C4ISR technologies carry the load for special forces

The intersection of new technologies has resulted in giant leaps forward in the development of powerful and lightweight equipment for special operations forces.

Whether special operations teams swim or parachute into remote areas and spend a few hours or a few days gathering information, the technology they carry has many of the same attributes. Their load comprises compact equipment with long operating times and versatile capabilities.

Special operations forces use the full spectrum of military technology, featuring the latest advances in electronics. They are always searching for the newest systems in technologies as varied as man-portable gear, such as night vision goggles, or the latest sensors used on drones. Satellite and cellular communications also are a critical aspect of the command and control side of special operations.


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The need for data gathering and information sharing equipment is becoming increasingly competitive for those charged with designing next-generation equipment. Functionality and connectivity must increase, battery life should be longer and weight should be lighter.

Special operations personnel must know much about their surroundings to move without being spotted. They also need to identify foes from civilians. Many foes feel injuries to innocents are unimportant. But the effect of human collateral damage can be extremely problematic for special operations personnel who are trying to work closely with local people.

“The rules of engagement are a key factor for the special operations community,” said Don Reago of the Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development, and Engineering Center’s (CERDEC) Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate. “They need to identify and classify potential targets before they shoot. Their opponents can shoot whenever they see anything.”

The ever-changing nature of military missions also drives the need for lightweight technology. In the Middle East and elsewhere, there’s growing demand for special operations personnel to make quick forays into remote areas. That’s in contrast to the demand for large-scale deployments of battalions, which is not expected to increase significantly in coming years.

“The special operations force structure is increasing, while many of the main forces are decreasing,” said Tom Benes, vice president and manager of Integrated Strategic Solutions Operations at Alion Science and Technology and a retired Marine Corps general. “That means there’s also a demand for more training and more technology.”

The drive to equip U.S. forces with gear that gives them a technical edge over their adversaries is exacerbated by the widespread availability of sensors like night vision goggles and heat sensors. “It’s a big challenge to us that primitive goggles can be bought commercially. We have to increase resolution and sensitivity so our forces can see more,” Reago said.

Increasingly, the technical advances come as technologies come together. Microcontrollers and other electronic devices continue to do more while taking less space so advanced developers can more easily combine multiple functions so they benefit the warfighter.

“A lot of what we do is to bring combinations together so they benefit the soldier. For example, we are augmenting night vision with thermal capabilities, adding ancillary equipment like the pointer on a weapon,” Reago said. “We’ve done a lot of work with laser pointers in the near-infrared range, so our forces can see the point without the target knowing that it’s there.”

Many of these advances leverage commercial technology. But although the government is using more commercially available microprocessors, software and batteries, military researchers are still pushing state-of-the-art technologies in crucial areas.

“In the infrared focal point arrays used for night vision, we’re way ahead of commercial advances,” said Thom Soyka, Quick Response Branch Chief for CERDEC’s Special Products and Prototyping Division. “We concentrate on key components where there’s not a lot of commercial investment.”

Power struggle

Given the extreme mobility requirements of special operations forces, size and weight are critical factors. Although there’s constant pressure to make units smaller and lighter, that’s balanced by the desire to have equipment do more and communicate with more networks. As developers struggle to meet these conflicting requirements, they often find the problems are intertwined.

“One of the biggest tradeoffs for system designs is weight,” Soyka said. “That’s closely tied to power, a system that draws a lot of power needs a lot of batteries. Our goal is to minimize the amount of weight for the operation of the unit, whether it’s carried by a soldier or transported on a vehicle.”

There are many paths for product engineers who design portable equipment. By lowering power consumption, they can sometimes remove cooling systems such as fans and metal heat sinks that add bulk as well as weight. Reducing power consumption also makes it possible to move to smaller batteries without sacrificing operating lifetimes.

“One example is uncooled thermal sensors. Now that they don’t need a cryogenic cooler, there’s a lot less weight,” Soyka said. “At the same time, that makes it possible to run them on a few AA batteries. A few years ago, they needed a military brick battery.”

Battery technology advances slowly, annual improvements are in the low single digits. That pales in comparison to the continuing advances in semiconductors, which can double in capability every couple of years.

Designers of portable equipment can leverage those advances in electronics by using lower voltages for microprocessors and other devices. Another way is to put these chips into sleep modes so they need to draw very little energy from the battery until they’re needed.

“We’re not seeing any great breakthroughs on battery lifetimes, so we need to build smart electronics that go into sleep modes quickly and only wake up when they’re needed,” said Dennis Moran, vice president of government business development for RF Communications at Harris and a retired Army major general.

The slow pace of change in batteries makes them a good candidate for standardization. Specialized batteries are rapidly falling by the wayside as designers choose standard sizes that can be purchased nearly anywhere. That reduces cost while making the most of any advances that occur in consumer markets.

“We want to leverage developments in the commercial battery market, so we’re driving our partners to create products that use standard batteries,” Reago said. “Everyone has a camera that operates on AA lithium ion batteries, so there’s an incredible demand for increased capacity.”

The shift to smaller, standardized batteries is coming as products that augment or even replace batteries inch closer to reality. A number of test flights have proven the viability of fuel cells for unmanned aerial vehicles.

