Market Conundrum: Commercial Challenge Facing Military Communication Suppliers
The Wall Street Journal recently contained a story illuminating the challenge faced by defense contractors seeking to sell digital-communications technology to the military. The Army has been conducting field tests of Apple iPhones and iPads as potential additions to the equipment carried by soldiers, and it is pleased with both the functionality and durability of the devices. Not only are the Apple products highly versatile, but they are reliable despite their compact dimensions and light weight. The service is also trying out similar devices utilizing Google's Android operating system.
This probably is not good news for traditional military suppliers, who have been developing next-generation battlefield communications devices under a variety of programs such as the JTRS. The military systems are well-suited to a warfighting environment, offering robust bandwidth and secure links that cannot be intercepted by enemies. However, they cost many times what an off-the-shelf smart phone does, at a time when the joint force appears headed into a protracted period of fiscal austerity. As the budgetary walls close in, some defense users may decide they can adapt commercial products to meet future tactical needs rather than utilizing systems developed according to military specifications. The phones (they are actually radios to engineers) burn up battery power fast when functions like the browser are being used and do not work in the absence of nearby telecom infrastructure, but something tells me there will soon be solutions to those problems. I'm guessing that encryption options for secure smart-phone communications already exist. Although 99 percent of warfighters today would probably prefer to go to war with one of General Dynamics' handheld Rifleman radios rather than an iPhone, the pace of innovation in the commercial world suggests that military suppliers are going to have a hard time keeping up with, much less "overmatching," the devices available in a typical Verizon store. Commercial off-the-shelf products will never offer the reach-back to waveforms utilized by legacy military devices in the field today, but as a quick, low-cost fix to some immediate connectivity challenges, they could give military-unique solutions some serious competition. I would not want to rely on an iPhone connection in Afghanistan as my lifeline, but if the next big military push comes in Guadalajara, my son's Android should work just fine.
JTRS Contract Award to GD for JTRS Rifleman Radios
This week, General Dynamics announced in a news release that a $56.4 M order for a batch of JTRS radios: The Army wants 6,250 rifleman and 100 manpack radios, the company says, which the defense industry hopes will just be a small taste of the total sets that DoD eventually will buy. (GD’s announcement says the Army would like some 190,000 rifleman and about 50,000 manpack radios.) Company officials say in their press release that JTRS gives “grunts” the best voice and data linkups they’ve ever had on the battlefield, and will tie everyone together better as they make their way into the field in greater numbers. Here’s how the company put it in its announcement: JTRS HMS Rifleman Radios will enable soldiers on the battlefield to have secure, mobile voice, video and data communications capabilities that are similar to those available through commercial cellular networks. “The rifleman radio, enabled by the Soldier Radio Waveform, will be the first secure tactical radio to extend the network down to the individual soldier, significantly improving their safety and mission effectiveness,” said Chris Brady, a vice president of General Dynamics C4 Systems. “The two-channel Manpack radio bridges Rifleman Networks to both legacy and future high-level command networks so everyone in the force is on the same page.” The Rifleman radios recently demonstrated their value and utility in a March 2011 exercise conducted by the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. In a follow-up report by the unit’s commanding officer, Maj. Gen. James L. Huggins said that the radios performed in “remarkable fashion,” effectively filling critical communications gaps that are unmet by current tactical communication systems. These gap-filling capabilities include secure voice and data communications, improved command-and-control and non-line-of-sight communications at the battalion level and below; and improved situational awareness for dismounted soldiers. The initial 100 Manpack radios will be used for further operational testing to support full-rate production. For the LRIP order, General Dynamics and Thales Communications will manufacture the Rifleman radios while General Dynamics and Rockwell Collins will build the Manpack radios.
