Wireless warriors

Aircrews and mounted troops join the battlefield network.

The Defense Department’s vision of network-centric warfare is based on giving soldiers on the front line access to the knowledge in DOD’s Global Information Grid (GIG). But it’s turning out to be a lot easier to build a smart, high-functioning local network on a battlefield than it is to get data to it from the rest of GIG. DOD has struggled to build enough intelligence, reliability and flexibility into a global network that thoroughly meets the demands of the network-centric warfare vision.

The military realizes that building a smart, secure, global network that can provide situational awareness data to personnel in the field and commanders in the United States is more of a challenge than it anticipated, said Garrick Ngai, an aerospace and defense industry analyst at Frost and Sullivan, a business consulting firm.

On one hand, the Government Accountability Office has been sharply critical of the speed of development and risk of failure inherent in the Defense Department’s global network that is the foundation for the multibillion-dollar Future Combat Systems (FCS). On the other hand, projects that are more focused, such as Land Warrior (and its successor, Ground Soldier), Mounted Warrior and Air Warrior are proving to be functional successes that have overcome financial threats to their survival, Ngai said.

The Global Hawk and Predator unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are also successes that demonstrate that long-distance control can give U.S.-based commanders observation and attack capabilities they previously had only through manned aircraft.

“It wasn’t that long ago that when we flew a Predator or a Global Hawk, you had to have line-of-site control or in-theater command,” said Air Force Maj. Gen. John Maluda, director of cyberspace transformation and strategy at the Air Force’s Office of Warfighting Integration and chief information officer for the Air Force. “Some people thought you had to control it from end to end, and they didn’t like it if you didn’t have an eye on it all the time.”

“We made that work, though, and that net centricity has been the genesis of the way we operate now,” Maluda said. Without a global network connection, “you have no choice but to have boots on the ground.”

Warrior revival
Warfighters on the ground clearly benefit from electronic situational awareness systems, Ngai said. However, the networks that would connect them beyond the local level are not as advanced as the systems.

For example, Land Warrior is a situational-awareness system that relies on an IP-based voice and data radio network to give noncommissioned officers in the field a map that identifies their location, their troops’ locations, local threats and objectives, in addition to other relevant data that can be squeezed into a helmet-mounted display. The project was almost canceled twice before proving its usefulness and reviving its prospects during a 15-month field test in Iraq.

The system was designed as the ground portion of a three-part network of systems that includes Mounted Warrior, which is based in Stryker vehicles that accompany the ground troops, and Air Warrior, which is for helicopter pilots who support and sometimes transport ground soldiers.

The most important part of the network, at least on a day-to-day basis, is the Blue Force Tracking data available on the Force XXI Battlefield Command Brigade and Below (FBCB2) satellite-based network, said Paul Myer, chief systems engineer for the Project Manager Land Warrior in the Program Executive Office for Soldier Systems. He is a civilian contractor working full time on Land Warrior and Ground Soldier.

All the Land Warrior voice and data communications travel the IP-based Enhanced Position Location Reporting System (EPLRS) radio network, Myer said. That allows Stryker-based commanders and squad leaders on the ground to trade location data, track other warfighters, change mission objectives or locations, and add warnings about local conditions.

EPLRS is a line-of-sight data network that provides a local tactical routed network for units in the area and carries voice traffic using a commercial voice-over-IP codec, Myer said. It uses jamming-resistant frequency hopping, spread-spectrum transmissions and encryption to create local data connections that can stretch several kilometers between units. Each radio unit includes routing and networking capabilities, which allows the units to pass datagrams — icons or data packets that identify potential hot spots — to others, extending the network on an ad hoc basis.

“It gives you local communications and redundancy,” said Army Lt. Col. Brian Cummings, product manager of the Land Warrior and Ground Soldier systems. “On the battlefield, things might go down in communications, or your operational area might be 200 miles away from where you thought you were going to be. Either way, at the unit level, you’re fully functional.”

“We bring that backbone with us wherever we go, so we only have to worry about how to interface [with other networks] at the company level and above,” Myer said.

