Budget and technology issues reshape combat communications

Emerging systems and innovative approaches help the Defense Department enhance tactical edge communications despite diminishing financial resources.

Reliable, efficient and effective combat communications systems are integral components of a modern military. Troops and commanders engaged in diverse theaters of operation require robust, rapidly available and nimble communications technologies to share, process and distribute vital real-time situational data.

Despite ongoing budgetary pressures, the Defense Department is taking advantage of emerging communications technologies to improve situational awareness on the tactical edge with a combination of COTS- and custom-engineered systems and services.

Radios and Networks

Networks are playing an increasingly important role in getting vital information to those who can benefit most from it, regardless of their location. "We have a very good architecture with a wide area network (WAN) down to the dismounted soldier," said Jennifer Zbozny, chief engineer, technical management division, Army Program Executive Office Command Control Communications-Tactical (PEO C3T) at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. "Within this architecture, we want to provide enhancements to deliver more throughput and, therefore, do things more dynamically today than we could in the past."

Increased network flexibility is now recognized as an essential attribute when striving to ensure high-quality data service to commanders and front-line troops. "For example, if you had two routes connecting radios to Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T), we would like to be able to select the link at that moment that is best suited to pass data," Zbozny said. "Today, we have a static route, which means it stays fixed on WIN-T and will always take this route unless the connection goes down."

DOD is looking for components and technologies that can provide dominant edge networking at the company and platoon levels, said Bill Clingempeel, strategy and tactical networks area director at Northrop Grumman Information Systems' Tactical Mission Command/Mission Command Systems unit in Herndon, Va. New network capabilities promise to lead to more sophisticated communications tools. "Technologies potentially include tunable modems over much wider bands, variable bandwidth selection, and rapid de-confliction of frequency contention in cases where intense competition for spectrum exists," he said. Other advancements include net-centric management and ease-of-use improvements to support rapid initialization of the network, Clingempeel noted.

Zbozny said that significant progress is being made in improving information delivery to the tactical edge. "I don’t think we have gaps anymore from a 'who gets what' perspective," she said. "Two years ago, I would have said company and platoon [units] were not getting access to information, but that is not true anymore."

Ken Arndt, product line management manager at Harris RF Communications in Rochester, N.Y., stated that DOD is also actively pursuing networked radios -- carried by vehicles, by hand and in rucksacks -- that provide secure, software-defined tactical networking capabilities for all its individual components. "These radios will enable the transmission of both voice and data, leading to enhanced command and control and more detailed situational awareness," he said.

According to Zbozny, the new mobile network backbone, WIN-T Increment 2, is now being installed in select company vehicles, enabling users in austere environments to send and receive information without being tied to fixed locations. "For the platoon level and below, the new generation of data radios and handheld devices are giving dismounted soldiers the situational awareness that before they only could get in a vehicle," she said. "As we move forward, the Army will look to add more applications to the handhelds that deliver more information and capabilities."

COTS Rules

With COTS technologies now proving their ability to provide performance, usability, flexibility and value in front-line applications, custom-built solutions are rapidly falling out of favor at DOD and among the various military services. "Among our customers, we are seeing a shift toward off-the-shelf solutions
that they [can] deploy in a secure manner," said Jason Parry, collaboration practice director at Force 3, a communications systems developer in Crofton, Md. "Many
of those communications tools custom-built for combat are highly secure,
but come with limited functionality and a costly price tag," Parry said.

Even major contractors that have traditionally supplied the military with custom-built systems are now beginning to appreciate the need to incorporate COTS technologies into their offerings. Clingempeel noted that the SoldierLink System (SLS) with Advanced Kinetic Networking Waveform (AKNW), an ad hoc networking technology developed by Northrup Grumman and Downington, Pa.-based Rajant, is built using "commercial-off-the-shelf, non-developmental technology" that relies on less costly radio chipsets and modem boards. "In leveraging these chipsets, radios can be designed and built at one-third to one-half the cost of current military-developed radios designed under very stringent military specifications and systems architectures," Clingempeel said.

Another area where COTS technology’s impact is beginning felt is video, which is now playing an increasingly important role in combat communication. "The DOD is looking to carry information from the 'tip of the spear' in theater over a diverse variety of wired and wireless communication facilities with unicast and multicast IP transmission for display on any type of video player, including large screens, PCs and mobile devices," said Steve Kossar, director of product management for VBrick, a Herndon, Va., company that supplies video communications technology to the Army.

After years of unfulfilled potential, rapidly improving network technology is making video communications a viable and more reliable medium. "Video must be transmitted with the least possible latency (delay) so the information gathered can be acted upon quickly," Kossar noted.

Streamlining Services

Another important trend in combat communications is a shift toward Web-based access and command capabilities. "We’re looking to replace many systems that required their own hardware boxes or desktop computers with Web applications that users can access with a laptop and network connection," Zbozny said. She noted that the Web also offers other benefits, including faster and easier user training, the ability to place a common operational picture on a single display, and speeding command post setups and teardowns.

Zbozny believes that Web technology, along with transport network convergence, is leading to simpler and more standardized network operations tools, making it easier to monitor and manage networks and systems from inside a command post. "We are trying to be smarter about providing capabilities with a smaller footprint," she said. "It’s a cheaper and better way to support the users."

Zbozny also sees a trend toward pushing some tactical services up to the enterprise level, with the goal of achieving visibility across both domains as well as preventing duplication of server architectures. "One example ... is through the implementation of the Host Based Security System, in which servers are located at enterprise theater network operations and security centers and provide services to tactical levels," she said. "With that type of effort, we have to carefully balance the units’ needs with the bandwidth available to make sure we get them the connectivity and capability required."

Budget Challenges

Even as technologies emerge to give commanders and troops access to more types of information in more ways and in more places, budget issues remain an ever-present concern. "There is no denying the impact that spending cuts will have on our support to soldiers," Zbozny said. "Programmatically, sequestration may result in breaks in production and development efforts, changing schedules and preventing us from achieving milestones." Over the long run, Zbozny observed, budget issues may increase program costs and delay the deployment of necessary communications technologies. "That will mean fewer soldiers equipped with the tactical network that ensures they have the right information at the right time to execute their mission," she said.

Budget cuts also threaten to impact essential support activities, such as training and equipment maintenance. "Our organization is committed to examining all efficiencies so we can continue to maintain the level of support our soldiers deserve," Zbozny said. "We’ll continue to implement innovative cost-saving measures, so we’re prepared for likely budget constraints."

Yet some contractors, particularly smaller firms, see the hint of a silver lining in DOD's ongoing budget struggles. "Budget cuts can have a positive affect on companies like ours, where innovation and a commercialization focus exist," said Darren Cummings, CEO of Cummings Engineering, a Chandler, Ariz., company that supplies DOD with technology that transforms Android devices into secure mobile communications platforms. "We are a very agile company with relentless focus on innovation; the constant message from [President] Obama on down is clear—the government must embrace the innovative small business."

Kossar noted that budget concerns at DOD are leading to closer scrutiny of individual line items. On the other hand, he observed, "We are also seeing more streamlined decision-making."

Additional Online Resources

Army’s WIN-T Increment 2 Overview


MIT Ad Hoc Wireless Networks Article


DISA Host Based Security System