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Littoral Battlespace Becomes Smaller

September 2001
By Robert K. Ackerman
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Demonstrated networking provides personnel with true over-the-horizon situational awareness.

The extended littoral battlespace is beginning to shrink as commanders acquire the capability to monitor force operations from greater distances in near-real and real time. Recent exercises held on and off the California coast demonstrated a number of different approaches to linking offshore commanders with onshore events.

This connectivity extends all the way down to soldiers on the battlefield. It ranges from providing officers on command and control vessels with real-time situational awareness on large display screens to allowing infantry in foxholes to access fire-control data on palm devices.

A few loose ends remain to be tied before the capabilities become fully integrated with military operations. Experimenters used commercial equipment in lieu of more complex military hardware for many elements of the network. Some occasional connectivity problems emerged and must be addressed for future deployments.

But overall, the improved situational awareness proved its worth by sharply reducing the potential for fratricidal fire and by providing commanders with new options for rapid response and maneuver, according to demonstration officials.

“The next significant change on the battlefield—which will allow forces to win decisively, quickly and with minimal casualties—will result from heightened situational awareness,” according to Raymond Cole, technical/program manager for extending the littoral battlespace (ELB) advanced concept technology demonstration (ACTD), Office of Naval Research. Troops in the demonstration exercise embraced the technology readily, he relates. Ultimately, the demonstration extended the battlespace situational awareness network 192 miles without employing satellites or terrestrial relay. This was accomplished by using airborne relays.

The ACTD dates back to 1997, and it underwent its first major systems demonstration in June 1999. The commander in chief Pacific (CINCPAC) concluded that the ACTD achieved proof of concept with these demonstrations. Since then, it has been in its second-tier development phase, where researchers have explored how to make its network more robust, reliable and secure. Some of the ELB technologies were deployed on the USS Tarawa with the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit early this year.

In June, the ACTD underwent its second major systems demonstration  during the Kernel Blitz Experimentation. This occurred six weeks after the original KERNEL BLITZ 2001 exercise in April. The demonstration was performed in conjunction with Fleet Battle Experiment India, the Naval Fires Network and the U.S. Marine Corps’ capable warrior exercise, along with two smaller events. The first week constituted a work-up, while the second week featured a more refined operation open to observers. The demonstration focused on the potential effect technologies have on operations; access to fires, logistics and medical support afloat; and reductions in fratricide.

Col. Russell Quirici, USA, is the operational manager for the U.S. Pacific Command for the ELB ACTD. The CINCPAC Pacific Command is the operational sponsor for the ACTD. Col. Quirici states that all six Kernel Blitz Experimentation efforts were able to connect. For example, the joint medical operations telemedicine effort rode the ELB WarNet radio system, as did some of the Naval Fires Network capabilities. The colonel states that this permitted the participating warfighters to grasp the value of having a wireless wide area network extending over a littoral area.

Cole notes that the advantages were not lost on these participants. “The underlying principle has been that, if you can build a wideband wireless network to smaller units, it can make them much more aware situationally, and we can be more lethal and more survivable in our operational maneuver from the sea,” he states. Even in the absence of real combat, the heightened situational awareness demonstrated a significant reduction in fratricide with greater access to afloat support.

The demonstration involved four sites, including a joint visitors bureau at South Mesa and the Marine Corps Tactical Systems Support Activity (MCTSSA), where the ELB technologies and network monitoring tools were in place along with a U.S. Army brigade experimental tactical operations command. The third site, the USS Coronado, is a command vessel that serves as a sea-based battlelab. It provides an enhanced combat operations center and joint air operations center. And a field site just north of MCTSSA at Las Pulgas is a subcamp at Camp Pendleton. There, field demonstrations featured troops with end-user terminals and a battalion jump-command-post configuration to track the reconnaissance teams.

Col. Quirici states that the most compelling part of the demonstration was having a common tactical picture and near-real-time situational awareness for the warfighter. For example, a Marine commander operating onboard the Coronado had improved command and control of his elements ashore, which allowed him to reallocate his assets better with a shorter planning-cycle time. He actually could see the events transpiring ashore during the demonstration, the colonel notes.

At the heart of the demonstration were two subnetworks. One covered ships at sea, while the other served forces ashore. These two subnetworks were bridged to allow those on ships to see what was happening ashore, and land forces could see all fire missions and other requests to which they were given access. Air power was listed as a shipboard asset, but it was not tied into the subnetwork. Cole explains that establishing this connectivity would have been too complicated for this demonstration, but it is a possibility for the future.

