Battlefield networks roll with the punches

Warfighters and contractors create a ubiquitous network that adapts on the go

With today’s technology, it is possible to use a BlackBerry to record video of a speech and send it to a colleague via a wireless network. The same technology was on display at a Defense Department joint interoperability exercise this summer.

Empire Challenge is an annual live demonstration run by Joint Forces Command and designed to improve intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance while enhancing coalition data sharing. At this year’s exercise, Ericsson Federal Inc. demonstrated technology that was adapted from consumer and commercial tools, said Bob Dunn, a senior vice president at Ericsson Federal.

Ericsson’s tactical network, called QuicLink, was used to deliver high-speed voice, video and data. The introduction of the technology is in line with DOD officials' desire to have ubiquitous access to networks wherever warfighters must go.

DOD officials also want new tools to be flexible and relatively inexpensive, just like the commercial versions that are available to consumers now. For example, at Empire Challenge, Ericsson’s technology was installed on planes, towers, boats and Humvees.

Real-time ID

In one exercise, a Coast Guard boat pursued a mock drug runner on the Patuxent River in Maryland, Dunn said. The boat streamed video to a command post using the technology. When Coast Guard agents boarded the boat, they used a handheld device and wireless connectivity to stream video of a suspect so he could be identified. In real time, they were able to ID and detain the suspect.

“There used to be a delay in getting that information to command and control and a delay in taking action,” Dunn said. “Instead of taking 30 minutes to identify someone, we were able to identify someone in minutes.”

QuicLink has a 24-mile range, can simultaneously serve as many as 70 users and enables 5 megabits/sec downloads and 1 megabit/sec uploads. The technology uses the same wireless technology that consumers have access to with their mobile phones.

Connecting warfighters to DOD networks is the main goal of network-centric warfare, said Terry Morgan, director of network-centric strategy at Cisco Systems' Global Government Solutions.

One goal DOD has for net-centric warfare is to give warfighters who work at roadblocks in Afghanistan the ability to send and receive voice, video and data, Morgan said. At roadblocks, warfighters need to quickly apprehend enemies or let innocent people move forward. Warfighters need network connectivity and data to accomplish that.

“One of the issues with net-centricity in a defense environment is you have to turn a whole bunch of things into networked devices that haven’t been designed necessarily to do that,” said Rex Craig, product manager for Cisco’s Mobile Ready Net, which is technology that enables ad hoc networks. For example, a roadblock, vehicles or warfighter might need to become a source of connectivity.

Radio, routers converge

The answer to the connectivity conundrum is to converge how computer routing networks and radio networks operate, Craig said. Mobile Ready Net does that by merging IP routing and mobile radio technologies.

Cisco teamed with Harris Corp. to develop the necessary technology using Harris’ Highband Networking Radio. Harris’ radio-networking technology and Cisco’s routing technology are merged into a single device. Besides functioning as a radio, the device works as an IP node.

“It can mount on a vehicle and communicate line-in-sight with other vehicles,” Craig said. “And using the radio routing capabilities, any changes in connectivity are communicated to the router so it can start its updating process to reconverge the network.”

If the network connection is lost between two vehicles, the technology automatically searches for other nodes to re-establish the connection. That kind of pervasive network is what DOD officials want to create, Craig said.

“We want to be able to extend the benefits of collaboration as far out into the network as we can,” he said.

As far-reaching networks proliferate, another growing need is technology that can help analyze huge amounts of data that intelligence and military forces collect. The ever-improving networks allow warfighters on the front lines to have the same data as leaders in command centers.

“Being able to take that data and give warfighters more actionable information than they have today is the goal,” said Jason Valore, a program manager at Spadac Inc., of McLean, Va.

Tracking insurgents and other foes is becoming more difficult for coalition forces because the enemy is constantly adapting. For example, some groups in Iraq routinely remove or switch the SIM cards in mobile phones to avoid being monitored by coalition forces, Valore said.

Spadac is conducting research for the Office of Naval Research to find better ways to predict where groups are operating and where events might take place. The technology also helps identify how military commanders should best deploy resources.

The technology uses spatial data, such as the location of improvised explosive devices. In the research project with ONR, Spadac also is adding cultural information, such as tribal affiliations and demographic information, to make better predictions.

Using the spatial and cultural data, Spadac identifies signatures of particular groups. So if the groups' cell phones all drop off a network, the technology helps find them again. If coalition forces detect new groups using cell phones, they can use the predictive signature to identify them, Valore said.

The technology is being tested using real data. If it is deployed, it is another example of how net-centric warfare gives U.S. forces an advantage, Valore said.

“If coalition forces disrupt a group, the technology tells us where they are likely to go,” he said. “Warfighters can either follow them or have someone waiting for them.”

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Washington Technology.

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