The future of military comms on the battlefield

New radio and network technologies present opportunities and challenges.

Smart phones, tablets, high-speed wireless networks and other sophisticated communications technologies are rapidly changing the way people access, use and exchange information. The military is embracing the communications revolution, turning to a new generation of sophisticated systems to enable faster, richer, less costly and more flexible communications.

However, as communication options multiply, so does the problem of getting disparate technologies to work together efficiently and securely. Communications integration is now one of the top challenges facing military technology leaders, said Chris Herndon, chief technologist at MorganFranklin, a company that provides communications and security consulting services to the government. “Smart phones and other IP technologies in particular, it’s all really exciting stuff,” said Herndon, former director of the tactical technologies development lab at the Naval Research Laboratory. “Yet they also pose challenges in terms of interoperability and security,” he added.

After today’s standards and security assurance problems have been resolved, Herndon sees IP as the pathway to interoperability, speedier technology deployment and lower development and maintenance costs. He said although past communications development projects often created impressive and reliable systems, the costly and complex projects tended to address only a narrow set needs and frequently fell far behind schedule. “We often saw pillars of excellence that were essentially obsolete before they were even fielded,” he said. IP technologies will provide a common technology base to span virtually all communications modes, including phones, tablets, mobile and handheld radios, satellites, sensors and networks, he said.

Smart Phones

Few communications technologies have emerged so rapidly and promised so many benefits as smart phones. By this time next year, smart phones will likely be used in an array of different communication roles, said Michael McCarthy, director of operations for the Army’s Brigade Modernization Command at Fort Bliss, Texas. “Many programs of record are now looking at how to exploit smart phone capabilities,” he said.

McCarthy said smart phone and tablet apps will give troops the ability to perform control, analysis and other sophisticated tasks anytime, anywhere, while allowing commanders to instantly distribute essential documents directly to troops. “Instead of having footlockers of publications that I have to drag with me when I go to the field, now I have something that weighs less than a pound and can fit into the cargo pocket of my uniform pants,” he said.

Network and device security concerns have so far hindered widespread smart phone deployment. A new hardened kernel for Android 3.0 devices developed by the National Security Agency (NSA) and George Mason University researchers, currently under certification evaluation by the NSA, promises to soon resolve basic concerns on non-classified official networks.

Progress also is being made on additional certification efforts to bring smart phones onto classified networks. “The solution is a lot closer than a lot of people would believe,” McCarthy predicted, without specifying a date. “With such NSA-approved smart phones, soldiers can access secret-level mission-command computer systems, he said.

Ground Mobile Radios

Pushed along by smart phone competition, ground mobile radio technology is evolving rapidly. In the aftermath of last year’s termination of the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) Ground Mobile Radio (GMR) development contract with Boeing, the Defense Department has embraced a new “platform agnostic” philosophy that aims to end the delays and cost overruns that plagued JTRS GMR. The new approach is designed to allow ground mobile projects to proceed more quickly and less expensively while keeping pace with smart phone and other commercial radio innovations. “It’s another sign of a new attitude toward communication,” Herndon said.

Future ground mobile radios will focus on two basic network approaches: the Soldier Radio Waveform (SRW) and the Wideband Networking Waveform. The combined technologies allow secure networked communications among platoon, squad and team-level soldiers, as well as satellite connections back to combat commanders.

After JTRS GMR, the Army is focusing its ground mobile communications efforts on its Mid-Tier Networking Vehicular Radio (MNVR) program, which aims to create a new vehicle-mounted, software-defined radio system. In late 2011, Northrop Grumman and ITT Exelis announced a partnership that would attempt secure an Army contract for the technology. Other likely bidders on the contract include General Dynamics and Harris.

A formal request for proposal is expected to be issued in February. Current plans call for MVNR to be acquired under a single, two-year, firm fixed-price contract. If the current timeframe holds, a winner will be announced around this time next year. The Army plans to purchase between 800 and 1,000 MNVRs, enough to equip eight to 10 brigade combat teams in 2014.

Meanwhile, individual troops can look forward to the JTRS Handheld, Manpack and Small Form Fit AN/PRC-154 Rifleman radio. Developed by General Dynamics C4 Systems, the Rifleman underwent an initial operational test and evaluation by the Army at Fort Bliss late last year. The radio was tested in a variety of scenarios, including reconnaissance, counterinsurgency and convoy operations.

