Networked Vision Moves Closer to Reality

July 2004
By Henry S. Kenyon

Network-centric capabilities will permit aircraft such as this F-15E to share data about threats and mission objectives and relay it to next-generation Internet-protocol-enabled weapons that can shift to new targets in mid-flight.  
Communications and data architecture to stretch from under the sea to out in space.

Future U.S. Air Force pilots will rely on an extensive array of sensors and interconnected platforms to detect and destroy enemy forces. Lessons learned from recent combat operations over Iraq support the service’s network-centric operational concept that envisions shortened sensor-to-shooter cycles, networked weapons and increased information sharing among all echelons.

Network-centric warfare is slowly becoming a reality as more data-enabled systems become operational. But a great deal of work is still necessary before a fully interoperable joint network can be launched. Across the U.S. Defense Department, all of the services are working together to help build a seamless system for information sharing.

The Air Force’s efforts to develop a fully enabled network-centric system are one facet of this larger endeavor. According to Maj. Gen. Charles E. Croom Jr., USAF, director for command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance infostructure, Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Warfighting Integration, U.S. Air Force, the service’s current road map for network-centric operations was established by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John P. Jumper, USAF, in an April 2002 speech. In that statement, Gen. Jumper said the goal for his service is to shorten the kill chain through increased battlespace awareness and machine-to-machine interfaces. Gen. Croom adds that this vision is part of a larger joint plan to share information among all of the services to enable faster reaction on the battlefield.

Communications networks are an important part of the Air Force’s operational vision. Gen. Croom notes that networks traditionally have been viewed as ground-based systems, but now the concept has been expanded to include an architecture stretching from under the sea to out in space. “We have been working very closely with the Navy and the Army to lay out this vision of where we want to be in terms of the capabilities we want to have. These capabilities are things like time-sensitive targeting, battlespace awareness and collaborative targeting,” he says.

For example, when an F-22 collects information during an operation, it will share the data across a common network of sensors and platforms. According to this vision, a future platform’s success will depend on how much it contributes to the network to shorten the kill chain and achieve time-critical targeting. “When we talk about the network, it is basically a self-forming, self-healing, global information grid that we want to establish between every platform. We want that network not only to share information quickly, we want to make sure that data will flow with speed and security,” the general maintains.

Last year’s combat operations in Iraq served to reinforce Gen. Jumper’s joint vision, Gen. Croom says. Machine-to-machine interfaces proved critical to shortening decision times, and shared awareness between joint and coalition forces was vital to the success of operation Iraqi Freedom. The effectiveness and importance of these capabilities have moved the service to press ahead with its plans. “We’re working very hard on our vision, our concept of operations and our architectures with the other services so that we jointly approach the problem from a strategic level,” he says.

Blue Force Tracking technologies were a major success in operation Iraqi Freedom. The system permitted commanders and pilots flying ground support missions to locate coalition and enemy forces on the ground quickly. Expanding and enhancing this system are high priorities for the services, Gen. Croom says.

Weapons datalinks are another technology the Air Force is developing. The goal is to Internet protocol (IP)-enable weapons such as the joint air-to-surface standoff missile so that they can communicate with other platforms once they have been launched. Such linked weapons will receive updated information about the location and status of a target while in mid-flight. This would enhance the weapons’ precision and allow them to shift quickly to alternate targets. Networked weapons also will have their own sensors. The general explains that by providing an image of a target immediately prior to impact, the accuracy of battle damage assessments will be greatly increased.

In addition, the Air Force is examining the potential of persistent area surveillance by multiple airborne platforms. Gen. Croom notes that in recent war games, the service modeled the capabilities of several future technologies such as persistent surveillance, directed energy weapons and networked operations (SIGNAL, May, page 31). However, he says, technologies that enable networked operations proved to be the most valuable in these scenarios.

Citing collaborative targeting as a networking example, the general explains that to locate a moving signal, such as a mobile surface-to-air missile emitter, current intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms must triangulate it. Collaborative targeting calls for flying many aircraft over a battlespace. Even if an enemy emitter is on for a few seconds, the number of airborne sensors detecting that emission can quickly triangulate its location. “That’s what the network will allow you to do. It’s because of this extremely low latency that you can move information very quickly to isolate a target that was mobile and hidden to a very precise location and target it quickly,” Gen. Croom says.

