Multinational test supports coalition battle network integration
October 31, 2011
WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M., Oct. 31, 2011 -- Coalition members have come together at White Sands Missile Range this month to test the compatibility of their countries' network and communications systems.
Multinational Experiment 5 is bringing Soldiers from the United States, Canada, Australia, and Great Britain together to conduct tests near White Sands Missile Range's Orogrande gate. Each country has brought its own communications and network systems, or versions of new systems they are developing.
Over the course of the experiment, coalition partners conducted simulated tactical operations to test the compatibility of each of their systems with each other.
By connecting each of their systems together, it's hoped that the militaries involved will be able to better fight as a team and conduct more efficient operations in a future that's expected to see more multinational operations.
"The chief of staff of the Army said that we're going to fight as a coalition, and we're going to train as a coalition and we're going to do that on a regular basis," said Col. Dan Hughes, director of the System of Systems Integration Directorate.
One of the challenges and goals of the Multinational Experiment, or MNE, is to figure out how to make each country's respective equipment work together without the need for equipment exchanges or a middle man to relay the information.
"In the past we'd share information by giving our partners our same system. That's really not interoperability, that simply allowing them to use our system. We're trying to establish information exchange so that our native battle command system can talk directly with their battle command system and not have to exchange hardware," said Lt. Col. Jake Crawford, chief of staff for the MNE assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics, and technology with the System of Systems Integration Directorate.
While standard voice communications are one of the capabilities being tested, navigation and tactical data sharing are also a large part of the test. The idea is to generate a common operating picture across the entire coalition. To this end, the systems that each country uses to track the position of their own forces and reported enemy forces are being linked together, allowing each country to see the location of allied forces and any reported enemies.
A demonstration given Oct. 18 showed the four countries were able to pass that information to each other, with colored and flagged icons making synchronized movements around each country's digital map display.
"These are sending out their blue dot information about every two minutes, so it might look a bit clunky. But from what we've got at the moment, previously we used to have to pass that information through liaison officers, via voice, typing that information into our system; that's a lot slower. So this is 100 times better then what we've currently got," said Lt. Col. Darcy Rawlinson, with Australian Army Headquarters in Canberra.
In addition to positional data, the forces have also been working on transmitting and sharing other information like text messages and even video feeds.
While through the use of liaison officers, allied forces have been able to roughly track each other's movements and operations, the systems being tested in the MNE are man-portable and vehicle-mounted systems intended for use by company-sized units. Changing the focus of this information stream means that valuable tactical information, like the location of friendly units and sighted enemies is going directly to the Soldiers on the ground.
"This capability has not really existed at the tactical level before, so for a Canadian company to see the location of an American company directly on their battle management system is really a step forward," said Maj. Andrew Hepburn, a senior systems engineer with the Canadian Forces.
By passing this valuable tactical information to the combat Soldiers in the field means they will be able to make better tactical decisions and also greatly reduces the risk of friendly fire between allied units.
The experiment comes at a time when the Army is moving to an agile acquisition process, a faster way of getting new equipment that's better suited to the modern Soldier and modern information age battlefield.
"Our IT acquisition is taking too long. It's taking upwards of 10 years to get a new radio system. That's like if you bought a new cell phone today, but it wasn't delivered until 10 years from now," Hughes said.
In this regard the MNE is serving a purpose parallel to another simultaneous test, the Network Integration Evaluation, also taking place at White Sands Missile Range.
"We are trying to achieve similar objectives. In NIE we are trying to fill a capability gap that exists, and one capability gap that exists in all of our nations is our ability to have multinational interoperability," Crawford said.
White Sands was chosen as the location for this test for several reasons. The range's terrain, with its combination of deserts and mountains, has similar conditions to those found in places like Afghanistan.
"This is designed to replicate what we would face if we were deployed to Afghanistan or some other harsh environment. So the equipment has been holding up in the dusty, dry, hot environment, as it should," Crawford said.
As a premier test range, White Sands Missile Range already has the tools in place to support the test. Even though the units involved in the MNE are relatively small, the mission of communications testing involves a lot of work to prepare.
If the various radio and communications gear isn't carefully calibrated and scheduled, it's possible that other test mission of civilian communications could be affected by the test. To account for this, WSMR personnel have had to deconflict the test with other range operations and schedule test events based on time and location.
"It's been exciting, it's been a challenge, but it's also been successful," Crawford said.