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United Kingdom Casts Battlefield Communications Network

December 1999
By Henry S. Kenyon

Allies move closer to global operations capability through Link 16 interoperability.

A tactical datalink management system is making the United Kingdom’s armed forces more compatible with its U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization partners. The groundstation-based platform facilitates setting up and monitoring communications networks between air assets. A mobile variant of the equipment will enter service with British expeditionary forces early in the coming decade.

As Britain and its allies are increasingly called upon to conduct global operations, either individually or in support of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or the United Nations, providing the means for participants to communicate and coordinate activities becomes paramount. Because expeditionary missions are often conducted under demanding circumstances with limited assets, sophisticated command and control is necessary to provide the situational awareness necessary to achieve maximum military effectiveness.

Link 16 is one tactical datalink that is an important and growing source of complex communications and intelligence information for the United Kingdom and its allies worldwide. Because Link 16 is a standard datalink for the U.S. military, compatibility with this connection is critical for coalition partners in joint operations. By extension, interoperability is increasing as more NATO countries make their weapons systems link-compatible.

These requirements were the origins of the Royal Air Force’s joint tactical information distribution system (JTIDS) air platform network management system (JAPNMS). Developed by Racal Defence Electronics, Wells, Somerset, England, the system can plan and manage a Link 16 network, assess its performance, and reallocate capacity and relay to maintain the link’s operation.

Entering service in August 1998, JAPNMS is now fully installed and undergoing a trial period before full control is handed over to the Royal Air Force from the Ministry of Defence, according to Steven Colwill, a senior marketing manager with Racal Defence Electronics Communications and Information Systems Division. Housed in major air defense headquarters to monitor Link 16 operations in the United Kingdom’s air defense region, JAPNMS terminals are positioned for optimum coverage of training areas, he explains.

The system evaluates a Link 16 network against a set of interference protection features such as power settings, single-network operation and distance to controlled airspace. Any violation of predefined frequency clearance agreements for JTIDS/Link 16 sends an alert to the operator. This feature is necessary because Link 16 operates at frequencies close to those of civilian air navigation systems and could potentially interfere with them.

JAPNMS enables the network manager to select a predetermined design for the needed network from a library of scenarios. A network plan can then be tailored to meet the precise needs of a specific operation. The plan, which includes network functions, relay assignments and adjusted time-slot allocations, is compared against known interference protection criteria and automatically downloaded to the operational task link format for message dispatch and terminal initialization, Colwill explains.

When a Link 16 network is active, JAPNMS allows the operator to monitor the position, connectivity and time-slot usage for all of the JTIDS/Link 16 users in the network—either regional or across the United Kingdom. Based on the information provided, the network manager can then actively intervene in real time to adjust time-slot allocations, relay assignments and network functions to maintain the optimum performance and connectivity of the link under changing operational circumstances.

While JAPNMS meets Britain’s domestic Link 16 requirements, it is becoming necessary to extend this support to expeditionary forces. Racal is currently developing a transportable version of this system. Slated for an initial service release in late 2001 or early 2002, the transportable JAPNMS facility (TJF) is a deployable Link 16 management center capable of providing a degree of forward command and control during the initial stages of an operation.

The TJF retains JAPNMS network management abilities, providing complete support management and operational capability in one shelter. It also retains the ability to determine a specific scenario type and operational command structure. This data is then fed into the stand-alone JTIDS network design station, which then builds the overall network design.

Besides retaining the ability to police specific frequencies, both systems feature a graphic display for the network manager’s use. The display provides the locations of all JTIDS/Link 16 users based on their precise position and locator indicator message, allowing the manager to see where they are in relation to one another, in relation to geographic features such as coastlines and where they are according to other navigational aids. The network manager also can monitor the quality of communications between each participant in the network. As connectivity decays, the administrator can activate or turn off relays to ensure that connectivity is maintained. The operator can also conduct trials to determine the quality of the various relay capabilities selected, Colwill says.

The TJF’s capabilities also mesh with a new Racal-built tactical air control center, which is currently undergoing trials prior to initial service release. According to Racal Senior Systems Engineer Adrian Standen, the TJF and the control center have an almost symbiotic relationship as the two systems can join together to form part of a large local area network. Tactical air control center operators will also be able to gain full access to the TJF’s Link 16 command and control system.

The TJF is designed for transport via a Hercules C-130 transport aircraft. The goal of the system is to minimize the amount of physical set-up time once it is on site. For example, an effort was made to design a system that requires a minimum number of cable couplings. According to Standen, the TJF should be operational within 45 minutes of reaching its destination.

