Communications interoperability remains a persistent challenge for DOD organizations relying on a multitude of communications equipment, including handheld radios, desktop phones, laptops and intercom systems. In a familiar rinse-and-repeat process, tactical organizations looking to improve communications capabilities acquire cutting-edge solutions to address specific battlefield use cases, deploy it to only a subset of warfighters, and struggle to achieve fully interoperable communications across all echelons and partners.
It is a circuitous problem with which the U.S. Army is all too familiar. As organizations field more types of equipment for specific requirements, this translates to an inability for warfighters to reliably and securely communicate with each other, thereby impacting situational awareness and, most importantly, mission success.
U.S. Army Futures Command leadership recently noted that enhancing interoperability of tactical radio and battlefield communications is key to enabling optimal function in future missions. As a result, the Army is currently working with industry partners to advance innovations that address these warfighter challenges. Additionally, numerous major Army tech initiatives are continuing to expand reliance on tactical communications to achieve and maintain warfighting advantages. These initiatives include increasing command post mobility, delivering advanced situational awareness and communications to the dismounted warfighter, and enabling remotely operated and autonomous systems. Without advanced and interoperable communications, these technologies will have limited effectiveness.
While the Army is planning rapid implementation of these advanced technologies that increase reliance on communications networks, it also acknowledges growing threats to communications in the form of cyber and electromagnetic warfare. To protect against these threats, as well as to mitigate other issues that can disrupt communications (such as equipment failure, radio-blocking terrain, weather, etc.), the Army is putting renewed emphasis on enabling the military’s traditional communication planning framework: primary, alternate, contingency, emergency—more commonly known as PACE.
In any given mission, there must be multiple ways to communicate in case there is a communications failure. Planning is underway to enable networks with multiple radio types, that each provide different capabilities—including experimentation with LTE and 5G, new forms of satellite communication (SATCOM), free-space optics and meshing radio. However, in order to enable these backup measures, all solutions must first be interoperable.
A COMPLEX PUZZLE
Establishing and maintaining tactical communications on the battlefield to ensure interoperability for Army battalions, brigades, divisions, companies and platoons is an incredibly complex endeavor. Addressing needs of joint operations, operations with coalition partners and host nations—and even civilian first responders for humanitarian assistance and disaster response activities—further complicates the equation. Doing so while meeting reliability, security and emerging requirements demands addressing multiple, interconnected challenges.
Among the high-level challenges of this communications puzzle are:
- Most tactical communications solutions in the field are still primarily based on handheld radios. Among them is a wide array of vastly different legacy and modern radios. These different radios have varying levels of analog and digital capabilities.
- Innovation in radios, including advances in software-defined radios, results in a fast-growing number of disparate, incompatible waveforms—but programs cannot afford to upgrade all radio users simultaneously every time a new innovation is available.
- Inherent limitations in range for radios necessitate networks that include multiple radio types such as line of sight, meshing, beyond line of site and SATCOM.
- Upper echelons and Soldier-worn devices tend to utilize commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) Internet Protocol (IP)-based solutions that rely on Session Initiation Protocol and Unified Communications (UC)—rather than push-to-talk waveforms.
- Joint, partner and civilian communications require different levels of classification, requiring careful security design and separation of communications networks—often resulting in the need to field multiple radio types.
- Commonly fielded radios may support communications on only a single channel—necessitating organizations to field multiple radio base stations in order to provide interoperability to multiple teams of communicators.
- No single vendor makes more than a few components of the complete communications solution—requiring extensive integration. This further drives up training requirements, as systems become ever more complex.
This list makes it plain that the current initiatives to achieve resilient communications will drive up the number of radio types; add to the size, weight and power of the combined solutions; and also increase the complexity of said solutions. These challenges also illustrate why there is a critical need for communications interoperability that encompasses multiple radio types and IP communications, in tactical-ready form factors that are integrated, reliable and easy to use.
