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Units Connect Any Time, Anyplace

November 2000
By Henry S. Kenyon

Brigade subscriber nodes allow soldiers to communicate across a wide spectrum of equipment and protocols.

U.S. Army rapid deployment forces will field an advanced communications management system that will provide its units with a more efficient data conduit than is available with legacy equipment. The vehicle-mounted platform consists of mobile switches and routers that feature integrated commercial and government hardware and software designed to provide voice, video and data service in a tactical environment.

Under Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki’s vision, the service will create and maintain a number of medium-sized units designed for easy transport to global hot spots within 96 hours of notification. The demand for increased mobility requires that the logistical footprint be kept to a minimum; however, communications systems must be robust enough to provide commanders with proper situational awareness.

To address these issues, the Army is conducting a broad development program to create a family of integrated battlefield communications systems that seamlessly connect units and replace often incompatible equipment. Before this can be achieved, devices currently entering service must not only meet specific tactical requirements but also serve as a bridge to connect the latest improvements to existing operational networks.

Brigade subscriber nodes (BSNs) are designed to provide communications support to the Army’s new brigade combat teams. Each individual node consists of two high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles and a towed generator. One vehicle houses switches and routers in a shelter on its back, while the second transports the antenna array. The BSN system is intended to enhance and complement mobile subscriber equipment (MSE) currently in use.

Developed by the Army’s Communications-Electronics Command (CECOM), Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, the program is aimed at using commercial technologies to the maximum extent possible. Unlike current MSE systems, the BSN architecture combines government and commercial hardware and software to provide integrated communications capabilities while maintaining connectivity to legacy equipment.

A commercial public branch exchange delivers voice subscriber services, allowing for integrated service digital network (ISDN) and analog service. Individual telephone numbers are assigned to each user in the same manner as is done with an MSE system. Commercial routers provide data subscriber services with addresses assigned via dynamic host configuration protocol. The nodes operate on an asynchronous transfer mode backbone, offering dynamic bandwidth allocation. All services are Internet protocol (IP) based.

Transmission capability is provided through satellite link or a high-capacity line-of-sight radio. The government-furnished radio is integral to the BSNs. The radio’s bandwidth currently is limited to 8 megabits per second, but increased capacity can be achieved by using a higher frequency band radio, suggests Donald L. Keller, chief, technical management division, warfighter information network–terrestrial, Army Program Executive Officer for Command, Control and Communications Systems (PEOC3). He notes that the radio is designed to evolve to a rate of 16 megabits per second and higher during its operational life. However, the BSNs also can plug into any other available transmission method such as satellite links or other line-of-sight systems offering higher bandwidth.

The BSN system is designed to interface with all mobile subscriber equipment. It also complements and operates with command and control systems such as the advanced field artillery tactical data system (AFATDS) and the all source analysis system (ASAS), map overlays, weather information or any other data a commander might require, Keller shares.

According to William F. Sverapa, program director, Warfighter Information Network, Space and Terrestrial Communications Directorate, CECOM, the nodes’ primary architecture is built around IP technology and extends to IP services regardless of the backbone hardware, he states. To reduce the clutter caused by wiring and to streamline the equipment, the BSN system uses Sun Microsystem’s Sun Ray thin client technology, which provides one server per node instead of multiple computers and monitors, he points out.

The Sun Ray technology allows for a unique approach to designing the BSNs, Sverapa says. Instead of integrating software packages, independent network management tools can be hosted on a common platform. Users can then access the nodes from a base or the field.

“What’s different about this is that as a soldier, I can pull my server out in garrison. I can take it out of the shelter. I can use my Sun Ray thin clients, and I can do my network planning and engineering on several different systems—the BSNs being one of them, near-term digital radio being another,” Sverapa maintains. One of the goals for the BSNs is to connect to as many other Army communications systems as possible. This will allow soldiers to conduct all of their network planning and engineering before going into the field, he adds.

