Future combat net radio

Dr Dave Sloggett takes a look at the options for the future combat net radio system for the British Army and reflects on how wireless technologies may have an increasing role

Future combat net radio

The British Army is going through a period of massive change. The final draw down of the deployment in Afghanistan will be complete at the end of 2014. The downsizing of the regular army alongside an increased emphasis upon the use of reservists is also changing its structure. 

With so much blood and treasure having been invested in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan, the political tide has shifted against the interventionist strategy that led to the British Army being on almost constant deployments overseas for the last 30 years. 

This is an important moment. It is an opportunity to take stock and really learn some lessons from the lengthy period of conflict in which the Army has been engaged. It is also a chance to define what sort of operations the British Army will conduct in the future and look carefully at the equipment it will need to conduct those activities. One specific area that is the subject of current studies is the type of Combat Net Radio (CNR) that will replace the Bowman system that has been in service since 2004. 

Bowman’s route to its initial introduction into service was tortuous. A period of nearly fifteen years elapsed from the initial conception of the need to replace the analogue Clansman system with a digitally-based CNR to the point where it was declared ready for operations. Even then it had a number of operational issues that, from the commentary emerging from senior levels in the army, could hardly be described as teething problems. 

In the end a pragmatic approach was adopted and the army was told to make the most of what they had been given. Through an incremental approach, the operational problems have gradually been overcome and today Bowman is widely seen as a good system. In Afghanistan it has come of age. According to statements emerging from the British Army it is due to remain in service until at least 2026. However, given its history, it is right for the Ministry of Defence to have already started to look at its replacement. 

COTS development

That, however, is not a straightforward task. Any system that entered service in 2027 (say) would be due to remain in service until 2050. How technology may unfold in that period is difficult to predict. Unlike the bespoke development approach taken to Bowman, any future CNR is bound to rely heavily on commercial off the shelf (COTS) developments. It will be important for its end users to be able to rapidly understand how the CNR system operates. 

The more it looks and feels like contemporary 3G and 4G systems and applications, the easier it will be to introduce the system into service. This will also have a spin-off into similar discussions being held over the future Public Radio Systems (PRS) for the emergency services working in the civil sector. One lesson to emerge from both fields is that it can take time for the user community to fully appreciate some of the functionality that has been built into the system and its potential benefits. 

With the British Army placing greater reliance on reservists, anything that helps people quickly pick up and use systems is going to be increasingly important. 

However, technological developments in all of these areas are moving apace. The rapid take up of 4G systems in the United Kingdom has surprised some industry analysts. Already the talk is of the introduction of 5G services. Who is to say that by 2030 (even) that 6G systems will be regarded as commonplace? This is not the only problem facing those charged with designing the future CNR. 

Second guessing the way in which the international security landscape is going to evolve in the next 50 years is nothing short of a black art. Certainty in this area is an elusive concept. Whilst the chances of a repeat of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 may seem slim, it cannot be ruled out. What is more likely is a repeat of Operation PALISER in Sierra Leone in May 2000. It had limited objectives and is not totally dissimilar to Operation SERVAL mounted by the French Army in Mali in 2013. 

Future architecture

These were both designed to be short-term deployments. Humanitarian relief operations are also unlikely to be removed from the compass of missions the doctrine writers will develop for the future roles of the British Army. Military operations in partnership with other counties are also likely to remain de-rigueur. 

Existing operations such as those that provide military assistance to the civil authorities during a national emergency are also unlikely to be phased out. This provides a spectrum of possible military activities that can be envisaged over the next few decades. They also provide pointers as to what form any future CNR architecture should look like.

The first and most obvious point is that it seems highly likely that any future deployments will arise at fairly short notice. Any equipment that has to be fielded will have to rely mainly on its own infrastructure. But that should not rule out being able to move data across existing mobile networks (whatever generation of digital systems they may be) that may already be in place. 

One thing to emerge in places like Africa is the speed with which new technologies, such as 4G systems, are being introduced into rural areas. Unlike situations where existing digital infrastructure has to be maintained in areas where limited investments have been made, the temptation to leap-frog a generation is hard to resist. 