SOLVING THE PUZZLE
The DOD is actively innovating and working with industry partners to develop and field solutions that integrate disparate radios, waveforms, IP networks, cybersecurity technologies and UC systems. A key approach utilized to align these communications capabilities is Radio-over-IP (ROIP), which converts analog signals like standard radio transmissions into a digital, IP format that is compatible with nearly all modern communications technologies. Through this digitization, the Army can incorporate multiple radio signals into existing (and future) tactical networks, enabling remote access over vast distances to networks, and enhancing interoperability for the non-radio devices it uses, such as tablets and laptops, that the Army has deployed across its various echelons.
Historically, ROIP systems have large, discrete equipment that is not built for mobility and rugged tactical environments, and is not integrated into a full IP suite. Hauling around this type of legacy equipment limits the ability of warfighters to stay agile. Therefore, optimizing these solutions for size, weight and power; environmental protection; integration with IP suites; and total system usability can deliver seamless communication and maximize mission success.
Fortunately, the U.S. Army is working across multiple programs to coordinate efforts toward addressing the needs and technical challenges outlined above. By making requirements clear to the defense industrial base, the Army enables rapid innovation made available in COTS solutions that can deliver the needed capabilities. These key advancements now making their way into the hands of warfighters can enable:
- Enhanced radio interoperability. Organizations have fielded systems providing radio interoperability and ROIP in the past—many of which were large, not rugged and poorly integrated. The Army can now leverage solutions that integrate multiple, disparate communications networks (radio, Voice over Internet Protocol, ROIP, SATCOM, etc.) that solve these communications challenges in the smallest available size, adapting popular radio types, phones and intercom systems into a common communications format—Internet Protocol.
- Incremental deployment. Interoperability between new and legacy radio technologies ensures organizations can periodically deploy new solutions without requiring all communications users to upgrade at the same time or to the same equipment.
- Unified Communications integration. Bringing all these pieces together can connect the warfighter on the front lines to the upper Army echelons, including enterprise IP networks. This in turn delivers “voice convergence,” ROIP and UC that integrate multiple communications networks through simple connectivity.
- NETOPS integration. New ROIP and radio systems are increasingly integrated into software-based NETOPS systems, improving manageability, reducing training time and expense, and offering new options for automated PACE. NETOPS encompasses technologies and processes related to network management and configuration, network cybersecurity assurance and network situational awareness.
- Flexible and scalable deployment. Modular systems are key to optimizing solutions for specific program requirements, as there is a need to scale from small, Soldier-carry solutions to multi-radio network deployments across forward operating bases, command posts, ground vehicles and aircraft.
Soldiers depend on the ability to seamlessly communicate in real time and be aware of their surroundings. Interoperability must extend beyond simple communications between like organizations, staff and vehicles—it must also be secure, lightweight, rugged, simple to operate and reliable. Thanks to current advancements in technology and a coordinated, cross-functional focus on network interoperability, the Army is poised to unlock unprecedented command, control, computers, communications, cyber, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities for warfighters in hostile territory, giving the U.S. Army and its partners the best equipment to ensure mission success.
For more information about new IT technologies transforming the battlefield, go to www.pacstar.com.
CHARLIE KAWASAKI, Certified Information Systems Security Professional, joined PacStar in early 2005. He is the chief technical officer, leading numerous innovation programs and developing tactical solutions for secure wireless, cybersecurity and data center applications. He is part of the PacStar team that recently won the networking equipment awards for both the U.S. Army Transportable Tactical Command Communications and U.S. Marine Corps Networking-On-The-Move vehicle-mount and deployable tactical communications programs. He has more than 35 years’ experience in cybersecurity, software and network engineering, and systems integration. He serves on the board of the Technology Association of Oregon, is vice chair of the Oregon Cybersecurity Advisory Council (www.cyberoregon.com), and is co-founder of Northwest Cyber Camp (www.nwcyber.camp). Read Kawasaki’s last article in Army AL&T magazine’s Spring 2019 issue at https://asc.army.mil/web/news-alt-jfm19-four-future-trends-in-tactical-network-modernization/.
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