WIN T: The Connection for Warfighters on the Move
As the Army’s tactical portion of the U.S. Global Information Grid (GIG) network, WIN-T is designed to help deployed forces tap into that global network and its databases, collectors and connections to national agencies. At present, this requires multiple private networks, or outright forward deployment of representatives from the agencies in question. WIN-T has absorbed the program formerly known as the Joint Network Node, and another 3 fielding increments will gradually add key capabilities to the system. Increment 1 is widely fielded, Increment 2 is in advanced testing, and R&D contracts are beginning to flesh out Increment 3. WIN-T Increment 1 provides soldier’s access to the GIG while stationary, and used to be known as the Joint Node Network. It lets small platoons on the ground communicate with the rest of the world, something they couldn’t do in the past. The JNN-N/ WIN-T-1 node consists of vehicles and shipping containers (the Joint Network Node, the Battalion Command Post Node, the Ku SATCOM trailer and the Hub Node) equipped with systems that provide voice over IP, dynamic IP, videoconferencing and access to the military’s classified and unclassified networks.
The US Army likes the idea of using commercially available Ku-band satellites via an integrated suite of state-of-the-art baseband, switching and termination equipment. Commercial Ku-band SATCOM offers performance and availability advantages that include higher throughput rates, as well as the ability to upgrade many of the fielded Ku-band terminals to Ka-band used by the military’s own Wideband Global SATCOM. Increment One is being used by more than half of the Army worldwide, including troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to prime contractor General Dynamics. WIN-T Increment 2, which General Dynamics is also under contract to provide, is designed to provide connectivity on the move. Integrating SATCOM, line-of-sight and terrestrial signal types, the “self healing” WIN-T increment 2 is designed to provide high-bandwidth connectivity that can automatically switch as between ground-based and satellite connections. For example, if a commander is moving into a city, which begins blocking line-of-sight signals, the system automatically connects to SATCOM. WIN-T Increment 3 introduces an airborne network node to act as a relay, increased network reliability and capacity; and smaller, more tightly integrated communications and networking gear for the field. WIN-T Increment 4, the last of the WIN-T developmental program elements, is a pending contract award. General Dynamics C4 Systems leads a WIN-T team that includes Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, Harris Corporation, L-3, and networking rivals Juniper Networks and Cisco Systems.
Wireless Network After Next: WNAN
At present, many soldiers do not have communications radios because the hardware is too expensive. Buying 2-way radios from Radio Shack before deployments solved that problem for some soldiers, but insecure communications created others. On the high end, the US military’s JTRS program is expected to create radios that are much better at working together, and much easier to upgrade. As one might expect, however, the hardware appears to be on track to be more expensive in return for that improved performance. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Wireless Network after Next (WNaN) program aims to shift the approach used to design these military wireless networks. It also intends to use inexpensive, high-volume, commercial off the shelf hardware components. They would be combined with adaptive wireless network software operating over densely-deployed, low-cost wireless nodes, with the aim of putting a reliable communications radio into the hands of every soldier.
Right now, military wireless networks are designed for radio range. Instead, DARPA wants to employ more of an ad-hoc swarm strategy, and design for node density. The idea is that with more WNaN components on the ground, it becomes easier to find other nodes in range and link to them, creating reliable local networks. Those ad-hoc meshes could then be combined with more expensive gear that connects the whole network back to HQ. As a result, everyone has an inexpensive radio, and the group still has full radio range and performance.
WNaN has 2 complementary components. When integrated together and deployed, DARPA hopes that these 2 components will create a distributed, intelligent network entity that is more than the sum of its parts. The first focus area (WANN) is low-cost, multi-channel, spectrum-agile, MIMO-capable wireless nodes, built with inexpensive RF circuit technology. MIMO technology can already be found in some homes these days, where advanced wireless Internet routers use multiple antennas at both the transmitter and receiver for better performance. The second focus area (WAND) is a network with densely deployed low-cost wireless nodes and adaptive network layers that mitigate the shortcomings of any individual nodes by leveraging their rich interconnection. A philosophy that’s very much like the Internet itself.
