Communications Kit Enables Rapid, On-the-Go Interoperability
Mobile field operations are enabled
by a compact, lightweight unit
that takes mere minutes to set up.
A new mobile operations fusion kit that provides easy, rapid and on-the-go interoperability for mobile field operations and communications piqued the interest recently of the U.S. Marine Corps’ research and development community. It was impressed by the technology that proved successful in interoperability testing in June. Known as Operations Fusion Kit 2.0, the unit is a multimedia communications system bundled into a compact, lightweight, waterproof, ruggedized Pelican carrying case that enables secure voice, full-motion video and information sharing on a global, real-time basis.
Operations Fusion Kit (OFK) 2.0 underwent intensive testing at the Joint Users Interoperability Communications Exercise (JUICE) in June at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, where it proved reliable, rapid and successful, says David S. Goosman, director of the Architecture and Interoperability Certification Division for the Marine Corps Systems Command. “During JUICE 2014, we successfully exchanged situational awareness messages between U.S., NATO [special operations forces], Dutch and German dismounted soldier systems and then bridged that network into the U.S. Marine Corps national system,” Goosman relates. “This not only allowed the soldiers and Marines on the ground to share situational awareness data, but their national chains of command can now see this critical information as well. In the past, this data would have taken hours to travel manually up a national chain and back down again. Now it can happen instantly.”
Mutualink Incorporated, based in Wallingford, Connecticut, developed the device so that it transmits encrypted data through secure Internet connections via virtual private networks (VPNs). Essentially, it can be one tunnel inside another tunnel over the Internet and encrypted as well. “The ability to link coalition partners through a Mutualink gateway with a cross-domain solution significantly simplifies the architecture of tactical communication needs,” Goosman explains.
“It’s a piece of equipment that can seamlessly connect any kind of communication or multimedia equipment that do not normally speak to each other,” says Col. Sonny Blinkinsop, USAF (Ret.), director of Mutualink Defense Services. “Mutualink allows it to talk to each other, communicate with each other over secure means and on an ad hoc radio system. … The thing that’s unique about Mutualink, and we’re the only company that provides this capability, is we do not use a central server. Since there is no server, no one controls or stores the data,” he says. “The problem with a central server is that somebody controls that central server. ... I’m just giving out a hypothetical situation here, but if the U.S. is controlling that central server, the coalition guy might be less likely to offer up his resources or his communication equipment knowing that somebody on the other end is able to control that or see what is coming through the pipe.
“So the data is encrypted at [advanced encryption standard] AES 256, the little packets of information, and those travel through an AES 256 tunnel that’s wrapped up in another AES 256 tunnel. So nobody can touch that tunnel, and you have, basically, point-to-point security between you and whom you’re talking to. It’s a very unique way to do it, and we’re the only ones to do it without a central server.”
The kit is equipped with a military-standard 810G multimedia laptop, including microphone and speaker headset, an on-board rechargeable power supply and connectivity for up to four different radios and communications assets in the field.
The technology is both network and device agnostic, Blinkinsop asserts. “We can run that IP … over triple scatter, over satellite, we can send it over the Ethernet, a white Internet, just a basic Internet like your Comcast or Cox, or whatever you’ve got. We can run it over IP radios. You name it, we can do it.
“Being device agnostic, we’ll take whatever [the end users] have,” Blinkinsop continues. “In some cases, special forces and some other specialized units are deploying with tablets that have communication devices and software on there that helps them accomplish their mission. We would give them the ability to use that platform … and join into a collaboration session.”
The system also has the ability to strip out sensitive or classified information and convert the data being transmitted to an unclassified format if warranted, another appeal of the technology for the Marine Corps, Goosman explains. “It can take the host system’s information, whatever format it was in, and exchange it into a format that is readable by the other side. Filters are built in, predescribed and formatted to be able to pass certain messages. It is quite restrictive on what it allows to pass.”
The devastating 2010 earthquake that ravaged Haiti spurred, in part, the need for a multimedia gateway communications system proficient in connecting different radios with different frequencies and different communications capabilities. “The different first responders who came out and our [Defense Department] partners who were there at the same time were trying to interface together and that was a challenge,” says John Kahler, chief of the joint on-demand interoperability network (JOIN) for the U.S. Army’s Communications-Electronics Command (CECOM) at Aberdeen Proving Ground. “That’s really where the birth of this requirement came from.”
