ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (June 18) - Seeking the most innovative network technology, the Army has reached out to non-traditional vendors to help with complex problems as it continues the pace of tactical network modernization efforts.
Army developers are utilizing Rapid Innovation Fund (RIF) efforts to quickly mature promising technologies for Soldier experimentation to help inform network design decisions. Administered by the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (USD(R&E)) Small Business and Technology Partnerships, the RIF enables rapid prototyping and experimentation with capability delivery to Soldiers in less than 12 months.
The Network Cross-Functional Team (N-CFT) recently awarded RIF prototyping contracts to three vendors, who will design prototypes that explore next-generation High Frequency (HF) radios, airborne wideband satellite communications “through the rotors” and cognitive radios capable of dynamically adjusting spectrum use in a contested environment.
“These prototyping efforts are allowing us to propel innovation by obtaining unique and innovative solutions into the process of lab and field experimentation with operational units,” said Maj. Gen. Peter Gallagher, director of the N-CFT. “These Soldiers then provide feedback for our future capability sets to inform if, and where, we would add them to our formations.”
For the last two years, the N-CFT has leveraged funding from RIF programs to address challenges in the areas of edge server computing; automated primary, alternate, contingency and emergency (PACE) routing using mobile ad-hoc networking and 4G; agile spectrum and Blue Force Tracking enhancements. Automated PACE radios have successfully transitioned into a program of record and the several Blue Force Tracking efforts are slated for further assessments in an Army science and technology exercise in late summer.
The latest RIF efforts will now focus on the Army’s waveforms, with its first effort aimed to help solve the problem of deploying and managing an HF network.
“HF network management can be difficult because the band is subject to multiple environmental factors, requiring the operator to change modulation, power and even the physical antenna,” said Lt. Col. Brian Wong, former market research lead for the N-CFT. “In a satellite-denied environment, robust HF to our Soldiers at the edge provides them an alternative means of communication to relay reconnaissance, intelligence or targeting data.”
The N-CFT intends to work with the selected vendor to prototype a next-gen system that uses better automated algorithms to sense spectrum, adapt to it and then provide additional capabilities for warfighters that predict the probability of intercept and detection.
The second effort is asking the selected vendor to prototype wideband SATCOM capabilities on helicopters. With the need to exchange increasing amounts of data between air and ground platforms, future vertical lift network needs demand access to commercial SATCOM capability. This RIF effort will inform air platform transceiver integration, which must overcome signal transmission through rotor rotation and power amplification needs to leverage high bandwidth tactical internet capability.
“By incorporating this SATCOM capability into future rotary wing modernization efforts units will have additional bandwidth, which can potentially solve air mission command and telemedicine requirements from the aviation community and act as an aerial tier to facilitate air-to-ground integration,” said John Shotwell, chief engineer for Program Executive Office Command, Control and Communications-Tactical.
The third new RIF effort is to prototype a cognitive radio that uses advanced AI to analyze the spectrum, then dynamically uses the spectrum to provide Low Probability of Intercept/Detect characteristics and to ensure better decisions for the health of the network.
All three efforts will culminate in Soldier experimentation over the next 12-24 months with units from active duty brigade combat teams, the National Guard and special operations. The key to success for this effort, and all of the capability set efforts, is to obtain user feedback as part of the developmental operations (DevOps) process, which teams Soldiers with developers to ensure the prototypes meet warfighter needs.
By establishing the RIF program, the DoD recognized that many small businesses have capabilities that are nearly mature enough to meet emerging threats, but they just required the appropriate contract opportunities to compete alongside the traditional defense contractors.
“The success of previous RIF efforts, both in the capabilities delivered and the accelerated pace with which we were able to deliver them, gives us the confidence to expect the same outcomes with the newest RIF prototypes,” Gallagher said. “It’s pretty exciting to know that we can place a prototype in a Soldier’s hands for experimentation, and within a year, he or she can potentially deploy armed with the final design.”
The Network Command, Control, Communication, and Intelligence Cross-Functional Team (N-CFT) is responsible for enabling Army formations to reliably communicate anywhere, anytime, in all domains, in all environments, against any adversary. Consisting of a core team of experts, the N-CFT drives requirements and transitions to deliver a network that is expeditionary, mobile, hardened and intuitive. The N-CFT addresses the most pressing challenges to the tactical network that our soldiers use on the battlefield.