of the joint services intrusion detection system, or JSIDS, software reprogrammable radio suite, a precursor to the joint tactical radio system (JTRS). “We needed a way to develop radios outside of a federated radio system,” the major maintains. He notes that because it is expensive and time consuming to integrate new radios into an aircraft, engineers designed a lightweight software-based radio that was smaller and used less power than contemporary models.

In 1999, planners decided that  A2C2S had applications as a tactical command post. Maj. Potts notes that the program was accelerated at that time, but no flying prototype existed. Because the JSIDS technology was not deemed mature, the military chose to move back to existing commercial and government radios because they had become smaller and lighter.  A2C2S will eventually migrate to  JTRS when it becomes available, the major says.

The accelerated program presented several production challenges because the deployment date was moved from 2005 to 2003. Two proof-of-concept prototypes were built and delivered to the 4th Infantry Division in July 2001 and the 101st Airborne Division in January 2002.

The Army then held an industry day to attract competitors for an acquisition program. The Raytheon Company won the bidding and was awarded a $110 million contract to produce the A2C2S equipment. Maj. Potts notes that the system is now in the design and demonstration phase with the first production models scheduled for delivery to the 4th Infantry Division in January 2003.

A2C2S also is the second acquisition program conducted under new Defense Department requirements. Production is being undertaken in blocks, allowing modifications to be introduced into each new group. Instead of the government pushing the leading edge in technology development, it is letting industry lead the way. “It allows us to inject technology when it’s mature enough without trying to push the technology from the leading edge,” he says.

Because A2C2S has demonstrated tactical potential, the system has been installed in a variety of vehicles such as high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles (HMMWVs), light armored vehicles (LAVs), and Pandur personnel carriers. A HMMWV-mounted prototype of A2C2S debuted in January. This variant fits in a single vehicle and can be deployed in eight to nine minutes. This contrasts with a standard digital battalion tactical operations center, which requires three M-1068 personnel carriers for transport and up to three hours to set up, Maj. Potts says. A LAV-based version was provided to the 4th Infantry Division in February. The major notes that because of its high mobility, the system is suitable for use with units such as the interim brigade combat teams.

Maj. Potts describes these applications as the “art of the possible” because they demonstrate that A2C2S is not platform dependent. This creates the possibility to field a fleet of generic vehicles that can be loaded with software suites for a variety of missions. Vehicles with this equipment can also work with coalition forces and as a liaison to nondigitized vehicles, he says.

The system offers the Army a potential for standardization, commonality and ease of use for command and control, communications and data management equipment. The major cites an example of officers using the A2C2S multiprocessor at their base before deploying. Individual systems or operational plans can be created on a laptop computer and then loaded into the command system. The system allows the units to be used for operational training simply by changing bricks. Maj. Potts sees this as the beginning of a cultural shift toward true digitization in the Army.