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Cell Phones on the Front Lines

The U.S. military and industry are developing a handheld device that will provide warfighters in the battlespace the same capabilities that are the lifeblood of most teenagers in developed countries: texting, data, voice and video-on-demand in the palms of their hands. Creating this information-sharing phenomenon takes more than just handing iPhones out to soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. Because warfighters often operate in places with less-than-ideal infrastructure and need secure channels, delivering these Swiss Army knives of communications gadgets requires stratospheric support.


The Global Observer (GO) is being designed to fly in the stratosphere for up to seven days before needing fuel.
The GO-1 aircraft could carry up to 400 pounds of payload, the GO-2 up to 1,000 pounds. AeroVironment Incorporated, developer of the craft, currently is developing GO-3.

Warfighters get in on texting as well as image and video sharing at the level of the Google generation.

The U.S. military and industry are developing a handheld device that will provide warfighters in the battlespace the same capabilities that are the lifeblood of most teenagers in developed countries: texting, data, voice and video-on-demand in the palms of their hands. Creating this information-sharing phenomenon takes more than just handing iPhones out to soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. Because warfighters often operate in places with less-than-ideal infrastructure and need secure channels, delivering these Swiss Army knives of communications gadgets requires stratospheric support.

Tactical Cellular (TactiCell), the unofficial yet widely adopted name of the project, is one answer to the requirement for such a device identified by the special operations forces community. However, military leadership views it as a valuable commodity for any of the armed services’ small units. Current tactical radio systems are large, complex and do not provide enough bandwidth in a video-dependent environment, military leaders agree. Delivering such a capability requires three components: a handset, equipment that acts as mobile cell towers and a platform to take these cell towers literally to great heights in certain environments.

The handsets—or laptop computers if those are what the user needs—are commercial products. The Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), a component of the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), began pursuing the capability through the JFCOM’s Joint Systems Integration Center (JSIC), which is providing its expertise to the project. The U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command’s (SMDC’s) Space and Missile Defense Battle Lab is working on the high-flying infrastructure needed for the capability to work in mountainous or “concrete canyon” settings.

“No one likes cell phone or connectivity ‘dead zones,’ especially a warfighter at the tactical edge,” explains Col. Frederick Cross, USA, director, JSIC. “For many of our warfighters in Afghanistan and Iraq, the infrastructure needed to provide cell phone connectivity doesn’t exist and the entire field of fire is a [cellular] ‘dead zone.’ We want to fix that, so at JFCOM we’re looking at ways to get greater connectivity to our warfighters at the tactical edge.”

The goal is to produce a handheld device that would initially provide users with 1.8 megabits per second (Mbps) transmit rates and 3.1 Mbps receive rates. As envisioned, eventually this system would offer warfighters 27 Mbps and then 100 Mbps transmit rates, and 73 Mbps and 250 Mbps receive rates in the two follow-on versions.

“Based on previous JSIC work on related capabilities such as command and control on the move, the JSOC approached the JSIC for developmental assistance. Consequently, JSIC engineers and operators integrated various available leading-edge commercial off-the-shelf technologies to develop a cellular broadband-like capability, which creates a mobile cellular broadband network and allows standard mobile devices such as cell phones, personal digital assistants or laptop computers to be connected to that network,” Col. Cross explains.

“Subsequent JSIC assessments validated the concept and proved a cellular broadband-like network would significantly improve warfighter access to needed intelligence and mission-related data. The JSIC expects even greater mobile cellular capabilities will be integrated into cellular broadband in the near future as cellular systems, handheld devices and their applications continue to evolve,” he adds.

In February 2008, the JSOC conducted the first limited user assessment (LUA) combat evaluation of TactiCell. For this successful demonstration, a C-130 Hercules cargo plane provided the cell tower coverage. The second TactiCell combat evaluation LUA focused on assessing the range and resiliency of the cellular waveform. Using a van rather than an aircraft, the demonstration proved that a mobile base station could support users located up to 1.5 miles away. In addition, the second LUA showed that the waveform effectively penetrates foliage and is effective even in rainstorms.

By May of this year, the JSOC conducted the third TactiCell technology LUA to evaluate users’ applications and mobility requirements. A vehicle filled with people using cell phones and cell-enabled laptops followed a van that held the TactiCell system. Distances from the van varied from immediately behind it to two miles away. The results were stellar. Users in the vehicle could surf the Web and pull down streaming video while on the move.

Using WAVE software developed by Twisted Pair Solutions Incorporated, the assessment team also explored radio-to-cell phone connectivity. Radio over Internet protocol (SIGNAL Magazine, November 2006) succeeded, establishing voice communications between AN/PRC-152 radios and cell handsets over the TactiCell network. In addition, secure voice over Internet protocol enabled assessors to make calls from their handsets to telephones on the JSOC red-switch network, and the team successfully conducted secure videoconferencing.

The results from the streaming media test also were good. In this case, the users pulled streaming video—such as that received from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—while on the move and roaming between cell node coverage areas.

An assessment of the LifeRing cell-phone-based common operational picture software and system demonstrated “impressive” results. LifeRing, developed by AGIS Systems Incorporated, can be loaded on Windows Mobile cell phones to track blue forces, identify the location of needed services such as medical centers, provide video streaming, and enable chat and whiteboard collaboration.


Aerostats that would provide broad cell coverage of an area are intended to run on solar power. This approach lightens the load because the craft would not need to carry much—if any—fuel, so they could carry heavier communications payloads.

Qualcomm Incorporated, Western DataCom Company, ViaSat Incorporated and NetMotion Wireless also are among several companies developing some of the TactiCell components. The SMDC’s battle lab experiments division is working on the airship segment of TactiCell. The goal is to ensure that warfighters equipped with TactiCell handheld devices can communicate with each other just as simply as teenagers do for hours every day.

