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Technologists Plan Tactical Future

November 2001
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

Advanced electronics are at the heart of the future force.

Unattended sensors in a future theater of operation detect enemy movements, identify and locate targets, and feed that information via unmanned aerial vehicle communications network nodes to the command center. Commanders collate their data with other information from space and U.S.-based sources, then signal unattended battlefield and airborne weapons to launch against enemy assets. These networked weapons keep track of battle damage and trade-off targets as they are destroyed.

Throughout these operations, U.S. forces execute complex maneuvers on the basis of high-speed data flowing to vehicles and even individuals. Despite their rapid mobility, the forces do not lose any contact with their full-time, self-organized network.

With command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) becoming the most important element of military operations, its systems must work properly to ensure that the future U.S. Army can function in its new lighter, more mobile form. “In our minds, the network is starting to become the single most important combat multiplier,” declares Charles Strimpler of the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command (CECOM), Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. “And, it had better be there, and it had better work when you turn it on.” “Significant dependence on information technology” will be necessary to make it work, he adds.

Strimpler, associate director for technology programs at the Space and Terrestrial Communications Directorate in the CECOM Research, Development and Engineering Center (RDEC), observes that forces will depend on a battlespace network far more than ever. Ensuring that this network functions will require moving away from stovepipe systems such as dedicated networks. The future combat infosphere will take the form of a network of networks that is a “ubiquitous, fully connected network that covers everything from the ground right on up through space,” he outlines.

Integrating all the disparate pieces of information technology into a cohesive system of systems also is a challenge, he continues. This involves pulling different types of sensor information into this infosphere, processing this information in different places, transporting it and presenting it in a manner that permits a commander to make an intelligent decision based on the data.

Future Army network communications must be mobile, wireless and available when needed. As the Army proceeds with its transformation, its forces will find themselves spread over an extended battlespace. Having fewer assets dispersed over a larger geographic area will challenge the ability of operators to keep the network up and running, Strimpler states. And, this network must be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“When you get out into a mobile wireless environment where you don’t necessarily control the physical area around you and you’re in a variety of different terrain in a variety of weather conditions—and people are shooting at you at the same time—it becomes quite a challenge,” he warrants.

Above all, these technology areas constitute a house of cards, Strimpler declares. If any one of them does not fulfill its goals, the entire battlespace network will not work.

Unattended sensors must be arrayed in their own network, and they must be able to tie into the maneuver layer where vehicle assets such as the future combat system are located. Networking these unattended sensors is a new thrust for RDEC, Strimpler relates, as their links must pass through a gateway or an airborne or orbital asset. This challenge led to a new program that extends across all four of CECOM’s directorates. Known as Network Sensors for the Objective Force, this effort is in the advanced technology demonstration (ATD) approval process. Strimpler explains that this thrust encompasses all communications, command and control, and sensors both from intelligence and from night vision.

The maneuver layer, which involves mobile vehicles, is comparable to today’s tactical Internet, he continues. All mobile vehicles, both manned and unmanned, will be networked while on the move. Functions will be distributed to avoid single points of failure. Ensuring full-time network coverage on the battlefield will require significant reliance on some type of airborne communications asset, Strimpler maintains. This might take the form of a communications payload on an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), which he describes as “an emerging area that is going to become more and more important.”

The top layer, which involves space-based assets, will include traditional satellites such as Milstar. However, these assets increasingly will be dedicated to reach-back functions as more elements are held back from the theater of operations. This increases the emphasis on an airborne layer for constant network coverage, Strimpler notes.

Strimpler relates that RDEC has organized its thrust areas around six major technology domains. The first major area is mobile networking, where Strimpler describes the biggest challenge as being able to set up networks quickly in a deployment. In most current exercises, it can take days to plan and configure the networks before they are deployed. Bandwidth is another challenge, and the key may lie in more efficient use. These increasingly complex networks also will require ways to manage them dynamically without requiring the manager to have a doctorate in network administration.

Solutions to these challenges may involve ad hoc protocols, quality-of-service algorithms that allow a system to react automatically based on the mission and message traffic, and adaptive applications that exchange information with the network to accommo date logistical limitations such as tight bandwidth.

The second major technology area focuses on networking the vast number of unattended sensors. Most of these sensors will be small devices that are dispersed throughout the battlefield. This raises issues such as size, weight, power consumption, orientation when landing on the ground, signal propagation in irregular terrain, and security for these unattended devices as they pass information into a classified network.

The third area involves reach-back capabilities. This encompasses satellite and UAV-based communications to link the theater of operations with information assets in the United States. Strimpler relates that RDEC is exploring a number of issues with UAV communications such as flying a wireless local area network over an urban environment or mounting a commercial personal communications service base station on a UAV. Many of these technological approaches raise peripheral concerns as well.

For satellite communications, new algorithms might permit communication on the move. These algorithms would take into account blockage from trees and buildings, so that a mobile user temporarily cut off from line-of-sight linkage for a few seconds would be able to recover the link and resume the communications stream immediately.

The fourth area focuses on antennas. Advances such as the joint tactical radio system and greater bandwidth traffic threaten to overwhelm vehicles with numbers and types of antennas. Citing this as a major issue, Strimpler calls for technologies that permit only one or two antennas to provide needed connectivity on the move. He reports that RDEC is working with the Army Research Laboratory and the other services on several technologies.

