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Commercial Technologies Take to The Air for Battlefield Networks

September 1999
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

Traditional defense contractors assimilate off-the-shelf electronics to link combatants in theater operations.

Defense electronics contractors are going commercial in a bid to equip the United Kingdom with a rapidly deployable battlefield communications network. The country’s Ministry of Defence is seeking a commercial off-the-shelf solution that is low-risk, easy to enhance and ready for deployment in about two years.

The theatre wide area communications network, or TWACN, is designed to provide headquarters with communications for voice, Internet protocol (IP), data and visual media. It is intended for use by the United Kingdom’s joint rapid reaction force, which is configured to use up to 15,000 people in operations ranging from evacuations to high-intensity conflict. These forces must be able to enter a theater of operations with deployable command and control, strategic lift, and medical and logistic support.

The joint force would be required to deploy on short notice, possibly beginning with as few as six men dispatched anywhere in the world. They would operate their TWACN switch from a single room, and this operation could increase in size to a division in theater with its own TWACN switch. Deployment arenas could range from the desert to the arctic and include all types of terrain and foliage.

The United Kingdom, as do most North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) nations, expects many future operations to take place in international coalitions. Accordingly, TWACN must be able to interface with NATO, United Nations or other potential coalition partners. The network also must connect with legacy U.K. systems and with the domestic network. It would, for example, connect with the Royal Air Force tactical trunk system (RTTS), Ptarmigan, Bowman local area subsystem and the United Kingdom via satellite. Ultimately, it would mature to serve as a vital part of the United Kingdom’s unified communications system.

The government’s specifications call for a system that goes anywhere, connects to everything, uses commercial off-the-shelf products, is fully secure, and is highly reliable. It also must be fully scalable and enhanceable as well as capable of maximizing information flow, offering comprehensive management and having low life-cycle costs. And, the winner must provide initial operation by November 2001.

One team bidding for the TWACN contract, which could total £100 million ($160 million), is headed by Racal Defence Electronics, located in Bracknell, Berkshire, England. Racal’s TWACN team includes partners Thomson-CSF Communications and Marconi Communications. This team’s approach is built around an all asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) environment. However, Julian Browne, director of strategic marketing for Racal Electronics Plc, explains that the company’s system also makes considerable use of military off-the-shelf equipment, as opposed to its commercial equivalent.

This represents a conscious decision among the partners to incorporate as many military systems as possible into their TWACN design. It removes many hurdles that would slow the team’s race to meet the tight TWACN timetable—to deliver a deployable system within 16 months of the contract award—by avoiding the need for extensive hardware development. It also helps ensure resilience in battlefield operations by using radios already designed to resist interference or eavesdropping.

The system still leverages commercial technology, but through military products. Its line-of-sight radio and downhill radio are military off-the-shelf, and the main switch is in the final stages of development for military use. Local area switching also is under development for a military program.

“I think the customer must take a view as to whether the money he has allocated for development and the time he has allocated for delivery are compatible with developing a new system from scratch,” Browne says.

These military off-the-shelf systems were selected on the basis of several criteria, but foremost among them was the fact that the systems had some degree of enhanceability or were built by companies engaged in enhancement programs for their equipment, Browne warrants. Marconi was selected to supply the line-of-sight radios, for example, because their units provide a 2-megabit-per-second link and a program that accepts data running at up to 8 megabits per second.

The Racal team sought to leverage experience in establishing battlefield local area networks. However, several major differences loomed. The bandwidth used in a vehicle in a local area network was insufficient for TWACN in a headquarters facility, which needs 155 megabits per second.

Also, the TWACN wide area switch has to accept communications from a large number of different sources. Accordingly, it must be capable of incorporating separate interface cards and adding new ones as needed. Cards are currently available for satellite communications, RTTS, the defense fixed tactical system, Ptarmigan and local commercial telephone networks.

A typical Racal TWACN node comprises a bearer element, a core element, local access support and mobile overlay. Local access support is provided by the MAS2000, a multimedia access switch, which is connected to the core element. This element hosts an area ATM tactical switch, ATS2000, which also serves as the gateway to other systems such as Ptarmigan and RTTS. The core element in turn is connected to the bearer element through an 8/34 megabits-per-second Marconi high-capacity microwave ATM link, the MH900. Both the bearer and core elements are housed in standard utility trucks.

The MAS2000 provides headquarters cells with multiple services at the desktop, and users have instant service as soon as it is connected. These services include dial-up telephony, fax, data and computer connections. It also allows a network to be constructed in any order and in any topology.

The core element’s ATS2000 establishes ATM trunks to the bearer module and satellite links. It also has been selected for the Bowman program. This ATM switch from Thomson-CSF can access the current Ptarmigan system, and it can tie into French and Belgian ValoRITA systems. Established interface cards allow it to connect with many other legacy systems in use. It effectively provides ATM from the desktop on up, Browne allows.

The bearer element features a Marconi MH300 radio that provides wide area ATM trunks to connect with outside line-of-sight radios. These signals would be transmitted at from 2 to 8 megabits per second, depending on which internal radio set is chosen by the Ministry of Defence. It offers multiple capacity options supported by ATM.

The Racal system’s mobile overlay is a TETRA handset system. This element is the one key item that remains to be developed, Browne says, in that it is not yet secure. It is possible that the ministry could separate the secure mobile overlay from the federated TWACN system because the network can be delivered easily, he says.

Brigade headquarters users have connectivity to a high-capacity ATM access network. Available services include telephone and intercom, fax, IP over Ethernet, circuit switched data and videoconferencing. Each MAS2000 connected to a staff cell is meshed through 155-megabit-per-second ATM, and this mesh links with the core element at the same data rate.

By the time the system is deployed, the internal vehicle systems will be able to attain bandwidth of 155 megabits per second just through software upgrades, Browne states. The TWACN configuration also offers a fiber optic cable option.

The network’s management information system provides a geographic diagram of user sites along with friendly and hostile force locations. It enables offline system planning and network engineering, online performance monitoring and online network component control. Already in service, the unit’s diverse function menu and multiple layering enhance flexibility for the operator.

Many user services are already accessible through ATM. The team’s TWACN solution provides ease of upgrade with its incorporation of ATM technology into existing military systems, Browne states. This approach also provides a clear path to combining Bowman and TWACN into the formation communications system and, ultimately, to the United Kingdom’s future unified communications system. One option to attain the future communications system would be to simply expand TWACN, Browne notes.