But meeting this goal requires a platform that can take a payload of networking nuts and bolts into the stratosphere, keep it relatively in one place for days on end, bring it down to Earth so the technology can be upgraded, then launch it into the stratosphere again. To maintain continuous communications, at least two platforms would be needed so they could rotate through upgrading.

Several platforms fit this bill: satellites, UAVs and aerostats. Satellites could do the job; however, their numbers are few, they are costly and, once in orbit, they cannot return to Earth to upgrade payloads. Despite these limitations, Lockheed Martin Corporation collaborated with the Defense Information Systems Agency as one of the Coalition Warrior Interoperability Demonstration (CWID) trials. The team developed a hybrid tactical communications system that combines satellite and commercial 3G technologies with legacy military radio networks. The result is the ability to download tactical data from anywhere on the battlefield using smartphones.

UAVs are another option and address the disadvantages of satellites; however, their dwell time is limited, as is their ability to fly in the stratosphere. One exception to the limitations of existing UAVs is the Global Observer. AeroVironment Incorporated, Monrovia, California, has developed several of these unmanned aerial systems (UASs) as part of a joint capability technology demonstration (JCTD) sponsored by a number of U.S. Defense Department organizations, including the U.S. Special Operations Command. The goal is to create an aircraft that can remain airborne at 65,000 feet, where the winds are most benign, for at least seven days. Aircraft testing is scheduled to begin next month; operational payload testing is planned for summer 2010.

In the meantime, however, TactiCell design and development continue. Aerostats, which best can be described as large durable blimps, will act as the platform testbed carrying the communications payload required for long-range capabilities delivery service to the handheld devices.

Jeff Faunce, deputy for experiments, Army Space and Missile Defense Battle Lab, calls the stratospheric platforms the “long pole in the tent” for delivering this handheld device to warfighters. But Faunce allows that, while aerostats are not the ultimate solution to the aerial element of the TactiCell configuration, they make a perfect testbed because they at least provide mobile cell coverage over a particular area. “In that class of vehicle, up in the stratosphere, we are hopefully closer rather than further away [from a solution],” he states.

That vote of confidence is good news considering that the TactiCell interoperability trial almost literally did not get off the ground during CWID in June. The trial’s sponsors were using an aerostat as the aerial testbed for the demonstration, but immediately after launch, the blimp fell out of the sky.

The concept for high-altitude aerostats has been discussed and some actually have been on the drawing board for some time. Work began as an advanced concept technology demonstration, but it was put on hold for approximately two and a half years as component technologies, specifically the power plant and skin, were being further developed. “Now those component technologies have matured to the point where they just have to put it together and fly it. That’s where the risk remains. It is a matter of ‘OK, how does this all work together up in the stratosphere?’” Faunce explains. The SMDC’s technical center in Redstone Arsenal, Huntsville, Alabama, in collaboration with Lockheed Martin Corporation’s unit located in Akron, Ohio, is responsible for this piece of the project, he adds.

“TactiCell at this point is more of an aerostat-based system because the payload that’s involved with this particular generation that the folks at Western DataCom have worked with Qualcomm on is almost too heavy to lift into the stratosphere,” Faunce notes. “But, if Global Observer works effectively and the HALE-D works effectively, I think that there will be a meeting of downsizing the payload and maturing of the platforms to the point where they can lift something a little heavier.”

The game changing feature of stratospheric platforms is their dwell time, “the ability to stay up there, in the case of Global Observer for five days, and in the case of some of the airships for months and months,” he adds. Once again, the challenge is weight. The Global Hawk UAV, for example, can stay on station for more than 30 hours; however, it flies using a jet engine that requires fuel. The Global Observer also requires fuel, but is using liquid hydrogen so it can stay on station for a longer period of time.

“The airships are intended to run on solar power. [They are designed to] have solar panels along the skin of the airship to gather that energy that will allow them to persist much, much longer up in the stratosphere,” Faunce explains.

Philip Ardire, president, Western DataCom, Westlake, Ohio, emphasizes that the TactiCell project is not a commercial product but rather a stop-gap measure until the Joint Tactical Radio System is up and running. Western DataCom puts the cell switch on the aerostat. In fact, he coined the term Aerocell to describe the system.

When the airship is cruising at an altitude of 1,000 feet, cell coverage extends 11 miles; Ardire believes that at 3,000 feet, coverage could reach a 30-mile radius. This would be advantageous not only on the battlefield but also in emergency situations such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and disaster recovery after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, he points out.

Ardire explains that the system can be used up to the Top Secret level with cell phones that feature the High Assurance Internet Protocol Encryptor, or HAIPE, certified by the National Security Agency for communications over the secret Internet protocol router network.

Some issues remain to be resolved before the Aerocell system truly can take flight on the battlefield. Verizon and Sprint—or their counterparts in other countries—own the area of the spectrum that the military services would use; funds will be required to pay the cell vendor in a timely manner to activate it for training and usage purposes. In addition, the external Global Positioning System unit on the handset will need to be turned on to support handheld device-based blue force tracking.

According to Ardire, after the final Defense Department Interoperability Communications Exercise, or DICE, in October, the system will move on to final certification and be introduced onto the battlefield. Final certification is expected in January 2010. The company also has spoken with U.S. Northern Command representatives to offer the service for first responders during relief work.

U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command: www.smdc.army.mil
Joint Systems Integration Center: www.jfcom.mil/about/com_jsic.htm
Western DataCom Company: www.western-data.com
AeroVironment Incorporated: www.avinc.com