Commercial technology rides to the rescue

In the past, the deployment of military equipment involved lengthy development cycles to create the devices, security and resilience that forces require. However, as the range of communications services available in the commercial market has proliferated, much of the functionality they need is already available off-the-shelf at radically reduced cost and in a much shorter timeframe

Commercial technology rides to the rescue

Armed forces today are turning to commercial off the-shelf (COTS) equipment and systems but it is a substantial psychological and cultural shift for the defence sector to make, especially since little more than a decade ago, military technology was regarded as the most advanced available.

Wu‘The situation has moved from the military leading on technological changes to create state-of-the-art systems,’ explains Chris McIntosh, CEO of ViaSat UK and a former lieutenant colonel in the British Army’s Royal Corps of Signals.

‘Military systems were seen as the best in the market 15 years ago but technology has advanced so quickly that militaries have tried to invest in extremely complex systems and failed. That has led to commercial systems that have proven technology being used. The main reason for that is the complexity of current and future systems and, if you look at military procurement, it isn’t surprising that projects such as Bowman [the British military Combat Net Radio system] ended up delivering very little and being extremely late.’

Unforeseen situation

COTS products are becoming more and more popular with defence forces, although there is a reluctance to turn away from long-established bespoke systems. ‘The trend towards COTS products is increasing because of the sophistication, reliability and value performance they offer,’ says Kamal Mokrani, VP of global sales and marketing at Infinet Wireless.

‘These now cover surveillance devices, broadband wireless radio equipment and wireless routers. LTE and a new generation of high capacity IP-based microwave or millimetric radio systems from 3GHz to over 70GHz will enable cost-effective, flexible backhaul infrastructure that can offload the massive increase in data and video traffic,’ adds Mokrani.

COTS products can’t hope to provide the total, military-specific capabilities of bespoke systems, but given the lengthy gestation and hugely increased cost of bespoke development of systems such as the Bowman radio system, COTS is recognised as the pragmatic approach.

‘Budget constraints are forcing a good enough rather than optimum purchasing approach,’ says Nick Hill, head of defence group at design consultancy Plextek. ‘If there’s a COTS or MOTS (modifiable-off-the-shelf) system out there that can deliver 80% of what is needed, go with that as opposed to paying for a bespoke system that delivers 100% against requirements.

‘Tablet computers and mobile phones are used by the dismounted soldier because they do a job very effectively at low cost. They are not ruggedised, waterproof or secure, but great on size, weight and power, which are increasingly important issues to the overburdened soldier. Battery variety and charging is an increasingly important issue, as the number of electronic devices in use increases,’ adds Hill.

All types of technology are in play and, where commercial technologies may not be secure or robust enough, alterations can be made. ‘We have specific offerings for the military including features such as anti-jamming [of signals],’ says Emmanuel Chambrier, head of the tactical systems solutions department at Thales.

Best solution

‘We’re also looking at technology coming from the civilian world. For example, WiMAX broadband capabilities could benefit military forces and since the beginning of the year we have been moving to LTE technologies. LTE can be employed and can be used to provide supplementary coverage. Security is a consideration and we need to improve the security of information with LTE,’ says Chambrier.

COTS systems are being deployed not just to save cost – they can also offer the best solution. ‘Commercial companies demand state-of-the-art technology and even those in industries such as oil and gas are using data rates that are far superior to those the military requires,’ adds ViaSat’s McIntosh. ‘Infrastructure costs are absolutely immense so the military has a very hard business case for creating a bespoke system.’

Commercial and bespoke systems are coming together anyway. ‘In terms of equipment there are commercial users that want military-grade solutions and military users that want commercial prices, so the two systems end up coming together and we end up with families of products that are very similar, it’s only the software that really is different,’ adds McIntosh.

McIntosh also points out that commercialisation has become inevitable as former defence development agencies have been commercialised to offset the development costs of military systems. COTS also enables forces to offer the same sort of functionality that users expect from their consumer devices. Much as new recruits to police forces are surprised by the lack of functionality offered by VHF police radios, so too are the latest generation of army recruits, who are used to consumer smartphones and tablets in civilian life.

