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Adaptable Communications Tool Untangles Tactical Bird's Nest

November 1999
By Mark Powell

Research laboratory offers solution to interoperability challenges created by multiple systems in battlespace.

Revolutionary changes are taking place in military tactical equipment that promise to eliminate many of today’s interoperability issues. A next-generation system that is backward compatible with legacy systems as well as capable of hosting new advanced waveforms could dramatically enhance communications among military units and resolve many of the vexing issues that have plagued past military operations.

Versatile communications capabilities are essential to warfighters who must effectively communicate with different units that use a variety of technologies. Equipment currently under development at the Naval Research Laboratory, Washington, D.C., could help provide the digital force multiplication that is essential for the continued success of the U.S. military.

The joint combat information terminal (JCIT), a scalable, software reprogrammable communications system, is one of the first examples of this advanced equipment. It is designed to be modified within seconds to emulate 13 different military radios and has the protocols and automatic routing capability to allow it to operate in the U.S. Army’s tactical internet.

The system’s architectural ancestry stems from the Naval Research Laboratory’s (NRL’s) tactical communications systems development programs that have occurred during the past two decades. Systems coming out of these programs were transferred to industry for production. They include tactical receive equipment, the improved data modem, the radiant hail tactical terminal and the multimission advanced tactical terminal. The newest and most advanced member of this equipment family, JCIT, was developed as part of the Army airborne command and control system (A2C2S) program.

In 1994, U.S. Army Aviation identified a requirement for a highly mobile tactical operations center that could be used by a five-person staff. Because of the NRL’s experience in small, lightweight communications terminals, the Army approached the laboratory to determine if this function could be incorporated in a UH-60 helicopter. Approximately 30 discrete boxes would be necessary to meet the Army’s communication requirements for the A2C2S. Space, weight and power constraints of the helicopter eliminated this as a feasible solution. To address this problem, the NRL led a consortium of more than 24 companies and government organizations to develop the JCIT to integrate this communications capability into one box.

The system is a multimode, multiband communications terminal that can be dynamically reconfigured by software to emulate a large number of existing military and civilian radios as well as new advanced waveforms. When delivered as part of the A2C2S, it will provide nine simultaneous communication links. The terminal will also be able to emulate 13 existing radios, including the single channel ground and airborne radio system (SINCGARS), enhanced SINCGARS, the HAVEQUICK ultrahigh frequency amplitude modulation radio, satellite communications/demand assigned multiple access systems as well as civilian air traffic control, civilian law enforcement and maritime systems. Additionally, the JCIT will receive global positioning systems and direct intelligence broadcasts, including tactical receive equipment and related applications, tactical data information exchange system-B, and the tactical information broadcast system. This will allow warfighters to maintain their situational awareness picture with the near-real-time information from the national sensor grid. The equipment will be upgraded to use the joint tactical terminal’s common integrated broadcast service modules to ensure compatibility with the integrated broadcast system once they are available.

The JCIT’s design is based on a common set of hardware and software modules. This modularity allows the system to be upgraded by replacing one module in the chassis with a new one that incorporates a more advanced design. Users can take advantage of technological advances without the expense of integrating a new box into their platform.

A scalable architecture enables different configurations to be developed by repackaging a number of these common modules while taking into account other form factors crucial to meeting user requirements. For example, a two-channel mobile version of the JCIT was developed to complement the airborne version used in the A2C2S. This mobile model features the flexibility and capabilities of the original airborne version but with fewer channels. Development costs for this model were negligible, and the design effort took only a few months.

To accommodate requirements for large amounts of radio channels, the architecture also can be scaled upward. This scalability allows a joint-combat-information-based system to replace many of the individual pieces of equipment that would normally be required for shipboard or command center communications.

In addition to its eight radio transceivers, the system has an embedded encryption capability that is compatible with the majority of U.S. and some allied military hardware. It can also be programmed to be compatible with encryption to support civilian law enforcement.

