Modular Devices Weave Tactical Networks

March 2005
By Henry S. Kenyon

UCIM equipment is designed to support tactical command and control operations at the battalion level. It can be mounted in a variety of platforms, including Marine Corps light armored vehicles, high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles and helicopters.

Plug-and-play components can be quickly configured to mission needs.

A communications interface system soon may enhance the situational awareness and connectivity of U.S. Marine Corps units. The equipment consists of vehicle-mounted racks housing an interchangeable set of tactical radios, routers and configuration software that allows commanders to quickly select, change and modify their tactical data networks for specific missions. By linking a variety of radio systems into a single network, the technology permits units with previously incompatible radio systems to communicate with each other.

Interconnectivity is a keystone of network-centric warfare, and as decision loops shrink, the need for diverse units to remain aware of the larger battlefield situation grows exponentially. Programs such as the U.S. Defense Department’s Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) seek to address this problem across all echelons of the military by replacing incompatible legacy radios with a new generation of software programmable equipment that can communicate across a variety of waveforms. But before such systems can be widely fielded, interim solutions must be devised to allow existing tactical radios to interoperate.

One effort that seeks to achieve such interoperability is the Universal Communication Interface Module (UCIM), a joint science and technology initiative by the U.S. Marine Corps Systems Command, Quantico, Virginia, and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, Washington, D.C. According to UCIM Project Officer Capt. Barry A. Dowdy, USMC, the UCIM is a modular system designed to convert stovepipe command and control (C2) platforms into flexible, robust and reconfigurable networked C2 systems.

The UCIM consists of a collection of modular systems that can be mounted in an equipment rack. Individual units include controllers, radios, memory storage, wireless communications links and firewalls. A key unit is the intercom radio interface (IRI), which allows users to integrate all of their tactical radios into a common interface. The captain notes that all of the system’s modules are Internet protocol based.

A typical command vehicle will include a computer rack and a radio rack, Capt. Dowdy explains. For example, a radio rack would consist of an IRI unit with its plug-and-play capability and a variety of tactical radios such as single channel ground to air radio systems, AN/PRC-177s, AN/PRC-150s and ARC-210s for airborne platforms. Plug-and-play software permits commanders to install and configure specific radios quickly. The software also allows UCIM-linked radios to interface with vehicle intercom systems.

Another important component is the basic remote controller (BRC), which enables operators to control applications on different processors. “It provides access to all the processors that are running the various command and control applications and also allows you to control and configure the radios,” the captain says.

Using the BRC, an operator can modify and monitor the system, setting radios for voice and data applications, changing UCIM system components, defining and        creating operator presets, monitoring the power system, and supporting security and maintenance activities. The UCIM also features a Web-based interface that is electronically tied to the BRC, allowing users to configure a platform’s radios remotely. After the equipment is configured, the controller can call up preset communications networks. A memory stick interface module is available for additional plug-in memory to aid radio configuration.

The UCIM features a networking, or enclave, module that can connect more than 30 platforms. Connectivity is achieved through a secure wireless local area network that ties together all participating platforms within radio line of sight. The captain notes that a commander can use the enclave networking capability to configure all of the radios on the other UCIM platforms remotely.

Stationary command vehicles can be linked via landlines. A symmetric digital subscriber line (SDSL) module is available for this purpose. The SDSL unit features two 10100 auto sensing ports operating at up to 256 kilobits per second over distances of up to two kilometers.

Applications and equipment such as the Marine Corps C2  PC and the Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System can be loaded onto modular UCIM computer racks and chassis. The modules are all built to military specifications and are fully ruggedized to withstand heat, cold, shock and vibration.

Each module can be integrated into different C2 platforms quickly. “Instead of our platform program managers going out and pursuing their own stovepipe command and control solutions, we provide common, universal modules that can be used in all C2 platforms,” Capt. Dowdy says.

Operators use an interface common to all ground and air platforms. The captain maintains that this simplifies training, reduces maintenance and diminishes logistics issues because modules between various platforms can be exchanged.

Other modules include a keyboard video switch matrix that permits operators to switch between different processors and to control different C2 and fires applications as well as a power system that ties into a platform’s onboard power supply or to outside alternating current in stationary configurations. Additional communications features include a fast Ethernet switch and a telephone systems module. The co-site module also includes an antenna co-site unit that mitigates co-site interference from different waveforms.

The UCIM has been installed on several platforms, including the light armored vehicle command and control (LAVC2), a high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle and a helicopter. The captain notes that there is more rack space available in the LAVC2 variant, which features built-in redundancy with two mirrored UCIM sets on opposite sides of the crew compartment.

Capt. Dowdy notes that the UCIM has just completed a limited user evaluation and is transitioning to a program of record. One important part of this transition is the creation of a catalog of modules for program manager use. “We have proved that these modules integrated into various command and control platforms work, and work very well. Now, the idea is to migrate the UCIM to a program of record and provide a catalog of modules to pick and choose from based on platform-specific needs,” he says.

The UCIM also complements another Marine Corps program, the C2 On the Move Network Digital Over the Horizon Relay, known as CONDOR. It is a mobile, vehicle-mounted system designed to provide warfighters with an on-the-move, over-the-horizon communications relay (SIGNAL, April 2004, page 47). CONDOR consists of a gateway unit, a point-of-presence vehicle (PoP-V) and a Jump C2 vehicle. The gateway provides on-the-move, over-the-horizon data connectivity between geographically dispersed clusters of enhanced position location and reporting system (EPLRS) radios. The Pop-V allows Marine Corps maneuver units without EPLRS equipment to connect to the tactical data network through their own radios. “Regardless of what tactical radio they have, they will be able to link into the tactical data network via the point-of-presence vehicle as long as they are within radio line of sight,” the captain maintains.

The program will integrate UCIM modules into CONDOR, but the 10 gateway prototypes are not yet configured for the modules, explains Capt. Dowdy, who is also CONDOR’s project officer. As the program progresses, the UCIM will integrate its command, control, communications and computers components into the CONDOR vehicles.

Although the radios have been issued in significant numbers to Marine Corps ground combat elements, the captain explains that they are not abundant in the service’s Force Service Support Group and aviation units. The PoP-V and other CONDOR systems allow these elements to have greater situational awareness. “We need to provide them [support and aviation units] with the ability to tie into the tactical data network using what they have,” he says.

Maneuver element commanders also can use the Jump C2 capability to maintain synchronization on their servers and to track databases when their tactical radios move beyond line of sight. “They would otherwise lose connectivity and have diminished situational awareness. We are providing them with continuous connectivity to the tactical data network,” Capt. Dowdy says.

Although CONDOR currently operates legacy radios, it is designed to accommodate JTRS equipment once the equipment enters service. The captain observes that during the early part of this transition, the number of JTRS units will be limited and will operate alongside legacy radios. As more JTRS radios are fielded, these legacy systems will be replaced completely. Once fielded in sufficient numbers, JTRS Cluster 1 equipment will become the point of presence for CONDOR, he says.

The Marine Corps is exploring the use of Ku-band satellite communications on the move. CONDOR currently uses the Inmarsat system because of its availability, but recent experiences with other mobile Ku-band equipment have created an interest in integrating this capability into CONDOR, the captain explains. A Ku-band-based system would provide more bandwidth at a significantly reduced operating cost, he adds.

CONDOR is scheduled to enter low rate initial production in fiscal year 2006. However, the 2nd Marine Division recently submitted an urgent-need request for 10 CONDOR systems to use in Iraq. Additional gateway units will be manufactured in 2005 to meet this need, Capt. Dowdy says.

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