Airborne relay packages were designed with slide-in/slide-out technologies that can be supported by preconfigured antennas and cables. High mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles (HMMWVs) were equipped with the same modular equipment featuring different antennas and cables configured for ground mobile use. End-user terminals, which ranged from the palmtop to the desktop, allowed the user to interface with the network for a situational awareness picture, depending on the individual’s unit level and geospatial location.

Cole says the great enabler of the ELB demonstration was the WarNet, which consists of three tiers of radios. The top tier is the tactical common datalink, which is being installed on many U.S. Navy platforms and air vehicles. The middle tier comprises the VRC-99A and the RT1812 or Army near-term digital radio. Both of these tiers feature equipment that is National Security Agency (NSA) Type-1 certified, which guarantees security from the ship through relay to the HMMWV.

The bottom tier is the 802.11 commercial off-the-shelf Lucent system, which does not have NSA certification but features triple digital encryption standard (DES) commercial security. Cole relates that experts in two different field exercises have not been able to compromise its data. He adds that Harris now makes a handheld 802.11 device that uses an accepted algorithm that might earn it Type-1 certification next year.

The key elements in the demonstration may be the airborne relays. Cole relates that planners used three Cessna aircraft, as opposed to configuring military-specific hardware, to serve in this role to avoid burdening operational forces. These aircraft were equipped with an instrument package that fitted weight and power restrictions of vertical takeoff unmanned aerial vehicles. Cole suggests that in the future, every military aircraft could have a small relay package that would permit a network to reconfigure itself every time an aircraft flies into the battlespace.

Another element of the airborne relay demonstration involved using a CH-46 helicopter. Col. Quirici allows that this changed the way planners could tactically focus airborne relays over critical areas. Where the Cessna aircraft provided broad area coverage, the helicopter allowed commanders to focus the coverage in more tenuous regions. The CH-46 was flown over a canyon where Marine ground forces traveled up the canyon road. The colonel notes that legacy communications systems would provide these Marines with little, if any, links with anyone outside the canyon area, or even with each other.

Airborne relays do have their limitations. Adverse weather can severely restrict their use. Hostile ground fire can bring down a slow-moving aircraft. Col. Quirici suggests that having the relay capability on a wide array of aircraft would provide greater flexibility and enhanced survivability for the relay link.

An off-the-shelf approach similar to using the Cessnas was applied to ground vehicles. In addition to the military HMMWVs, experimenters leased five Ford Expedition sport utility vehicles to test mobile connectivity.

The Coronado maintained 10-megabit-per-second communications among participating ships. For over-the-horizon communications, experimenters used airborne relays.

A Ku-band satellite communications link allowed inland infantry forces at El Centro to talk to the brigade assault team B at Camp Pendleton. This system interoperated with the ELB WarNet to enable several different capabilities. Army and Marine forces could share both blue and red location data at the tactical level. Col. Quirici notes that the Army brigade commander was able to sit in on Marine force videoconferences being conducted over the WarNet, which gave him much earlier situational awareness than otherwise available. He was able to plan the entry of his forces for a complex relief-in-place operation.

Col. Quirici relates that he was able to watch operations unfold as the landing craft air cushions approached the shore and offloaded forces that moved inland. He could watch icons move across the screen as the forces progressed toward the inland area of operations.

One drawback revealed by the demonstration is that the applications are less developed than the network, Cole notes. Many of these applications were first generation, while the network was third generation. Applications must improve—and they will, he maintains.

Other issues appear when small units can avail themselves of a wideband wireless network. These units often must protect themselves against enemy battlefield fire by taking shelter. The wideband connectivity is line-of-sight, and troops often break the line-of-sight connection when they are forced to take cover. “We didn’t develop a communications network that obviates the physics of line-of-sight requirements,” Cole allows. Field users were dropping in and out of the network, with the frequency increasing down the chain of command. That meant a greater packet loss and more latency problems than in typical wideband wireless networks.

For fiscal year 2002-2003, the ELB effort will enter its third phase as a smaller transition program. One option is to install some of the technology in the USS Constellation battle group under the Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Command. The USS Harry S Truman battle group may be a subsequent technology recipient. CINCPAC also would like to deploy the technology suite again, and Col. Quirici notes that the VRC-99A radios are scheduled to be based on the Tarawa in 2002-2003.

“Getting whatever we do into the hands of warfighters so they can take it out, continue to develop those tactics, techniques and procedures and provide good feedback to the developer, is vitally important,” he says.