They can provide as much as a sevenfold improvement in flight time while maintaining the weight of batteries, according to a Naval Research Laboratory test. That’s prompting commercial groups to look closely at their potential.

“In UAVs, there’s a push to get away from batteries and go to fuel cells,” Benes said. “There’s also a push to electric motors, which are much quieter. They work on fuel cells, so you can you operate at night, which solar can’t do.”

Military researchers are also exploring technologies such as energy harvesting where compact electronics convert the energy from vibration or changes in temperature so it can be used to power remote sensors and other products. The technology has seen some use, but its effect remains more in its high potential than in actual applications. Research in solar is also continuing as a way to extend operating lifetimes by augmenting batteries.

At the same time, there’s plenty of research into systemwide technologies that can help special operations forces carry lighter loads. That’s happened a lot in satellite communications, where antenna sizes have gotten substantially smaller, trimming ounces, or even pounds.

Some of those changes have come on the antenna side as engineers leverage advances in electronics and software. But the weight savings for warfighters on the ground are also being driven by changes in equipment that’s in orbit.

“There are tradeoffs between size, weight and functionality for the warfighter and what’s on the spacecraft,” said Tom Foust, vice president of global networking solutions at Intelsat. “If you put higher gain antennas on the satellite, the warfighter doesn’t need to lug around a heavy antenna.

Advances in connectivity

Wherever special operations troops are deployed, they want to stay connected while using the lightest communications gear possible. As in other areas in electronics, the rapid advances in commercial systems are driving many of the advances in military communications.

Cell phone technology is the technology of the day, so there’s a lot of investment that aims to shrink headset sizes and do more tasks with a single device. When cellular links are augmented by satellite links, remote forces can relay imagery or messages to anyone on the network, often using technology borrowed from the commercial world.

“Warfighters can talk with their colleagues using Bluetooth, and when they take a photo with their smart phone, it can go out immediately over satellite if the cell phone link is not there,” said John Munoz-Atkinson, director of land business development at Inmarsat Government Services.

New operating systems that let users run a range of applications packages on compact phones are also transforming special operations.

“Many military operations are looking at smart devices with applications based on Android,” Moran said. “They can run applications and still communicate with many different networks.”

This ability to connect with multiple networks using a single device was one a major advance for special operations teams that must often work with many groups and pull information from many sources. Software defined radio remains one of the key communication technologies despite the growing role of cell phones.

"The most important aspect for radio capabilities is the flexibility of the software defined architecture. A small package can handle many different waveforms so a user can communicate with other forces on the ground and see a video link from a UAV,” Moran said.

Although software defined radios and smart phones are powerful tools, they won’t always have some of the specialized functions sometimes found in larger proprietary equipment. Software vendors are attempting to reduce the negative effects by making it fairly simple to move computing tasks to equipment that’s most capable for each task, mimicking the cloud computing concept that’s popular in commercial applications.

For example, Covia Labs is now planning a program with the Defense Information Systems Agency and the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) that will use the startup’s software to shift tasks from a smart phone to other equipment on a network.

“When our Connector software is on a number of devices, applications can run on whatever piece of equipment has the best capability. If you have a high resolution photo that you want to send to a device with a low resolution screen, you can send the photo to a device that can quickly convert it to the right resolution,” said David Kahn, Covia’s CEO.

As greater volumes of critical data move through the open air, data encryption plays an increasingly important role. The need to share various types of information with forces from other countries and even other branches of the U.S military makes the challenge even more complex.

A recent USSOCOM task order highlighted the complexity of this task.

Unisys brought in partners that included Security First, which created a cryptographic program named SecureParser, and Advanced C4 Solutions, an integration company. They will work together to evaluate the Unisys Stealth Solution, which is an IT environment that lets forces communicate and share information across a spectrum of networks with varying levels of security.

Sensors in the sky 

Special operation missions are often driven by images and other intelligence gathered from airborne sensors. Drones are now in widespread use, and their capabilities are continuously expanding.

Cameras and other sensors are becoming less expensive and there are more users to share costs, fueling the advances so more aircraft can carry more devices. That means that unmanned aerial systems are now helping forces connect with satellites, among other links.

“Payload technology is advancing beyond that needed for ISR missions,” said Stephen Flach, vice president of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Programs at AAI UAS. “Payloads for small and tactical UASs now support new mission profiles, including signals intelligence, communications relay and small-aperture radar.”

That broadens situational awareness by ensuring that data from sensors on the ground are coordinated with input from other areas. That can be particularly helpful when ground sensors don’t have satellite links.

“We recently incorporated our Aerosonde UAS with a relay mechanism for Textron Defense Systems’ Unattended Ground Sensors. This allowed the UAS to act as an airborne relay, transmitting situational awareness from the sensors back to the operations center,” Flach said.

Sensor capabilities on the ground are also expanding rapidly. For example, USSOCOM recently contracted for a $5.6 million delivery of forward-looking infrared system from FLIR Systems Inc. those sensors will typically be linked with cameras, often mounted on vehicles.

“Cameras can be augmented by other types of sensors like radar and thermal,” said David Strong, marketing vice president at Flir Systems Inc. “Sensors with a gyro stabilizer and gimbal assembly for mounting on a vehicle can provide very long range observations, especially when they’re raised up on masts.”

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