M/A-COM of Lowell, MA, a unit of Cobham, makes the WNaN Radio and BBN/Raytheon make the Network software. The Government owns all data rights to both. Key aspects of the WNaN Radio include: Dynamic Spectrum Access (DSA) - eliminates frequency pre-planning and fixed frequency assignments in favor of DSA techniques that sense which spectrum is in use and which is available. It is backed by strict policy compliance checking, in order to use the right spectrum at the right time; Multiple Transceivers - WNaN’s MAC and network protocols are designed from the beginning to operate efficiently over 1, 2, 4, 6, or even more channels; Disruption Tolerant Networking - today’s networking protocols all drop packets immediately if any node along the path loses the route to the destination. In WNaN, the nodes store packets temporarily during link outages. In field experiments, this DTN implementation sitting under the standard IP stack has delivered 100% of the traffic in situations where traditional IP-networking delivered less than 10%. Because DTN sits under the standard stack, all current IP applications still work. Additional aspects include: Content Based Access - instead of having to know the exact filename, transport protocol, and node, CBA techniques that allow users to query the network to find information, and some critical, often used data like maps can be automatically pre-placed around the network; Multicast Voice with Quality of Service - configurable call groups that can support the kind of quality and reserved network capacity required for voice communications or ensure that high-priority data makes it through demands on the network; Energy saving portability - the WNaN protocols are designed for small handheld devices, and targeted for embedded operating systems and processors and include energy conserving capabilities. If WNaN radios hardware can be delivered at their projected price of $500/set they will turn the radio world upside down.
Commercial Wireless Networks: A possible Answer to the Battlefield Communications Problem?
The most advanced commercial wireless phone network could be in Pakistan. Surprised? Other nations are building out networks that do not have legacy hardware ties and are installing new advanced wireless technology, new state-of-the-art wireless cells and communications systems and networks. Iraq has a large and growing commercial phone network of cell towns and mini base stations. It is a good bet wherever U.S. forces may go in the future, the will be fighting in a place where advanced wireless systems are in place and are part of the local infrastructure. Why not take advantage of that for our own use? The Army is finding the use of smart-phone devices such as an Android or iPhone leads to an increase in "SPOT" reports, wherein soldiers share tactically relevant information across the force in real-time, service officials said. Through a series of ongoing evaluations called "Connecting Soldiers to Digital Apps" - an initiative which places smart phones and PDA-like devices in the hands of soldiers in mock combat operational scenarios - Army officials are learning that sharing data, images and even video instantaneously can potentially provide a tactical advantage on the battlefield. "Think of mission command," said Rickey Smith, Director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center - Forward. "Part of what we have to have shared is understanding. This is another way for the individual soldier to send something back to his squad leader or fellow squad members." Soldiers that went through mock-combat exercises with mobile smart devices achieved as much as a 40-percent increase in "SPOT" reporting, which included taking photographs and sharing data within their formation. "As much as possible, this ability go get information in real-time horizontally and vertically is important," Smith said. "A smart phone is a camera. It is a voice communications device and it provides chat text. You can send or receive photos graphics and videos."
During evaluations, soldiers have been able to take pictures and send them back to headquarters, or speed up the pace of a MEDEVAC by providing location information quickly, he added. In addition, the Army has had success running situational awareness Battle Command applications on smart phones such as Joint Battle Command - Platform, a next-generation force-tracking program able to show locations of friendly forces. The Army is now conducting cost-benefit analysis of the use of various smart phones and applications. Some of the applications involve the use of icons and maps with key location-related information. At the same time, there are information assurance challenges with the use of smart phones, as you do not want to use a device that might give away your locations to a potential enemy. The Army's Connecting Soldiers to Digital Apps, or CSDA, initiative is considering various types of encryption-and other methods, designed to mitigate these concerns. Connecting Soldiers to Digital Applications (CSDA) is an initiative sponsored by the Army Capabilities Integration Center and the Army CIO with support from the Army Training and Doctrine Command and other Army organizations, according to an Army news release. In Phase 1, the Army launched several training- and office-oriented pilot projects using a variety of smart phones. CSDA Phase 2 is assessing the value of smart-phone apps for tactical operations. Planned future efforts will include a gateway and base stations to provide integration with tactical radio networks and battle command systems. Spurred by the Army’s smart-phone plans, scores of sophisticated mobile apps, many designed for use in battlefield conditions, have arrived during the past several months. The Army has even created its own app store — the Army Marketplace — that’s designed to give military personnel a convenient place to look for various types of smart-phone software. Meanwhile, commercial software developers have stepped forward with offerings that target a wide range of tactical and support needs, including intelligence gathering, planning, team coordination and emergency support.
