Industry Viewpoint: Five Essential Networking-On-The-Move Capabilities

By Charlie Kawasaki

Photo: Defense Dept.

In battlefield environments, the fight does not stop just because a warfighter is moving. Doing so would put them at a distinct disadvantage if they cannot maintain situational awareness at all times.

Information dominance requires networking-on-the-move capabilities that enable warfighters to stay on top of complex threat environments.

The Marine Corps Networking-on-the-Move Increment 1 Refresh program is an example of an integrated tactical mobile network working to effectively leverage proven commercial and government technology to expand and enhance communications capabilities. Combat vehicles integrated with networking-on-the-move equipment provide on-the-move communications, mission command and situational awareness from anywhere on the battlefield and in even the most remote environments and challenging terrains.

To ensure that warfighters can fully leverage networking-on-the-move for mission success, there are five essential capabilities that such implementations should deliver.

One is the ability to handle rugged terrain. “On-the-move” is a term that can be liberally interpreted, but suffice to say soldiers operating in complex environments are not often cruising down well-paved roads at 35 miles per hour. For that reason, networking-on-the-move systems must be able to handle a variety of expected and unforeseen situations vehicles encounter.

For example, when traversing rugged terrain, the vehicle can experience a high level of shock and vibration, and networking-on-the-move systems must be able to stand up to that abuse so that communications are not interrupted.

In the past, methods to deploy access to tactical networks have included commercial-off-the-shelf equipment designed for data-center environments. This type of equipment is not typically intended for tactical or networking-on-the-move applications and was often only suitable for use when vehicles remained stationary.

A new generation of ruggedized COTS equipment is now available that makes networking-on-the-move more reliable, while continuing to maintain interoperability with enterprise networking equipment, ensuring end-to-end communications.

The second capability is addressing full mobility needs in constrained spaces. Mobility ultimately drives networking-on-the-move, but the amount of available real estate within ground vehicles and aircraft does not change. This means vendors must deliver an increasingly advanced set of networking capabilities in a constrained environment that will never grow. In fact, along with increasing demands on communications systems to provide more capability, such as Wi-Fi or LTE in the field, comes the side effect of networking systems consuming more space.

As a result, full mobility demands innovation and modernization designed to reduce size, weight and power requirements. In this realm, all else being equal, communications equipment can never be too small, too light or too power efficient.

Number three is to meet stringent vehicle requirements. Defense solutions must meet high standards of environmental testing for shock, vibration and temperature. Compliance with third-party testing to MIL-STD-810G and MIL-STD-461F are critical to assure reliability in actual operations in remote or mission-critical settings. These standards are increasingly relevant as the Defense Department increases adoption of COTS technologies in lieu of purpose-built military only products, in order to benefit from the commercial world’s rapid pace of technology advancement and cost-saving economies of scale.

"Communications systems have become increasingly complex to configure, manage and operate..."

Requirements for ground vehicles are stringent. New networking-on-the-move capabilities available to warfighters reflect evolving vehicle requirements. Thankfully, new airworthy systems are delivering higher physical density — amount of network functionality per cubic inch — more processing capability to collapse software application stacks onto a single server, and compliance with stringent security and encryption standards.

It is important that networking-on-the-move systems can be standardized across vehicle types. Communications mobility comes into play here as well, as warfighters benefit from the ability to take systems from one vehicle to another as needed, or simply take the system out of the vehicle for use on the ground, enabling them to use the same system whether in-transit or in-theater, reducing setup time, compatibility and training issues.

Number four is delivering real-time visibility. It is natural to assume that networking capabilities while on-the-move are most critical in theater when preparing for or engaging with adversaries. It is true this is very important. However, soldiers and personnel also require this capability to ensure efficient supply and logistics operations. The ability to communicate needs for ammunition and other supplies in real-time — as opposed to waiting for at-the-halt — ensures that soldiers have the supplies they need, when they need them.

Another key use of networking-on-the-move is the ability for troops to share situational awareness and command and control between vehicles in a convoy on the move. The benefits of this are obvious, and as more information moves to IP-based systems, networking-on-the-move must be deployed to ensure access to real-time information at all times.

And finally, number five is an intuitive user interface. While small sized, rugged COTS equipment that can stand up to punishment is becoming available, one thing has not changed: the complexity of managing the dizzying array of technology required to make all of the equipment work as an integrated system.

To make matters worse, communications systems have become increasingly complex to configure, manage and operate due to the need to integrate more types of technology such as wireless, advanced security, streaming video and new applications, all from multiple vendors. As a result, the myriad of user interfaces and options confronting warfighters increase training requirements, make configuration more error-prone and lengthen setup times.

To combat this trend, programs deploying networking-on-the-move must consider an intuitive interface that users can operate with minimal training to ensure mission success. The interface should consolidate the setup, configuration, management and troubleshooting of the vendor-diverse array of networking equipment and software found on these mobile platforms.

Due to advances in miniaturization of enterprise-class technology into small form factor solutions that can withstand the punishment that vehicle-mounted use cases dish out, networking-on-the-move is well on the way to deployment and can continue to advance in the face of its challenging environments.

By selecting solutions with the essential capabilities described above, programs can ensure their success even as new demands and applications continue to roll out.

Charlie Kawasaki is chief technology officer for PacStar, a Portland, Oregon-based provider of hardware and software communications products for commercial and military customers.

Topics: Battlefield Communications, C4ISR

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