“The issue is when you try to merge these capabilities together into one activity … and trying to merge those together so they can communicate is a challenge,” Kahler explains. “It’s not cost effective for organizations, particularly for the [Defense Department], to go out and buy radios every time they deploy to a different location. It’s really not effective for responders or warfighters to carry around two different radios on themselves. It just does not make sense.”
The technology performed well at the recent JUICE event, impressing NATO officials and representatives from U.S. federal agencies such as Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Transportation Security Administration, Kahler reports. “What the multimedia gateway had to do for us was it had to integrate different radios with different [communications security] and different frequencies and seamlessly allow them to be able to communicate, both locally and remotely. … We integrated different radios from different forces, different nations, and no one had to go out and buy new radios or different equipment … to make that happen.
“The event was very successful and the coalition partners that were involved were extremely happy with the results, and the government agencies that participated also were extremely happy with the results because it answers the big question for them,” Kahler continues. “They don’t have to go out now and purchase different radios to make them work together. We don’t have to develop a new system with multiple frequencies to talk together,” Kahler says. “That’s an important thing to consider when you’re going into third-world nations and things like that where all they have is radio communication.”
Different versions of multimedia gateways exist. In order for multiple agencies or coalition partners to successfully communicate, they all need to use the same gateway technology.
OFK 2.0 entered the technology market earlier this summer. “Even though it’s a great piece of equipment, there are already things we’re looking to improve,” Blinkinsop says, adding that the company would like to make it smaller and lighter in weight. Fully packed, the device, measuring slightly larger than a carry-on piece of luggage, weighs 55 pounds. It can be powered via internal battery, plugged into traditional wall electrical sockets and vehicle electrical sockets, or powered by generator or by using a solar blanket.
“Anytime you can have a small package that is easily deployable and doesn’t take a whole lot of set-up time, that’s an advantage for tactical forces that are on the move,” Goosman says. “It sets up very fast, almost as fast as turning on your computer. … It really is that simple to set up. It doesn’t require extensive set-up time or even a lot of experience with the equipment. It’s pretty intuitive.”
It takes mere minutes to power up the inner operability workstation and secure an Internet connection, Blinkinsop explains. “We designed it that way on purpose. When you’re in a stressful situation, the last thing you need to do is try to put together a very difficult piece of equipment. The plug-and-play and the intuitive displays we have make it very simple for the soldier, Marine, first responder to get in there and start operating right away without having to read a lot of instructions and set of manuals.”
The device can run on high frequency (HF) radio, ultra high frequency (UHF) radio and very high frequency (VHF) radio ranges, and all at the same time. “All of [the connected] radios now can talk to each other, even though they are on different frequencies and different channels, different encryption,” Blinkinsop says. “No matter what you have, they can communicate with each other through our kit. And the beauty is, they can also communicate 10 miles away or 3,000 miles away to somebody on the other end doing the same thing.
“So now my HF radio that I’m talking on can talk to a guy 3,000 miles away on UHF radio or VHF radio,” he continues. “That is very powerful. And to add to that, this kit also has a telephone connection, so I can talk on my HF radio and talk to a guy on his cellphone 3,000 miles away.”
The device also features video capability and can take information from an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platform and move it across the network.
FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security also reviewed the device’s technology to see if it might be compatible with the jobs of first responders, such as emergency medical technicians, police and firefighters. In a natural disaster or following an attack, communications and power supplies usually are the first assets to come offline. “One of the first things you want to do in a humanitarian assistance or disaster relief type of scenario is you want to create and establish communications as quickly as possible so you can start bringing people in and start sharing what’s happening on the scene with the folks outside the area so they know what to bring, and they bring the right thing on the first try,” Blinkinsop says.
“We call it a fusion kit, but it’s really a tactical operations center in a box,” Blinkinsop adds. “You can drop that into a disaster area, get everybody who is showing up with all their different types of radios and telephones and things to connect to a small mobile kit, and you can establish communications immediately.”