To detect threats like surface-to-air missile batteries, several platforms, such as this U.S. Air Force E-8C joint surveillance target attack radar system, are required to triangulate the target’s location. In the future, the service plans to deploy systems such as collaborative targeting, which will use hundreds of networked airborne sensors to detect enemy radar and other emitters quickly.  
The general notes that the Air Force has experience with operating data networks on the ground and in the air. However, most of that knowledge is about ground-based systems connected to satellites in circuit-based, bent-pipe networks. The service has three criteria to define a fully network-centric system: It must have IP-based routing, shared awareness and assured service. Gen. Croom notes that the Air Force is not currently network-centric by these standards because it uses little or no IP-based routing in its airborne and space systems.

However, the service does have a growing non-IP-based airborne network that is based on the Link-16 datalink. It plans to expand use of this datalink across various platforms until IP-based systems become available. The technology that the Defense Department hopes will lead to a fully network-centric military is the joint tactical radio system (JTRS) (SIGNAL, February, page 37). It will supply all of the armed forces with interoperable software-programmable radios using new waveforms designed to carry large amounts of data. “That will basically enable every single Air Force platform to be an IP router,” he says.

Just as JTRS will transform all the service’s aircraft into nodes in a larger network, this web also will extend into space. Scheduled for deployment in 2012, the Transformational Communications MILSATCOM program (SIGNAL, April, page 59) will place routers in orbit and use laser-based communications to move large packets of data among air, sea, land and space platforms. “By bringing JTRS systems into our aircraft and turning our satellites into an IP routing capability, you see the substantiation of a self-forming, self-healing network in the sky and space that is seamless with the ground,” he says.

But this new capability also presents challenges such as how to operate this large network. The general observes that the Air Force has a very strict control hierarchy on the ground. But this structure is evolving as Pentagon planners determine how to manage this new, unified data grid.

Security is another concern. As weapons and communications systems are linked in a single network, they must remain virus free and protected from hacking and other cyberattacks. “A lot has been said against our stovepipe systems. But in essence, they provided us with secure media. No one hacked into an AUTODIN [Automatic Digital Network]. They were stovepiped, and they were isolated,” Gen. Croom observes.

While these challenges remain, the Air Force is making strides in the way wireless data networks are operated. The general notes that many tools exist to help manage the visibility and control of the service’s systems. This software can be in the form of network configuration and management packages, virus scanning and protection systems, and architecture planning and reporting tools.

Hardware such as JTRS will provide the service with increased network flexibility. The radio’s software allows the use of new waveforms capable of moving significantly more data than could previous systems. Gen. Croom notes that Link-16 currently operates in the range of 256 kilobits per second or less. “We are now talking about moving an average of 2 megabits per second from airplane to airplane in the wideband network waveform, and much higher speeds for specific battlespace awareness and command aircraft, up to 274 megabits per second,” he says.

The Air Force also is exploring the use of wireless data networks for flightline personnel. “We have miles of cement that are very difficult to string wire across. Think of a maintenance trooper out there who can now access his technical orders, requisition parts and get the status of those parts right there on his Palm Pilot through some wireless device. That’s where we want to be. We don’t want him shuffling technical order pages out there, and we don’t want to have him drive back to the shop to order a part. We want all that done at his fingertips electronically,” he says.

But rapidly changing technology needs create challenges for training. The general explains that the service is still grappling with finding the right balance between training and readiness. “How do you keep your airmen trained to the latest functionalities you’re bringing down? How do you ramp up the schools to provide this training fast enough?” he asks.

Network-centric technology also affects Air Force culture. Gen. Croom observes that information does not flow up a chain of command hierarchically anymore. Instead, it moves horizontally. He adds that kill chain speed is not just about the network; it involves the organization that is using the information. The Air Force’s leadership recently established rules for information sharing and decision making to promote horizontal decision making and empower personnel to take the best course of action. “You’ve got to really reorganize your organization and your processes to take advantage of information being everywhere instantaneously. If you force it to still follow the hierarchical chain of command, you’ve imposed an artificial time limit on moving that information, which slows down the kill chain,” the general says.

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