Rifleman is designed to deliver networking connectivity to frontline troops in a lightweight, ruggedized, body worn device. The radio transmits voice and data simultaneously via SRW. Perhaps most importantly, Rifleman radios are capable of interfacing with smart phones. A total of 6,250 Rifleman units are being manufactured under low-rate initial production approval.

Mesh Networks

Cutting-edge wireless networking technologies, potentially capable of supporting both JTRS and smart phone devices, are now arriving in the form of mesh networks, including mobile ad hoc networks (MANETs) that can provide virtually instant high-bandwidth networking capabilities for handheld radios, ground and airborne vehicle communications and security and tactical wireless sensors.

The military is increasingly turning to wireless mesh networks technology for sensor-driven environmental control, yard management, and security and tactical applications. A mesh network provides continuous asset visibility from any location in the system’s range, noted Mark Lieberman, automatic identification technology program manager for the Defense Logistics Agency, headquartered at Fort Belvoir, Va.

Camp Pendleton, Calif., in 2010 deployed a wireless mesh network technology developed by Mesh Dynamics for the base’s Energy Management Control Systems and Automated Metering Infrastructure. The network is also used for monitoring wireless security cameras positioned around water reservoirs.

The mesh network allows staff members to efficiently manage facility environmental services from a central control center instead of sending technicians into the field to perform routine management tasks. The approach saves time and money by allowing staff to fix small problems before they can grow into major crises. Wireless security video cameras set up around the 400,000-acre camp’s reservoirs also save time and money by reducing the need for onsite inspections while simultaneously enhancing intruder detection.

As a tactical tool, MANETs can be used to transparently interconnect multiple mobile phones within a specified coverage area to provide greater bandwidth and better network connections. The technology can help convoys and other team-oriented missions keep in constant communication over a wide array of terrains. “The traffic travels across three of four frequencies on a best path basis,” said Bob Schena, Rajant Corp.'s  CEO. “So the nodes move, the clients move, the traffic moves and it all happens in real time and on a self organizing basis.”

Mesh networks also can be used for the control and coordination of autonomous unmanned vehicles. For example, Rajant is supplying its kinetic mesh technology, which creates mobile network nodes, to the Navy’s Navy Moving Land Target (MLT) program. Rajant’s software works with unmanned ground vehicles modified by Kairos Autonomi. The autonomous pickup trucks drive themselves by following a pre-defined Global Positioning System path. They also can be guided via remote control. The Navy plans to use the technology to create unmanned moving targets that pilots can seek out and destroy during training exercises.

Rajant’s Breadcrumb wireless transmitter-receivers send control commands to the vehicles. The device also transmit video from the vehicles to the control stations. A network of 18 ground control and relay stations provide communications support throughout the entire MLT vehicle operational area.

Satellite Systems

Satellite systems, on the leading edge of military communication for more than a half century, are now almost overshadowed by smart phones and other cutting-edge terrestrial communications technologies. However, satellite innovation remains alive and well, with researchers exploring ways of bringing almost ubiquitous satellite coverage to terrestrial communication systems, including smart phones and other commercial communications technologies.

One satellite-rooted technology with down-to-earth communications potential is the Software Reprogrammable Payload (SRP), a collaborative effort between the Office of Naval Research (ONR), the Naval Research Laboratory and Marine Corps aviation. SRP plans to transform a small radio receiver designed for space applications and into a full-featured radio frequency (RF) system.

SRP’s initial application will be as a communication platform for the Shadow unmanned aircraft system, said John Moniz, ONR's C4 program manager for expeditionary warfare. Testing is set to get underway this spring. “SRP is designed for multiple functions including communications, RF sensing and electronic warfare in a single package that’s built on a software radio platform.” In its first application SRP will allow Marines on the ground to connect, via Shadow, to other warfighters regardless of the radio, network or waveform being used.

SRP offers four baseline applications: an automated identification system, a UHF communications relay with interference mitigation, a UHF IP router capability for legacy radios, and a Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System. Additional applications are planned.

