Military Services Follow Dissimilar Paths Toward Digital Communications

By Stew Magnuson
SAN DIEGO — The dream is to push streaming video and the Internet throughout the battlefield.

Air Force pilots want to see what’s happening on the ground. Army commanders want to receive live images from unmanned aircraft above or from sensors around the next corner while in a moving armored vehicle. Navy captains want to see what’s happening beyond the curvature of the Earth.

All three services have programs in different stages of development that are designed to bring digital communications to the battlefield.

The Army is in the second phase of testing its “war fighter information network-tactical,” or WIN-T. The Air Force is funding the family of advanced beyond line-of-sight terminals (FAB-T) that may one day be installed in a wide range of aircraft. The Navy is working on a multi-band network radio — called SeaLancet by its manufacturer — that will move high bandwidth communications around in the maritime domain.

In the civilian world, commercial networks are already providing such services to customers who are “on-the-move.” A businessman can connect his computer to the Internet in an airport in Dallas, get on an airplane and fly to New York, and have the same connectivity when he arrives.

The military wants the same. The difference is that commercial systems’ infrastructures stay in one place. The armed services need systems where both the “customer” and the infrastructure providing the broadband links are on the move, explained Bill Weiss, vice president of tactical networks at General Dynamics.

“That mobile network introduces complexity that commercial industry doesn’t need to worry about,” he said.

But will these three systems one day be able to communicate with each other? And therefore, realize the dream of a “joint” world where an Army commander can send and receive what he sees to whomever he wants in the land, sea or air.

Maybe. Vendors at the Milcom conference here had only a passing familiarity with each other’s programs — if any at all.

The military communications world has been notorious for creating “stovepipes” — more sarcastically known as “cylinders of excellence” — where systems cannot link to each other.
It’s not impossible to make these systems talk to each other, it’s just that no one is currently asking them to do it, said David White, FAB-T program manager at Boeing.

“You can imagine a mission in the future where you want to have an Air Force jet and a Navy platform communicate directly,” White said.

Added Leo Conboy, Boeing’s deputy director of wideband communications and RF systems group: “Just because we don’t have a current requirement, doesn’t mean we can’t do it.”
“I don’t know enough about WIN-T. They might be on a different [satellite] constellation,” he said.

The FAB-T program is designed to create a network to support a family of satellite communications terminals for airborne, ground-fixed and ground transportable on-the-move vehicles. “What we’re providing is the ability to get satellite connectivity on these platforms at a much higher data rate than they’ve ever had in the past,” said Conboy.

The first generation of low-data rate FAB-T terminals were scheduled to be delivered at the end of 2008 to the Air Force. They were to be installed on two B-52 Stratofortresses, a B-2 bomber, three E-4B advanced airborne command posts, a RC-135 Rivet Joint Reconnaissance aircraft and the E-6 Mercury communications aircraft.

In this first increment, low data rate communications will be sent through the aging Milstar satellites. Increments two and three are aligned to capitalize on the capabilities of the advanced EHF (extremely high frequency) and the transformational-satellite (T-Sat) program, which has a cloudy future.

As these new satellite systems come online, and are able to provide more bandwidth, the Air Force will be able to install new software without needing to swap out the terminals.
That way, the Air Force “is not locked into hardware that was designed 10 years ago,” Conboy said.

The Air Force is shooting for March 2011 to install this advanced capacity in the terminals.

“Increment 2 is in a little bit of state of flux right now,” Conboy said, as the Air Force waits for these new satellites to make it into orbit. Both FAB-T and WIN-T will rely on a series of new military communications satellites to meet their full potential.

Advanced EHF will be a constellation of three — or possibly four if Congress decides to fund it — satellites that are designed to initially augment, and then replace the current Milstar system.

The first AEHF satellite is scheduled for launch early this year. But that date has slipped several times.

“I see this as a major spigot that allows you to get back to [the continental United States] at a very high data rate,” Conboy said of the AEHF satellites.