Laying the groundwork for Link 16 interoperability was not easy, however, because of difficulties encountered while developing JAPNMS. No single link interface specification for Link 16 existed in the United Kingdom when the system was being developed. Colwill notes that when the Royal Air Force first began the project, little was known about conducting dynamic, online network management. While there were general statements in the air force’s requirements, when the company actually began uncovering problems in development, the air force found it difficult to clarify them because it had no real idea about how to proceed at the time, he adds.

Colwill maintains that this was a normal aspect of the development process—a learning curve that both the air force and Racal were experiencing. However, he believes they were among the front-runners in the development of Link 16 management in the United Kingdom. “I don’t think anybody actually undertook to use some of the JTIDS features for reassigning capacity, reassigning relay and doing a lot of the network management capability that was inherent to Link 16. I think the company was one of the first ones to embark on this thing—active, dynamic network management.”

As JAPNMS’ mobile component, the TJF will prove itself useful at the joint forces air component commander (JFACC) level in a deployment, Colwill believes. He notes that the Royal Air Force is running a program called the U.K. air command and control system, Phase Naught, whose goal is to develop a containerized air headquarters along with a combined air operations center. The air surveillance manager operates at this level, and Colwill believes this is the person who should conduct Link 16 management in a theater of operations.

“You may find yourself in a situation where you’ve got more than one tactical air control center. You have maritime forces and coalition forces all wanting to operate Link 16. You need a centralized high-level body that’s pulling all that together with the authority to do it. And I believe that it should be at the JFACC level,” Colwill says.

One advantage of the TJF is its theater network management capability. According to Standen, the recent air operations over Kosovo demonstrated a need for a centralized network management station at the JFACC level. During the conflict, command and control personnel and equipment assets involved in the combat operations were extremely stretched because they also had to maintain the communications infrastructure. The potential value of a ground-based network management system like the TJF would be to allow the E-3 aircraft to use all of their airborne warning and control system (AWACS) assets to prosecute an air war, he notes.

Colwill explains that a sustainable ground-based command and control management capability is important because, while an E-3 AWACS aircraft can provide a commander with airborne direction of assets, it does not have the dedicated personnel, applications or capacity to begin organizing data communications across a theater of operations. Nor can one rely on an AWACS being in the air 24 hours a day, he adds.

In the early stages of a conflict, TJF could provide the basic network design, management and ground reference facilities necessary for Link 16 communications. The system will also be able to offer the deployment force commander some form of situational awareness. Colwill notes that at the very earliest stages of a conflict, before other command and control elements are in place, the TJF could supply ground-based communications management for AWACS aircraft. As more command and control elements enter the theater, the system would revert to its primary role, supporting the JFACC, he says.

Link 16 Bridges Interoperability Gaps

Link 16 is a high-capacity, electronic countermeasures-resistant voice and data communications system. It features a comprehensive, fixed-format message standard that embraces almost every aspect of modern joint warfare. It provides commanders with access to a common picture of the battlefield and the means to control and coordinate activities.

Because it is robust and flexible, Link 16 is the tactical datalink of choice for military forces worldwide and is the standard for joint operations with U.S. forces, Steven Colwill, a senior marketing manager with Racal Defence Electronics, Wells, Somerset, England, says. However, exploiting the link’s full potential requires extensive integration into a host command system. A sophisticated support infrastructure is necessary to enable operators to plan and manage the link’s capacity in order for it to operate efficiently and effectively.

This is especially important in peacetime because civilian aviation authorities in the United Kingdom have instituted operating criteria for the use of joint tactical information distribution systems (JTIDS) such as Link 16. This is necessary because JTIDS pulses operate close to the frequency of civilian navigational equipment and can potentially interfere with them unless restricted to a single network with a finite number of transmit/receive opportunities, Colwill explains. Under restricted peacetime circumstances or during an operational scenario, being able to manage and dynamically adjust this capacity among a variety of land, air and sea participants is critical to maintaining Link 16 capability.

Achieving across-the-board Link 16 interoperability is still a vexing question, Colwill says. However, more systems and air assets are becoming Link 16 capable. British and French airborne warning and control system aircraft have Link 16 capability and will shortly be fitted to North Atlantic Treaty Organization E-3As, making the entire coalition fleet interoperable, he notes. Additionally, French fighters will soon have the capability, as will Britain’s Sea Harrier, a number of Royal Navy air defense ships, the Royal Navy’s Sea King Whiskey airborne early warning helicopter and the Eurofighter. Some German and Dutch Patriot missile units are also Link 16 equipped, as is the Royal Air Force’s Tornado F3 strike aircraft.