Of course for the British Army to arrive on deployment into a foreign country and piggy-back its communications infrastructure onto a mobile system operated by a foreign government or country does have some security ramifications. But these are not insurmountable. 

In Afghanistan members of the British Army routinely use locally supplied voice networks to maintain non-operationally sensitive communications. Blue Force tracking capability, which proved to be so helpful in the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, is also an essential element of a future CNR capability. 

That will require the CNR system to be able to receive navigation signals from systems such as GPS. As in the civilian, the one major development that any new CNR system would need to address is the need for real-time imagery to be routed over the network. 

The current Bowman architecture is based on what might be called a traditional CNR reliance on low bandwidth communications spectrum such as HF (2-30MHz), VHF (30-300 MHz) and UHF (300MHz -3GHz). 

While the personal radio systems operate at 2.4GHz and could be adapted for local dissemination of imagery, any relay back to higher 

echelons of command beyond line of sight is subject to bandwidth and range constraints. UHF satellite systems on the move will also be an element of a future solution. But they do not fully remove the bandwidth constraints. 

Hybrid solutions

Given these requirements it is almost inevitable that the next generation of CNR will be based on a blended solution of existing and future (5G) technologies – retaining backwards compatibility with 4G and 3.5G systems to provide operational flexibility. In that case it is very likely that Bowman will remain in service well beyond its current out of service date. 

The other issue about imagery concerns the role of unmanned air platforms in the future. At present, any imagery collected by such systems at the tactical or operational levels of command are disseminated directly to end users who are equipped with specific terminals. 

These dedicated point-to-point systems have been shown to be vulnerable to interception by relatively simple eavesdropping equipment. The next generation of CNR systems will allow these dedicated systems to be integrated through a single seamless backbone based on wireless technologies. 

A single integrated backbone would allow any platform or person to digitally network to anyone that it was deemed necessary for them to be in touch with on a secure basis. Multicast networks could be used to direct real-time imagery to selected groups of people during an operation. This will also cross coalition army boundaries.  

Point-to-point networks are likely to become a thing of the past as the need to share information will trump the kind of one-to-one conversations that have happened in the command chains of the past. 

To ensure the bandwidth is available, unmanned aircraft could also be launched to act as radio relay nodes for the duration of operations. This would allow flexible wireless networks to be established that would provide the ability to move real-time images from a sensor system to a group of users. 

This kind of flexibility does pose some problems for the doctrine writers. The movement of real-time imagery does create the potential for what the military call the ‘long telescope’ to arise. This is where senior commanders watching the imagery feel the need to intervene and provide instructions through the chain of command. 

Mission command

For the British Army, which has for so long depended upon the concept of mission command, this would pose serious problems. It would wrest the initiative away from the people to whom the authority to make tactical decisions on the battlefield has been delegated. In the era of the ‘strategic corporal’, this kind of impact would have to be managed. 

For the infantry that would allow imagery to be displayed on devices not unlike current mobile phones. In armoured platforms the imagery would be displayed on a tablet. At higher headquarters, full screen televisions would provide the read-out. All of these technologies are routinely available. 

It is not silly to suggest that in time, 3D vision goggles will be used by the army to help improve a soldier’s overall understanding. The technologies of augmented information are also likely to feature as overlays to the content provided to the soldier. 

The advanced Future Infantry Soldier Technology (FIST) programme is already looking into such concepts. Given the large costs involved in bespoke software, development investments already made in a number of applications that run over the Bowman system are likely to be retained. Although upgrades to ensure the full capabilities of advanced display systems will be inevitable. 

For the British Army, the kind of flexibility that this kind of CNR will provide will enable it to retain the kind of inherent versatility that is essential to the contemporary and future operating environments in which it will have to operate. 

Use of readily available wireless technologies will also have a huge benefit in terms of its introduction into service and maintenance over the longer term. It will also help its reservists to quickly be integrated into operational deployments. If the vision of the British Army of the future is to work, this is going to be essential.

Written by Wireless magazine
Wireless magazine

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