Phased array antennas, for example, could provide excellent wideband communications on the move. Strimpler reports that research into ferroelectric materials to build phase shifters shows promise for reducing costs. Work on very high frequency (VHF) and ultrahigh frequency (UHF) antennas focuses on a multiband device that would cover both parts of the spectrum. A dismounted infantryman could employ a body-borne antenna incorporated into his uniform equipment (SIGNAL, November 2001, page 29).

The entire realm of dismounted communications constitutes RDEC’s fifth area of research. Strimpler explains that this encompasses the full range of communications issues. The center hopes to leverage technologies from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA’s) small unit operations effort.

The RDEC researchers also are examining how they can leverage commercial cellular telephone technology for several military applications. This might require adapting a commercial base station to fit in the more compact configuration needed for a military deployment, for example.

The sixth research area addresses the need for information protection and assurance. The center’s work in this arena began with an advanced technology demonstration program in 1998, and Strimpler notes that the effort has been complicated by the growing use of commercial technologies that are not built around these two concepts. Many commercial off-the-shelf solutions do not work in the current tactical Internet environment for a variety of reasons, including bandwidth restrictions, reporting times and overhead requirements.

“Addressing network protection is a big concern of ours,” Strimpler emphasizes, adding that RDEC is taking a layered approach to network protection. Network access control is the primary element, with security management overlaid atop the layers. One problem in incorporating commercial security products is that managers require extensive training to configure and operate them. Strimpler reports that the center is working to develop simple graphical user interfaces that would allow a manager to configure these security systems remotely without having a doctorate in network administration. RDEC also aims to move into areas such as mobile code detection, public key infrastructure technology, wireless protection techniques, and early warning technology.

If a seventh technology area emerges, it will involve what Strimpler calls “network fires.” He notes that the future combat system and the Objective Force feature a concept for employing unattended missiles or munitions at unmanned remote locations. These unattended weapons would take the form of loitering missiles or direct kill munitions. Unattended sensors would detect targets and report their data to a command and control node, which then might involve other sensors to fill in the tactical picture. The command center then would give the order to fire the unattended weapons.

Large numbers of the loitering unattended missiles would be circulating over the battlefield, and they would be networked to each other and to the ground network. Strimpler relates that RDEC is working with the Army’s Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey; the Army Aviation and Missile Command in Huntsville, Alabama; and DARPA’s network fires experts to develop a networked solution. Issues include speed of services, especially for missiles that fly low and fast.

Another technology area that the center is examining is network operations. This involves combining network management, security management and information dissemination management into a single function. It would allow a system to help filter out and profile information to a specific commander based on parameters arising from his mission or needs.

Some of these many technology elements may be demonstrated in the next two years, Strimpler suggests. The Mosaic ATD, for example, is examining mobile wireless networking and ad hoc protocols. Its initial demonstration may take place in 2002, and a fully integrated 15-node demonstration is slated for 2004.

One major challenge is to deliver all these technologies in the needed timeframes. Meeting the schedules for the Objective Force and the future combat system “is a tough nut to bite off,” Strimpler allows, but progress continues.

Several demonstrations of multiband antennas already have taken place at the brassboard level, and Strimpler offers that some of these could be transitioned to program manager tracks over the next year. Phased array antenna technology may not reach an acceptable demonstration of affordable technology until the 2004 to 2006 timeframe.

Implementing a digital networking radio for the dismounted warrior effort raises challenges of features, size, weight, power and affordability. Demonstrations will continue, but implementation may be at least six years in the future, Strimpler cautions.

The ability to network unattended sensors will be demonstrated over the next two years. The current proposed ATD will end in 2005, at which time the effort should transition into program manager status and into the future combat system environment.

Information assurance is an ongoing endeavor. “While the bar keeps getting raised, we are doing a pretty good job of attacking that [challenge],” Strimpler declares.

All told, scalability is the long pole in the tent for most of these solutions, Strimpler states. For example, setting up an ad hoc network may work well until a yet-to-be-determined number of nodes overload the network.

If these technologies and capabilities are implemented as scheduled, the U.S. soldier over the next few years can expect a reliable networked system permitting access to any information needed by an authorized user. These systems and their capabilities will be much more reliable, and the infantryman will not have to take nearly as much equipment to use and maintain these networks. Also, the user will worry less about how to fix the networks because they will be flexible enough to ensure continuity.

The high quality of commercial technology is not necessarily a panacea for the development of these tactical systems, Strimpler warns. Leveraging these technologies is at the core of the Army’s strategy, but not all that the commercial sector has to offer is a solution. The key, he emphasizes, lies in differentiating between commercial technologies and commercial products. Leveraging commercial technologies can help reduce development costs significantly, but out-of-the-box commercial products typically do not work in the military environment. As a result, the military must adapt these products to suit its needs.

“You can pick up your cell phone, drive down the highway and call anybody you want,” he continues. “People don’t realize that behind that is a huge base station that is part of a fixed infrastructure. In our world, not only does the subscriber move, the whole infrastructure moves. That brings up a major challenge that we must deal with.” There also are known deficiencies in cellular signaling that can be used by an adversary to its advantage. Military experts must be able to establish a self-organizing network in a strange area under adverse conditions with little or no planning, he states.