Giles Peeters, defence sector director at satellite communications provider Track24, spent 19 years in the military, serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, and sees attitudes towards COTS shifting. ‘My last posting was in helicopter command where I solely led the tactical communications for 16 Brigade,’ says Peeters. ‘I had to look at the capability gaps [that existed] after millions of pounds had been spent on Bowman and try to address them.

‘Cost is absolutely important and for military people like me it is important to gain the understanding that COTS equipment is reliable and robust enough for what we need. I led a project to put a voice and tracking system in all our helicopters and actually it does work, which is why I fully believe in COTS equipment.’

Clive Newport, senior business development manager at Hughes Europe, agrees: ‘The cost reduction is phenomenal in terms of the end user equipment on the ground – it’s almost an order of magnitude – but COTS uptake is also being driven by functionality and ever increasing demand for higher throughputs such as video data,’ he says. ‘Also, there’s the expectation – people are used to broadband and want it to be available on the battlefield.’

Costs plummeting

Peeters sees device costs plummeting: ‘COTS equipment is now much more reliable and factors such as the tablet explosion mean you can now get a Panasonic military spec tablet for $900 (£578),’ he adds.

‘At Track24, we provide solutions that go into vehicles and the satellite part is relatively low cost. When I sell to customers, I have to sell a Windows app and suddenly someone tells me I have to buy a $5,000 or $6,000 Panasonic Toughbook PC, for example. That makes the cost base radically higher but with the tablet explosion, we get a device that does the same thing for $1,000.’

He gives the example of a NATO deployment of a tracking system involving 1,500 vehicles that previously could have cost $20m with a recurring cost of $10m now being delivered with similar functionality, but using cheaper equipment. ‘Suddenly, you can do 5,000 vehicles for $5m,’ adds Peeters.

For Newport, it’s not just COTS devices that are becoming acceptable – commercial connectivity is also being used on the battlefield. ‘Fifteen years ago it was all military satellites with secure capacity, now the situation has flipped and most deployed capacity in Iraq and Afghanistan is commercial,’ he says.

‘It brings with it huge capabilities like bandwidth management and sophisticated command and control, as well as [easier] interoperability between coalition partner networks.’

Communication change

McIntosh has also seen that shift. ‘Data has become the main means of communication,’ he says. ‘Satellite, which used to go only to the headquarters, now goes to the platoon level and lower. The demand profile has changed considerably.’

While approaches to technology specification are starting to change, what is expected of the technology itself is also altering. ‘We are doing military operations differently now,’ explains Peeters. ‘The last conventional warfare was taking back Kuwait and forces now need to be able to operate anywhere at any time.

‘For instance, in Afghanistan there are platoon houses that involve 50 soldiers taking a village that could be 100 miles from any communications infrastructure. For situations like that, satellite is the only way forward. Communications beyond the line of sight is the number one gap that the British Ministry of Defence recognises and I think the trend will be towards satellite because it is so low cost now.’

The changing nature of warfare has created a need for different approaches to battlefield communications. ‘We need flexible and agile systems because in the main, forces don’t know where they’re going to be deployed [in future],’ adds ViaSat’s McIntosh.

For Patrick Heuline at Thales Communications, that flexibility and agility has to be provided from the device upwards: ‘If you want to cover the needs of the military highly rapidly you have to get to a small form factor. The idea is not to take commercial technology as it is, but to integrate it in a smart way.’

US Marine Corps deploys in-theatre Xirrus wireless networking throughout Pacific bases

MarForPac, or the Marine Forces Pacific, is the largest field command in the US Marine Corps and services more than 74,000 troops. With the proliferation of wireless-enabled devices, having a reliable, secure and robust wireless network has become a strategic part of MarForPac’s IT planning and is critical to improving connectivity efficiencies, expanding wireless services and controlling IT expenditures.

After an extensive evaluation, Xirrus was awarded a multimillion-dollar Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity contract (IDIQ) to provide high performance wireless products and develop in-theatre wireless networking solutions for the Marines. The Marines required a wireless network that was able to securely extend access to the wired network, SIPRNet (Secure IP Routed Network), for file access, email, and other bandwidth-intensive applications.