Long-range plans call for installing terminals that will be able to tap into the Defense Department’s global information grid in nearly 70 different Air Force, Special Operations Command, Marine Corps and Navy aircraft — manned and unmanned.

A third increment is envisioned for the T-Sat system, which is designed to dramatically boost the amount of bandwidth that can be pushed to the lower echelons by using powerful Ku-band transponders.

That program, however, is on hold after the Air Force encountered a series of budget and technological hurdles, said Defense Department officials at the conference (see accompanying story).

WIN-T, the Army’s high-speed mobile communications network system, will also rely on T-Sat in its last iteration, said Weiss. The first increment, the joint network node, which provides communications but in stationary positions, has almost been completely fielded throughout the Army, Army Reserves and National Guard, he added.

Meanwhile, tests continue on the second and third increments.

WIN-T will provide satellite communication on-the-move. The commander “maintains situational awareness” regardless of whether  he is traveling in a Stryker, a Bradley or a humvee, Weiss said.

General Dynamics and the Army wrapped up engineering tests for the second increment in November at Fort Huachuca, Ariz.
A limited users test is scheduled to take place at Fort Lewis, Wash., in March. Weiss said General Dynamics is hoping for a green light to go ahead with production of the system this summer.

WIN-T will also rely heavily on the next generation of communication satellites.
The system will allow a senior brigade officer zooming down a highway in a command-and-control vehicle to receive streaming video shot from an unmanned aerial vehicle, for example.

Most of these links should be made automatically.

“One of the things were doing with WIN-T is to reduce or eliminate the amount of work a signal solder needs to do to keep his communication links up and running,” Weiss added.
Weiss also didn’t know much about what his counterparts at Boeing are doing with FAB-T.

“I’m not sure if we will ever have a direct link between a WIN-T terminal on the ground and a FAB-T in the air, but I’m not sure that’s even necessary,” he said.
Interoperability with the other services is a requirement, he said.

“The fact that all the services are going toward using Internet protocol (IP) as the basic underlying networking infrastructure and approach has greatly improved interoperability so that IP layer, that interconnectivity, always exists,” he noted.

At a brigade command post, it doesn’t necessarily mean the officers have a direct connection back to a strategic location in the United States. But it probably does mean they have to connect to a Marine Corps unit sitting right next to them, he added.

“That kind of connectivity and interoperability, we provide,” Weiss said.

The Navy, through the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center and its lead contractor Harris Corp., has developed the RT-1944/U IP network radio that will allow it to send high bandwidth data to ships, aircraft, unmanned surface and aerial vehicles as well as gateway buoys, said Brian Wetzel, business development manager at Harris.

The SeaLancet system is designed to support the littoral combat ship.

Despite moving toward the same networked enabled, high-bandwidth goal, the three services have different needs. WIN-T, for example, must be able to operate in urban areas with high buildings.

In the maritime environment, commanders want to receive live, streaming video from beyond the curvature of the Earth. Sensor data, live video, chat voice over Internet can move over long distances using a network of nodes. A boarding party could send live video back to a command ship in one scenario.

These nodes might be on the Firescout unmanned aerial vehicle, a rotary-wing aircraft slated for use aboard the LCS, he said.

 “That’s important for anti-submarine and anti-mine warfare missions where the LCS needs to be at a standoff distances,” Wetzel said. SPAWAR is mapping out a plan to make SeaLancet a program of record, Wetzel said.

This system must be able to withstand the rigors of the harsh maritime environment, Wetzel said.

The radio can be submerged under one meter of water for 30 minutes without any leaks, he noted.

As for connecting to other service’s networks, the Coast Guard is interested in the system, he noted, and it would be a good fit as its mission is similar to the Navy’s. The Internet protocol makes it easier to connect to other systems if that’s called for, Wetzel said. 

Topics: C4ISR, Tactical Communications, Defense Department

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