ONR expects that SRP will eventually find a home in a variety of military vehicles. “It could be useful for ground vehicles; the Navy obviously has interest in ships,” Moniz said. “The big that we can load in any number of different types of waveforms for the various functions.”

SRP’s simple drag-and-drop interface would allow an operator to select an application while on route to a convoy surveillance support mission, according to ONR. Once on station, the payload could do signals intelligence collection while simultaneously performing beyond-line-of-sight UHF communications relay. If interference is detected on the communications channel, the operator can select an interference mitigation filter, applied similarly to a Photoshop filter, or reprogram the communications channel from a preselected frequency plan.

SRP is compatible with JTRS “on a waveform by waveform basis,” Moniz said. “We have a very similar radio architecture that JTRS gives us high confidence that, as we go into more testing, that we’ll be interoperable with JTRS radios.”

Cognitive Radio

With more radios vying for increasingly scarce spectrum space, there’s a growing need for cognitive radios that use computer intelligence to automatically and invisibly adapt themselves to user needs and band conditions. Cognitive radio is an umbrella term for an array of different technologies that allow radios to achieve various levels of self-configuration, including automatic operating mode selection, optimal power output and dynamic spectrum access for interference management.

Joseph Mitola, vice president for the research enterprise and a distinguished research professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology, coined the term “cognitive radio” in the late 1990s. He likes to use a character from a popular 1970s television situation comedy to create a cognitive radio analogy. “Think of ‘Radar’ O'Reilly on M*A*S*H,” he says. “[Radar] knew who to call on the radio to get whatever the colonel needed — from sutures to hay for his horse.”

Mitola said Radar was a like any expert military radio operator of his era in that he innately understood which supplies needed to be ordered from different organizations over multiple radio networks. Radar could easily juggle all of those channels and resources. “A radio that is this smart can employ dynamic spectrum access and can apply situation-aware access to existing bands to use the right radio band for the right purpose,” Mitola said.

John Coleman, CEO of xG Technology, a cognitive radio technology developer, noted that dynamic spectrum access and other cognitive technologies are now being incorporated into smart phones, JTRS, mesh networks and other emerging military communications technologies to allow better system performance and interoperability in a variety of settings that range from congested urban environments to vehicle convoys. “We’re running out of frequencies and cognitive radio is the best way of resolving this problem,” he said.

More powerful processors and sophisticated software algorithms are making cognitive radios both highly efficient and less expensive. The Army last year tested XG’s cognitive technology, which uses six algorithms to evaluate spectrum conditions, at Fort Bliss and White Sands Missile Range, N.M., for possible future smart phone, handheld radio and other applications. Coleman, a former Marine Corps colonel, said the tests were successful.

Frequency jumping cognitive radios are also more resistant to eavesdroppers and jammers than their conventional counterparts. During the Army tests, attempts to jam the network using three different methods failed.

McCarthy views cognitive radio as a potential game changer. “The technology, reducing interference, enhancing compatibility and enhancing security, is very impressive,” he said. “Cognitive radio systems, by their very nature, are interoperable.”

However, Herndon sees policy having as much influence on cognitive radio adoption as technology, since current spectrum users such as the Defense Department, wireless companies and broadcasters all jealously protect the spectrum segments they control. Under today’s rules, the Federal Communications Commission allocates spectrum blocks on either a shared or exclusive basis to specific users. This policy can prevent cognitive radios from switching to the best possible frequency, even if it isn’t currently being used, simply because the channel lies inside a band allocated to another user. “Cognitive radio may require new ways of allocating spectrum space,” Herndon said. “It’s something that’s probably going to be addressed at some point.”

Doing More With Less

Sophisticated new communications technologies are arriving at the same time as shrinking military budgets. Yet Herndon, like many others, feels that diminishing financial resources will likely drive the adoption of more easily developed and deployable technologies. “Budget reductions will tend to drive [communications systems adopters] to either consolidate requirements or to look very seriously at commercial solutions,” he said.

Smaller budgets will probably also inspire the services to work more collaboratively on communications technologies. Herndon noted that large amounts of money are now consumed by contingency plans designed to back up commercial solutions. In an era of shrinking resources, fallback strategies may have to be consolidated among across multiple users or, in some cases, simply abandoned. “Contingency plans are what cost the big dollars,” he said.