The Marines also wanted a more streamlined network, with more bandwidth and coverage, both of which are core elements of the Xirrus infrastructure. Compared to conventional thin APs and closet controller technology, Xirrus Arrays integrate four to 16 radios, high-grain directional antennas, a multi-gigabit switch, controller, firewall, and threat sensor into a single access device.

By design, this architecture provides four times the coverage and up to eight times the bandwidth of its wired counterpart.

ViaSat real-time network management for airborne intelligence

ViaSat has fielded its Satellite Access Manager (SAM), a new broadband satcom service manager for military airborne ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) operations. SAM is providing US forces throughout the Middle East with dramatically higher bandwidth utilisation and efficiency, as well as higher data rates and increased signal-to-noise performance.

SAM is a real-time network monitoring system for ViaSat ArcLight 2 mobile satellite broadband terminals.

The system enables network managers to provision multiple remote users on an airborne network within a common bandwidth pool, and provides dynamic assignment of bandwidth and communications priority to high-value platforms as they begin missions.

In addition, manual overrides can reassign satellite channels in real time to support changing mission requirements. SAM is primarily for Department of Defence missions, which have very different requirements compared to commercial network customers who share capacity while using the ViaSat Yonder global mobile service.

Airborne on-the-move (OTM) satellite communication faces challenges in providing adequate, dedicated bandwidth for ISR missions, including roaming across multiple beams, and using multiple satellite transponders – some with inclined orbits.

Thales NEXIUM Theatre

Thales Defence and Security C4I Systems division has developed NEXIUM Theatre, which is a unified networking solution to provide deployed and mobile forces with voice, data and video services. The system uses field-proven COTS and MOTS equipment on open architectures.

The concept involves deploying the latest transmission technologies such as SATCOM On-The-Move capabilities, Line-of-Sight (LOS), Combat Net Radio (CNR) integration and PMR based on the LTE 4G standards to link up everything from tactical headquarters to the dismounted soldier using various types of integrated communications nodes.

The solution integrates broadband PMR and smartphones into the tactical networks. The solutions are consistent with legacy networks and combat net radios and meet the military’s security requirements. Military users can now benefit from services in the pocket (voice, real-time video, location of soldiers, remote access to the database, etc.) wherever they are on the field.

For example, by deploying an LTE antenna from some form of integrated communication node (vehicle-mounted or temporary field station) wireless broadband can be supplied to users in the field up to 20km away with up to 100Mbps of shared throughput. ‘We are providing more mobility and higher data rates to soldiers in the field,’ says Thales’ Emmanuel Chambrier.

The aim, says Chambrier, is to eventually combine the combat net radios and broadband terminals onto one device under an LTE umbrella. If the soldiers go out of broadband range, they can still communicate via satellite on the VHF or UHF combat net radio part of the device, thereby providing an extension to LTE in the field.

Hughes supports Australian Defence Force satellite programme

Hughes Network Systems has supported the Australian Defence Force (ADF) over the past 18 months through a series of technology trials analysing the effects of transitioning from legacy Frequency Division Multiple Access (FDMA) systems to an Internet Protocol (IP) Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA) architecture.

The trials were conducted across ADF satellite payloads in X- and Ku-band utilising the Hughes HX System of fixed and transportable gateways, the HX280 satellite broadband router, and advanced network management system, HX ExpertNMSTM.

Supporting the rigorous requirements and deployment needs of the ADF, the HX280 is capable of star and mesh operation, mobility, and is certified to Federal Information Processing Standards (FIPS) 140-2 Level 2 for physical and Transmission Security (TRANSEC); it is currently finalising WGS certification in the US.

The trials successfully integrated and deployed star and mesh networks, demonstrating enhanced security and encryption, dynamic routing, traffic prioritisation, and varying quality of service levels as part of the TDMA technology evaluation.

Under the scope of the contract, Hughes also provided a series of training sessions tailored for the ADF that included simulated mission scenarios and operational environments to test both trainees and the capabilities of the HX System. The trials made use of Hughes-integrated tactical VSAT systems from a variety of industry leaders including L-3 Communications, GigaSat, Globecomm, Cobham TracStar, Rockwell Collins and Norsat International Inc.

Written by Wireless magazine
Wireless magazine

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