Incoming datagrams
For over-the-horizon communications, Land Warrior units must rely on FBCB2. Even in its latest iteration, FBCB2 has less than optimal bandwidth for ground troops who consume mass quantities of bandwidth with detailed situational awareness data or voice traffic.

The Land Warrior unit’s gateway in Stryker vehicles filters much of that data to avoid overwhelming the satellite network with possibly irrelevant data, Myer said.

“We have a specific set of messages that will work despite the size of the pipe: position reports, situational awareness messages, observational reports, [improvised explosive device] symbols, icons to mark a friendly location, specific assets or obstacles like mine fields, or whatever,” Myer said.

“That message doesn’t change regardless of whether we’re connecting to FBCB2 from a satellite or terrestrial link,” he said. “What does change is the frequency of the reports and how much information you can push back.”

Meanwhile, the low-bandwidth connectivity with the global satellite network leaves a lot of potentially useful information unavailable to other units. The high-bandwidth version of situational awareness systems is so valuable to combat commanders that many will spend a lot of time and effort to build terrestrial broadcast and retransmitting stations so they can get the best available information about their territories.

“In Afghanistan, they’re covering a huge area with very rugged terrain that’s mountainous and not friendly” to line-of-sight devices, Cummings said. “You have companies and battalions covering sectors that used to be covered by divisions. It’s critical that they have both over-the-horizon and terrestrial capability. But every networking asset you put on the ground, you not only have to put it there, you have to protect it.”

One particular commander did that because “he had a company that was pretty far out there, and he still had a ton of information that needed to get to those guys that was just not available through Blue Force Tracking applications.”

The Land Warrior design, which will continue if Ground Soldier is fully funded, relies on lowest-common-denominator interfaces with satellite-based or other networks. Warfighters can quick adapt the devices to support higher-bandwidth, smarter networks as they become available.

Before the FCS network can become functional, the still-problematic Joint Tactical Radio System must be fully deployed.
When FCS is ready, Ground Soldier and Mounted Warrior systems will swap one network interface protocol for another and change the frequency and size of their updates, Myer said.

“EPLRS is our core system right now, through 2013, and we’re aligned with what we expect to see with Future Combat Systems,” Cummings said. “We should be fielding our full brigades in 2012, and the Army will decide whether it’s on FCS’ [network] or EPLRS.”

“What’s nice about FCS-equipped units,” Myer said, is that “not only do they have soldier data, they also have data from unmanned ground sensors and other things, and that will be pushing out a ton of capability.”

Risky business
However, development of the network backbone might be a long shot. In March, GAO reported that $8 billion and five years into the development of FCS, DOD couldn’t ensure that it would be able to deliver the full capabilities of the 18 systems in development or the network that was supposed to tie them all together. The report states that because the network development cycle was as long as any FCS system’s, DOD risked creating a situation in which it had all pieces of FCS ready but couldn’t put them together because the network wouldn’t be ready.

In August, GAO issued a follow-up report that criticized DOD for spending money on radios that have similar functions to what the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) would do in FCS. Because of a sudden increase in demand for tactical radios because of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, GAO reported, DOD had to deviate from its plan to spend $3 billion on JTRS radios between 2003 and 2007. Instead, it spent $2.5 billion on JTRS development and an additional $5.7 billion on radios that support the existing radio networks that are scheduled to become obsolete when FCS becomes operational, the report states.

“JTRS was to be a transformational program,” Ngai said. “But development of JTRS is so screwed up, the DOD has to work around it. But that is a real dilemma because they now have a lot of money invested in technology that’s not JTRS or FCS, but they’re not just going to throw it out. They’re going to have to make the old systems work with the new systems, and that’s going to be a real technical challenge.”

“The guys on [Capitol] Hill are going to start asking questions about how much spending [DOD] is doing on the old systems and how much the new ones are going to cost,” Ngai said.

“The Army has to try to hedge its bets on the future, but this is the kind of thing that puts the program risk really high. It’s going to get really ugly.”