U.S. Army previews future network's revolutionary "mobile backbone"
February 4, 2008
NAVAL AIR ENGINEERING STATION LAKEHURST, N.J. - The Army conducted an engineering field test of its future tactical communications network here Oct. 15-26 and demonstrated a new mode of combat communications with a "mobile backbone," Nov. 5-6.
Demonstrated were the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical Increment 2 engineering models being developed to allow brigade, battalion and company key leaders to continue to collaborate and exchange information using Internet-based voice, video and data technologies whether their combat formations are moving or halted, according to Lt. Col. Craig Schaefer, WIN-T Increment 2 product manager.
"We demonstrated the capability of the communications node at Division, Brigade and Battalion level to actually jump and maintain connectivity while on the move. This is a capability that we have not seen to this point in the Army. The possibilities to where tactics can go with this capability are pretty much endless," said Schaefer.
Such a system would differ significantly from any currently used in the Army.
Currently, Army combat communications capability is based on "fixed backbone" technology which relies on a string of base stations equipped with satellite terminals or high-capacity radio terminals dispersed among front line units and connecting to rearward elements. The communications nodes are co-located with operations centers, which are at the nexus of operational information, decision-making and communications.
When a combat formation moves toward an objective that's beyond the reach of their communications systems, however, operations centers must plan and execute a "jump," which is the planning-for, taking-down and setting-up a forward base station to support operations.
During the, "jump," the combat formation may be pressing forward against enemy locations and resistance. At the same time, access to critical information is limited because primary communications systems are en-route. After the systems arrive at a new location, setup takes time.
"In order to set up a base station for a TOC (tactical operations center), you have to stop, point your satellite antennas, find out where the other TOC is, erect a mast and point your radio antenna at the other TOC's antenna. You also have to set up the software to control all the devices," said Darren LeBlanc, system engineer for WIN-T, referring to the hardware -- radios, modems, routers and antennas -- that enable modern tactical communications.
"All that before you can exchange information," said LeBlanc. "It can take hours."
"The dilemma with existing systems is if a commander directs his unit forward he must also manage the risk of degraded communications at a time when critical or unexpected events can take place." said Col. William C. "Chuck" Hoppe, project manager for WIN-T. "With WIN-T we're developing a network that persists so that a commander has access to the information he needs, wherever he is."
WIN-T Increment 2's persistence works by eliminating the need for a fixed base-station. This is accomplished by including high-capacity radios and mobile satellites terminals, on Tactical Communications Node vehicles that would be dispersed among the deployed unit, according to LeBlanc.
Each TCN vehicle is equipped with a, "smart antenna," that sends and receives a high throughput radio to other ground nodes while on-the-move or at-the-halt, said LeBlanc.
"A smart antenna automatically finds its neighbor, so it knows which direction it wants to radiate," said LeBlanc. The antenna is controlled by a specialized radio called the Highband Network Radio that can send, receive and relay radio traffic. Such radios are classified as "line-of-sight" radios, referring to the fact that they work when not blocked by terrain.
Another antenna on the TCN vehicle is a mobile satellite communications (SATCOM) terminal for "non-air breathers," so-called because they signal to space-based satellites, said Schaefer. The satellite antenna is controlled by a SATCOM modem, which is "basically a satellite radio," said LeBlanc.
Mobile satellite communications terminals have the advantage of extending communications beyond the limitation inherent with "line-of-sight" radios. Their drawback is less communications throughput, said Schaefer.
Each TCN has a processor that can choose between "air-breathing" and "non-air-breathing systems. "It decides, 'if I can see you, I'll transmit over line-of-sight radio; If I can't see you, I'll transmit over SATCOM,'" said LeBlanc.
"Having the high throughput of air-breathing radios and the range extension of the non-air breathing satellites in one vehicle gives you the best of both worlds," said Schaefer.
It's all brought together by software. The antenna pointing, network configuration, planning functions and network management, "is wrapped up in one software package," said LeBlanc. "It can be set up in minutes. Once it's set up, it continues to operate and reconfigures itself on the move. One guy with one computer terminal can monitor all the equipment and all the nodes."
The radios, modems, and antennas in the mobile TCN's work with the software to form the mesh-like "mobile backbone" that extends across land and into space. The decision-makers and planners can operate anywhere within the mesh with full access to information on the network, according to LeBlanc.
Which sums it up -- in theory.
During the demonstration, attendees in a hangar here watched a computer-generated map display encompassing approximately 17 kilometers of the naval base grounds and beyond to nearby Fort Dix.
On the map, icons represented 16 individual node locations, including six engineering models of the mobile Tactical Communications Nodes. Colored lines represented radio connections between the nodes, forming a mesh-like structure akin to a local area network.
"Live feeds" from two cameras mounted on vehicles were displayed on the periphery of the large screen, and since the "live feed" was Internet Protocol video traversing the local area network, it provided a visual indicator of the operating strength of the network.
With a call over a radio, the narrator cued the movement of the Tactical Communications Nodes. On the map's smaller scale, the vehicles appeared to inch along in different directions, but the video showed the movements to be taking place at highway speed. "This part isn't scripted," said the narrator.
As one of the TCNs continued along a roadway, a green line that depicted its connection to another TCN turned yellow and then vanished. "That vehicle just went into a null," said Schaefer. "The connection between these two points was lost."
Another green line had replaced it, however, signifying that although one connection was lost, another was made with a node that had a direct line-of-sight view into the null.
The path the network chooses to maintain the link is chosen not by human operators, but by the network's software algorithms Schaefer said. "That's the part that's not scripted. It will configure differently each time we run this."
All the while, the live video streamed with barely a flutter.
The live demonstration followed a series of test events and excursions with expertise provided by the office of Lt. Col. William Utroska, product manager for Command, Control, Communications, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconaisance-on-the-Move, from the Army's Communications Electronics Research Development and Engineering Center.
WIN-T will fall into the Army's Future Combat System network, so there is a need to perform tests to identify and reduce areas of risk during development, Utroska explained.
"We record everything on the network," Utroska said. The data collected builds a body of evidence to support assessments of the key technology's maturity. "All of that addresses critical technology elements for WIN-T as well as the Army's Future Combat System."
In the summer an Army unit will perform more comprehensive limited user test with 30 nodes, said Schaefer. The engineering field test is part of a schedule that would see delivery of WIN-T Increment 2 technologies to Army units beginning in 2010.
The project manager's office for WIN-T is part of the U.S. Army Program Executive Office for Command, Control, Communications-Tactical.