The terminal has a number of communication protocols embedded in its software that allow it to send and receive digital messages in U.S. Air Force application program development protocol as well as in tactical fire directional system and joint variable message formats. In addition, it can perform the automatic routing functions necessary to be interoperable with the Army’s tactical internet. The terminal incorporates all of the messaging/modem functions found within the improved data modem, allowing it to communicate digitally with improved-data-modem-equipped platforms, including the Air Force’s F-16 fighter aircraft and the Army’s AH-64 Apache helicopter.

The JCIT is designed to be integrated readily into a variety of platforms and features a number of interfaces, including military-standard-1553, 1394, 10 baseT, 100 baseT and analog to allow integration with existing intercoms and systems. The JCIT architecture uses more than 60 high-speed processors with portable operating system interface exchange-compliant middleware to support the throughput and response times necessary to perform its communication function. It features a built-in resource manager that automatically selects the correct mix of processors, encryption devices and transceivers, allowing the operator to select the desired radio and frequency. Two high-speed 1394 Firewire buses facilitate the rapid exchange of data inside the JCIT.

Another property of the terminal enables it to perform crossband translation or bridging. It can receive a voice or data transmission from one type of radio at one frequency and retransmit the message while emulating another type of radio. This capability allows users with different types of radios to communicate seamlessly with each other. It is particularly beneficial to law enforcement and disaster relief officials who, with little prior coordination, must operate with many different agencies. Upon arrival at the crisis scene, an operator can configure a single JCIT to act as a bridge among the various types of radios used by different agencies to facilitate coordination of activities.

The NRL also is investigating how the terminal can improve communications between coalition forces working together during peacekeeping activities. For example, a language translation module would enable forces from different countries to use the JCIT as an interpreter, automatically translating voice messages to another user’s native language.

Because the U.S. government has developed the hardware and the software, both are nonproprietary. The entire design is based on open-system industrial standards, and well-defined interfaces ensure that commercial companies will be able to develop future software and hardware upgrades for the system. Currently, Rockwell-Collins has entered into a cooperative research development agreement with the NRL to host both demand assigned multiple access and the high frequency function found in their ARC-220 radio in the JCIT.

Planned enhancements to the baseline JCIT include the incorporation of Link-16, the enhanced position location reporting system and other wideband waveforms into the system. Additionally, since the terminal is not a traditional radio but rather a generic communications terminal, the NRL is now investigating the possibility of adding electronic countermeasures, electronic counter-countermeasures and communications intelligence functions as part of the terminal’s software library. Integrating all of these capabilities into a single product is predicted to expand the usefulness of a number of aviation, marine and ground platforms while at the same time reduce space, weight and power requirements.

The U.S. Marine Corps has expressed an interest in using software reprogrammable radios as part of its future communications architecture. As a result of this interest, they tasked the NRL to integrate an A2C2S/JCIT derivative into a light armored vehicle as part of a mobile reconfigurable communications center. The utility of this platform will then be demonstrated in an upcoming exercise.

The NRL is also integrating another A2C2S/JCIT variant into a Marine Corps amphibious assault vehicle that will be tested at Camp Lejeune to further explore the tactical advantages of software reprogrammable radios like the JCIT for battlefield communications.

To ensure interoperability and reduce the cost of radio procurement, the U.S. Defense Department is working with industry to develop the joint tactical radio system (JTRS) architecture. This initiative describes the open-system, multiband, multimode, software reprogrammable radio. The JTRS program office has signed a memorandum of understanding with the NRL to ensure that the lessons learned from the development of the joint combat information terminal are leveraged to the maximum amount possible in the JTRS architecture.

The NRL is supporting the JTRS program office during the government/industry architecture evaluations and will be supporting the certification and testing of candidate systems. Additionally, the laboratory is closely watching the development of the joint tactical radio system architecture so that the joint combat information terminal architecture can be modified to comply with this standard once it has been completed. At that time, the waveform emulation software developed for the JCIT will be available to the JTRS program for potential reuse.


Mark Powell leads the Tactical Special Projects Office and was the Naval Research Laboratory program manager during the development phase of the A2C2S program. He has worked at the Space Systems Development Department of the Naval Research Laboratory for 11 years.