Convergent combat net radio

Dr Dave Sloggett explores the issues that arise from creating interoperable combat net radio systems on coalition environments and asks whether commercial LTE and 4G technologies provide an answer

Convergent combat net radio

Alongside the mandatory lectures and seminars on the teachings of Sun Tzu or Von Clausewitz military commanders are taught one hugely important fact. The commander that can move at the highest tempo will hold the initiative.

However, what was axiomatic in the Cold War is not necessarily the same on the 21st century battlefield. A number of things have changed that have fundamentally altered the operating environment in which western military forces are now expected to operate.

The most significant individual factor is the need to work in ad hoc coalitions that can be formed at short notice. With many reasons to reduce the military footprint on the ground working alongside partner nations is now a given. But creating a communications infrastructure which is capable of supporting such ad hoc coalition operations is a major problem.

This is especially problematic when they deploy into countries whose telecommunications infrastructure is either immature or partially destroyed by the ravages of war. In such cases the reliance on combat net radio, with its associated limitations in terms of information passing, can be a problem.

Combat net radio

Combat net radio exists to help battlefield commanders achieve the desired level of tempo in the conduct of their operations. Coalition military operations add a degree of complication to this need to maintain high tempo.

The radios have to deliver information and voice securely and reliably between the operating elements of coalitions cooperating at the tactical level.

This can involve land to-land and land-to-air interactions, often between the coalition partner’s land and air units over a variety of austere terrains and over long distances.

Densely-built urban areas, deserts and mountainous regions all create their own impact on the communications technologies that form part of the solution. In conducting these missions another given is the need to avoid fratricide, or ‘friendly fire’ incidents.  

Creating the kind of interoperable situation required at the tactical level in coalition operations has required those involved in the procurement of combat net radio systems to go back to the drawing board.

How to achieve greater interoperability enabling voice, information and video to be passed between partners without increasing decision inertia was a real concern. Some new thinking was required.  

Another axiom of military history in the digital age is that bandwidth remains at a premium. With more and more forms of data and information content needing to be passed between operating elements, novel approaches using waveforms, which are able to squeeze extra data-rate capacity, proliferated. One problem was that what was good for one operating environment required subtly different solutions in another.

This led to a highly divergent approach, compounded by different countries also choosing slightly different solutions. While combat net radio solutions could facilitate voice communications between, for example, a German tactical air coordinator and an in-bound fast jet flown by another coalition partner, it could not provide the infrastructure to disseminate information between the two units, such as a digital map outlining where friendly forces were currently located. The sense of that had to be conveyed by voice. This increased the risk of fratricide.

Waveform radio

Initial solutions toward creating an integrated communications environment foundered on the scale of the technical problems that had to be overcome. One element of the solution saw the creation in the US of a new digital communications standard called the Soldier Radio Waveform (SRW). This is an open-standard voice and data waveform used to extend battlefield networks to the tactical edge.

This sat alongside the development of the Wideband Networking Waveform (WNW). Both were designed to create a platform into which legacy systems could be integrated as part of a convergent solution.

The design behind these waveforms was owned by the US Government and hence avoided the issues of propriety intellectual property rights that had bedevilled past efforts to create interoperable solutions.

The aim of the SRW and WNW was to form waveform standards onto which all solutions could converge. It was also based upon high bandwidth waveforms that use the available spectrum more efficiently in comparison to legacy approaches.

What on paper seemed like a highly sensible approach to creating an interoperable approach did not quite deliver the expected result in the short-term at a price that could be afforded. Other solutions needed to be explored.

4G LTE solutions

The obvious and key questions surround what technology the convergent solution should be based upon. Could, for example, commercially developed communications technologies, such as 4G, be adopted to create solutions? Are developments in LTE able to form a key element of a future approach?

Some European manufacturers certainly believe this to be a viable option. The experiments carried out by the German Armed Forces with Cassidian into the use of TETRA LTE radio systems previously reported in Wireless provides one example of such an approach.

Leveraging commercial 4G solutions also has another huge benefit. Their rapid take-up by many developing countries across the world creates an instant communications infrastructure onto which deploying coalition military forces can immediately piggy-back.

Whilst this offers huge advantages in deploying overseas into countries with established telecommunications infrastructure, it does bring with it concerns over security.
MACE project

In the US the Multi-Access Cellular Extension (MACE) project is providing another option. It is the means by which the US Army is trying to harness commercial 4G/Wi-Fi and smartphone technologies into the military field.  

Its aim is to develop the foundational architecture which will integrate cellular technologies into future force networks and create a bridge between its Nett Warrior and Warfighter Information Network – Tactical (WIN-T) activities.

Since 2012, the US Army has been working to leverage commercial 4G LTE technologies in the combat net radio environment. Through the MACE programme several of the required elements have matured to a point where deployment into the field can begin in 2015, ironically just as the last combat troops head home from Afghanistan.

There are, however, significant challenges to creating an integrated environment. Using cellular-based tactical networks inevitably means that in some austere environments gaps in coverage will arise. In commercial networks the density of nodes and suitable communications protocols ensures the smooth handover when coverage changes.

The aim of MACE has been to create solutions that will fill these gaps using ad hoc network links that move data from the fixed mobile (cellular) environment into the combat net radio domain when coverage is an issue. MACE also looks to delivering multi-cast solutions over such cellular networks instead of the classic cellular point-to-point connections.

MACE is scheduled to complete its work in 2014. Its enabling solutions then need to be integrated into other military programmes. Attention will then turn in the US to the Secure Wireless Infrastructure Technologies (SWIFT) project. It will focus on addressing vulnerabilities in cellular networks related to spoofing, jamming, eavesdropping or geo-locating users.

Military telemedicine

One battlefield application that has the potential to immediately benefit from the availability of 4G cellular capabilities is telemedicine. Anything that can be done to save the lives of injured coalition servicemen in the field is critical. Providing the very best treatment at the point of wounding in the first vital few minutes is hugely important.

One key capability that has been developed in field trials is enhanced remote triage. This allows remotely-based medical staff in a field hospital, and those responding to evacuate the casualty, to derive key biometric indicators that may help diagnose complications that otherwise may reduce the chances of the wounded servicemen surviving their injuries.

In 2013, the US Army conducted field trials using 4G technologies to allow doctors to listen through their stethoscope to the sounds generated by the internal organs of a patient many miles away. This helps remote medical staff to diagnose internal injuries, which may also require some form of immediate action by the responding teams.

Clearly for such an application to work, it requires a seamless digital communications infrastructure to be in place irrespective of the point of wounding. This is only one of a range of examples of potential benefits that can be reaped in coalition operations if contemporary commercial telecommunications developments can be leveraged into the military sphere.

Programmes such as MACE have seen the technical issues associated with that goal addressed. As the solutions that have emerged are incrementally integrated into the existing combat net radio systems, information sharing in a coalition environment is going to become a lot easier.

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