ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (April 18, 2022) – No trees, no mountains and no buildings, just wide-open spaces for Soldiers to enjoy unencumbered radio communications.
Back to reality, the odds of fighting in this perfect environment are slim to none, therefore radio technologies must reflect a more typical non-line-of-sight (NLOS) tactical environment – especially as the Army moves towards a Multi-Domain concept of operations.
These communications must also mitigate adversarial detection, interception and jamming. While satellite communications (SATCOM) solutions exist, they don’t always meet the needs of mobile maneuver forces.
To meet the need for high-speed and resilient communications in all environments, the Army is experimenting with radio-driven Aerial Tier Network (ATN) communications to help inform future network capability set modernization efforts.
“The ATN effort is addressing the need for a dedicated communications asset for brigade and battalion that will create line-of-sight or near line-of-sight signal paths for high-bandwidth communications in non-line-of-sight environments,” said Scott Newman, Technical Management Division Chief, Project Manager Integrated Interoperability, Integration and Services, assigned to the Program Executive Office Command, Control and Communications-Tactical (PEO C3T).
By thickening and extending ATN communications, the Army will improve the range and resiliency of the network for ground forces, leaders said.
“A dedicated aerial tier communications relay enhances maneuver flexibility and speed, opening up additional options for commanders to stay connected during operations,” said Col. Greg Napoli, Unified Network Lead for the Network Cross Functional Team (CFT), part of Army Futures Command. “We will gather information derived from future ATN experimentation efforts to help formalize these designs.”
Both PEO C3T and its experimentation partner, the DEVCOM C5ISR Center, have teamed to bring the N-CFT’s design goals for the Army’s future tactical network to fruition, delivered as part of the two-year Capability Set process. Also playing a key role in ATN experimentation are the Future Vertical Lift CFT and PEO Aviation, as they refine their sensor to shooter and aviation-centric mission communications networking requirements, respectively.
“ATN allows us to send data up to an asset in the aerial tier and then back down, permitting the signal to hop over obstructions to effectively obtain more nodes and extend the area of communication,” Newman said. “This is different from sensor to shooter communications, which incorporate the aerial tier for air-to-air and air-to-ground connections that are used for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions.”
Over the next two years, PEO C3T and DEVCOM C5ISR will leverage ATN field-based experimentation at the NetModX and Project Convergence events to evaluate an aerial relay in contested environments using existing Integrated Tactical Network (ITN) capabilities, radios, antenna solutions and waveforms.
“Since the Army plans to field ATN capabilities in Capability Set 25, experimentation efforts must map to existing ITN radio technologies,” Newman said.
At Project Convergence (PC) 21 in October-November 2021, the Army leveraged aerial platforms, prototypes and surrogates to host network transport capabilities and enable new communications relays across ground and air nodes. Aerial tier communications on an unmanned aerial system (UAS) platform performed well in a dedicated communications relay role, improving resiliency and range of the network. The Army intends to continue aerial tier experimentation through future PC events.
This summer’s NetModX, held at the C5ISR Center’s Ground Activity location Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, will also enable the Army to experiment with mature and emerging ATN components.
“At NetModX, we will identify different aerial tier technologies using ITN capabilities by assessing communications performance, detectability, and resiliency in the face of electronic attack, with and without the use of directional antennas,” said Dr. James Tucker Swindell II, Chief, RF Communications Division, Research & Technology Integration Directorate, DEVCOM C5ISR Center. “Our goal is to identify anti-jam capabilities that increase range, reduce latency and increase capacity and scalability.”
In addition to NetModX and Project Convergence, the C5ISR Center’s experimental team will perform systems analysis to determine the best designs to integrate onto aerial platforms, such as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, while also exploring the compatibility of directional beam-steering antennas with millimeter wave radio systems.
Information derived from the ATN experimentation will also inform the C5ISR Center’s Science and Technology follow-on activity called Relay for Air NLOS Ground Environments (RANGE), which will continue to address technologies that help to strengthen and extend the network by developing next-generation communications payloads for aerial relays.
“The RANGE effort is being built with C5ISR/EW Modular Open Suite of Standards (CMOSS) modularity to enable additional thickening of the aerial network for ground communications and/or a system to system capability based on the ranges required and the radios used to accomplish it,” Swindell said.
Extending the ATN’s initial size, weight, power and cost considerations, the payloads developed under RANGE will leverage the Center’s CMOSS standards for a modular open systems approach, which allows platforms to insert cutting-edge multi-function sensing and communications capabilities while leveraging commercial advancements. The CMOSS Universal A-kit eliminates the need for platform-specific integration as C5ISR capabilities, such as communications, Positioning Navigation and Timing, mission command, signals intelligence and electronic warfare, can be fielded as cards that are physically inserted in a common chassis and as components that use existing cabling.
“Embracing a CMOSS infrastructure allows for fast, flexible hardware and software upgrades at the tactical edge by simply replacing a capability processing card,” Swindell said. “It enables quick integration of unanticipated, innovative capabilities without having to replace the entire system. The Army, at unit level, will be able to modify vehicles and possibly Solider borne systems for different missions to meet emerging threats and improve Soldier lethality and survivability.”
The RANGE team is working hand-in-hand with Future Vertical Lift CFT to provide analysis and integration of communications links from UAS systems to the ground and FVL assets to allow for data transfer. They are also exploring how to incorporate multi-platform sensing interoperability that will support mission needs for PEO Aviation, FVL CFT, and PEO C3T.
“We are targeting RANGE for Network Capability Set 29, but our timeline for delivery is as soon as the science is ready,” Swindell said. “Until then, all of our experimentation efforts are driving towards creating the vital bubble for NLOS communications, even in degraded environments, to field to our mobile, dispersed and expeditionary forces.”
The U.S. Army Program Executive Office Command, Control and Communications-Tactical develops, acquires, fields and supports the Army's mission command network to ensure force readiness. This critical Army modernization priority delivers tactical communications so commanders and Soldiers can stay connected and informed at all times, even in the most austere and hostile environments. PEO C3T is delivering the network to regions around the globe, enabling high-speed, high-capacity voice, data and video communications to a user base that includes the Army's joint, coalition and other mission partners.