The network management decision aid helps warfighters administer the BSNs. This automated tool uses artificial intelligence and rules to allow technicians to easily isolate and solve problems in the node. Once a bug has been located, the tool recommends solutions, Sverapa explains.

The primary advantage the BSNs provide over previous equipment is that everything is in one package, Keller says. The nodes are self-contained systems that include all of the switching for voice, data and teleconferencing as well as the transmission equipment to interconnect to other networks. The nodes are also in a smaller package that is more easily transported. Capt. Vaneada Terrell-Simmons, USA, project leader, warfighter information network–terrestrial, PEOC3, notes that current MSE systems used in the same function require 22 soldiers and nine trucks to accomplish what the BSNs can do with eight soldiers and four trucks.

Commercial technology also offers flexibility. For example, when using voice communications, any commercial telephone can be plugged directly into the BSNs, Keller says. Current legacy systems can function only with Army-specific proprietary equipment. In addition, they cannot support the videoconferencing capabilities that many commanders demand, nor can they support the bandwidth throughput requirements needed for today’s battlefield communications, he observes.

The BSN program evolved from the warfighter information network proof of concept (WIN-POC) project, which was an Army initiative that sought ways to use commercial technology as the next generation of integrated voice, video and data switch services, Sverapa says. While the BSNs in many ways serve as a bridge between existing legacy systems and new ones, the WIN program seeks new ways to apply technology to future tactical environments, with the long-term goal of finding a suitable replacement for MSE technology. The program was a success, showing that the technology was feasible. Though it espouses many of the basic concepts of the WIN-POC such as the extensive use of commercial technology, Sverapa maintains that the BSNs are not part of the WIN program.

In March 1999, Col. Edward Siomacco, USA, project manager, warfighter information network–terrestrial, asked CECOM to build two brigade subscriber nodes for use in the Joint Contingency Force Advanced Warfighting Experiment that took place at Fort Polk, Louisiana, in September 2000. These BSNs are prototypes to test the technology under field conditions and to determine if any changes must be made in soldier training and maintenance regimes. According to Sverapa, they contain some components such as personal communications service that will not appear in the first two production nodes. By testing the BSN architecture, CECOM will evaluate soldiers’ opinions of the system and then use the suggestions in implementing changes in overall requirements.

Compared to other product programs, only a small number of nodes will be manufactured, Sverapa explains. The goal is to produce 14 nodes for the Army—two for each of the seven brigade combat teams that the service plans to field. Beginning in 2001, two units will be delivered every year as a new brigade combat team is created.

Four more BSN systems are currently under construction, Keller says. These are slightly different from the two prototypes because they take advantage of lessons learned from the construction of the first two units. The new models will go through full-blown developmental and operational test and evaluation programs and will then be fielded with the first two brigade combat teams forming at Fort Lewis, Washington.

The nodes’ architecture is designed to be open-ended and expandable so that new technology can be inserted as it becomes available. Each pair of new BSNs will always be slightly more capable than its predecessors, Capt. Terrell-Simons says. However, Sverapa claims that the systems will always be able to interoperate with each other. This program differs from traditional production programs because it employs a spiral development pattern in which the project manager seeks to insert new technology each option year—even though the quantity is very small, Sverapa adds.

By maintaining an open architecture and using as many commercial components as possible, the BSNs adhere closely to the joint tactical architecture from a standards viewpoint, Keller says. But even with the use of commercial materials, the nodes feature unique interfaces to operate with legacy systems and to communicate with the other services’ equipment, he observes.

Although full developmental testing has not yet been conducted, Sverapa believes several important lessons have been learned that will carry over to other programs such as WIN-T. Beyond learning about the technology and how it works, the Army has determined how to train for and sustain the system.

“We’re learning things like how good the commercial manuals that come with the commercial equipment are. What’s the delta manual, and how involved does it have to be to get the soldier to be able to use the equipment? Is that commercial manual good enough? Is the commercial equipment too hard for soldiers to use?” Sverapa asks. These are important questions because unlike the commercial sector, the Army’s backbone moves, he emphasizes.