Harnessing standard infrastructure for specialist battlefield comms

As forces look to move away from constrained, traditional battlefield communications systems, they are turning to adaptations of commercial technologies, such as LTE, to provide the flexibility and the wide device ecosystem they need, writes George Malim

Harnessing standard infrastructure for specialist battlefield comms

The days of military forces investing in communications technology developed solely for their use are starting to come to an end as they turn to the greater flexibility of commercial technologies for use in their mobile ad hoc networks (MANETs).

‘We see 4G as a really useful technology for the battlefield,’ says Richard McLachlan, a product manager at Airbus Defence and Space. ‘We’ve tried to use COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) equipment and technology as far as possible, which helps ensure forces’ technology is up to date, interoperable, cost effective and upgradable for the future.

‘It is not without its challenges and we’ve examined how to mitigate those – it’s about finding a balance between keeping the advantages of COTS and ensuring the specific performance needed is delivered.’

André Mechaly, the marketing and strategy director for network and infrastructure systems at Thales, agrees. ‘LTE technology can bring broadband communications to the battlefield,’ he says.

‘Users can benefit from the civilian technology development roadmap and the huge investment made in infrastructure products and terminals. It notably simplifies the training of the young soldiers while natively benefiting from evolutions and features developed in the public domain.’

McLachlan points out that the frequencies available for LTE use by forces can be a barrier. ‘LTE, as a commercial system, tends to operate in mobile operators’ bands and might not match the frequencies that the military have available in the battle space,’ he explains. ‘There’s quite a lot of options to find a frequency to suit.’

Stretching the tech
Mechaly also explains that pitfalls exist if the technology is asked to do things that are outside its capabilities. ‘Like any technology, tactical LTE should be used for the right operational use cases that correspond to its inherent capabilities in terms of security, resistance to interferences and cyber-attack; robustness of the waveform as well as availability of spectrum and rugged terminals.’

He adds: ‘In particular, civil LTE networks are hierarchical networks so could have single points of failure. When deployed in tactical environments, such architectures might sometimes be too vulnerable, therefore distributed architectures might be preferred.’
However, in the right battlefield application, LTE can truly deliver on the functionality and cost of operation that forces require. Deployment of the technology is starting, says Mechaly.

‘4G broadband technology adoption is starting and Thales already has some international contracts for tactical LTE deployments such as wireless command post extension, wireless sensor data aggregation, FOB (forward operating base) communication, tactical surveillance, and check-points, in single or interconnected multi-cell technology,’ he says.

Matching frequencies
Franck Boulery, the tactical radio segment marketing manager at Thales, says: ‘The capability to run 3GPP standard frequencies as well as dedicated frequencies provides our customers with full flexibility for their deployment. On top of the rugged tactical equipment we offer, Thales provides the users with added-value apps such as PMR features over LTE, thus supporting defence-security continuum.’

McLachlan, at Airbus Defence and Space, details an early WiMAX deployment with the French Army, which enables a mast that provides a 20km radius of service to be erected within 30 minutes. That system is being converted to LTE now in order to take advantage of the wider LTE handset ecosystem.

‘There’s a lot of deployment flexibility, which is very useful in the types of warfare situation we see today,’ he explains. ‘It’s not traditional warfare any more so the higher data rates for providing presence, situational awareness and video relay are desirable.’

McLachlan’s colleague, John Dowdell, a communications systems architect at Airbus Defence and Space, adds that the fast and easy set-up is vital. ‘In a mobile battlefield you don’t have the luxury of time to set something up and make sure it is stable,’ he says.

‘Frontline forces tell us that if they’re given something that is complex to use, they’ll simply leave it behind; they want something they don’t have to work out how to use.’

Forces are moving beyond the deployment of basic 4G services that are common to any civilian user. They’re turning to applications of drones and satellites to provide battlefield coverage.

‘Every technology that can enhance antenna height and thus coverage is useful whether it’s a tethered balloon or a drone,’ says Boulery at Thales, which has demonstrated a tethered balloon connected to a tactical ground-based eNodeB and supporting video feed from a surveillance camera.

‘We’ve also demonstrated the use of an embarked ultra-compact eNodeB on a tethered UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), enabling communications over a large coverage area. Generally, we’re working on powerful miniaturised tactical LTE equipment, thus reducing size and weight for tactical use on the field.’

Airbus Defence and Space has been working on similar projects, notably its HAPS – high altitude pseudo satellite – product, called Zephyr. ‘It’s not quite a UAV and not quite a satellite,’ explains Steve Whitby, the head of business development and sales for HAPS at the company. ‘Unmanned vehicles are being used but are limited by the length of time they can persist in the battlefield.’

Prolonged airtime
Whitby says the current Airbus Zephyr 7 HAPS has demonstrated 14- and 11-day flights, while he claims competing surveillance systems have less than 35 hours of endurance. The future Zephyr 8 will operate for months at high altitude. Zephyr also flies higher than other surveillance platforms.

‘Zephyr 8 has performance characteristics of several months – three months is easily achieved,’ he confirms. That’s at a height of 65,000 feet – well above the range of any normal battlefield threats. It’s also an enormous range in terms of the area for which it can provide coverage.

Such products will need to ensure standards compliance and simple set-up if they are to have battlefield success. ‘Forces want standard architectural approaches,’ says McLachlan.
‘They don’t want stovepipes any more, and the use of COTS products from the 4G world really helps us deliver against that demand and the continued motivation to cut costs.

‘Our FortiShare portfolio of defence solutions including solutions such as TACIP (Tactical IP Secure Solution) for mobility around deployed sites, and Mobile IP Node for systems on the move, provide an open standards approach to meet this need.’

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