SoldierEyes, for instance, is designed to be the app equivalent of a Swiss Army knife. The software, which runs on iPhone, Android and Windows Mobile devices, aims to help military personnel effectively react to and manage missions and emergencies. Developed by Overwatch Systems, a Textron subsidiary, SoldierEyes lets users receive and gather information about a specific mission as it occurs in real time. The software helps teams respond to events using critical data provided to their smart phones as well as manage investigative processes with command and control centers and other support groups. With Army support, a growing number of soldiers have begun developing their own smart-phone apps for distribution via the Army Marketplace and other channels. One such tool, Tactical Nav, is an iPhone app that improves firing accuracy by allowing users to share target data before launching an attack. Developed by Army Capt. Jonathan Springer while serving as a battalion fire support officer in eastern Afghanistan, the application enables a squad to carry out joint artillery and mortar strikes with every member knowing the exact direction and location in which to fire. With this in mind, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has Soldiers in Afghanistan using a smart phone/PDA-type device which translates Pashtu into English and vice versa. However, the "phone" function on this device is turned off, for now, so as to mitigate security risks.
Another option being explored is the use of portable cell-towers able to establish a mobile, ad-hoc cell network for deployed forces. This technique creates a mobile "hot spot" which can be extended by adding nodes to the network. As part of these evaluations, the Army is assessing whether ad-hoc mobile cell networks can successfully integrate with an existing tactical network, which includes software-programmable radios, satellites and other communications technology. The CSDA initiative is also having success in using smart devices for training materials, which can be pulled down and used by students at the place and time of the student's choice. Documents like the Army "Blue Book" instruction manual for new Soldiers, military police basic officer courses and Patriot missile launcher crewmen courses are using smart phone applications. It is possible to postulate a future where smart devices are with every Soldier, hat is where the Army is thinking in terms of capability and does the benefit outweighs the cost.
Smart Cell Phones; The Potential Real Answer to Battlefield Communications
Top Air Force personnel will soon be sporting new secure smart phones. The service signed a contract for 300 General Dynamics Sectera Edge phone-PDAs, which are equipped with built-in Suite B encryption, according to General Dynamics news release. Intended for senior leadership at the air staff and major command levels, the smart phones are part of a broader Air Force plan to integrate Secure Mobile Environment – Portable Electronic Devices (SME-PED) into its consolidated enterprise network. Already in use across the federal government, the Sectera Edge is the first SME-PED with National Security Agency certification for classified voice and data, according to General Dynamics. The device can access commercial WiFi and cellular networks and safely communicate with classified and unclassified government networks. It also can send and receive both classified and unclassified phone calls and emails. The device can also synchronize data with a user’s computer to access calendar, address book, calculator, notepad and other capabilities similar to a personal digital assistant, the company said. The Sectera smart phones can operate on both Global System for Mobile Communications and Code Division Multiple Access commercial cellular networks. The phones are also interoperable with more than 350,000 fielded Secure Communications Interoperability Protocol devices.
The SME-PED program was launched by the NSA to provide the government with a handheld communication device that can securely access classified data. SME-PED smart phones are produced by General Dynamics and L-3. One-third of senior federal executives use their personal smartphones and laptop computers to conduct agency business, according to a recent survey by the Government Business Council, Government Executive Media Group's research division. More than three-fourths of high-ranking government officials use agency-issued smartphones and more than 70 percent use agency-issued laptops. Although many defense communications technology and security experts view commercial mobile devices and wireless networks with a sense of unease, if not outright distrust, many also understand that DoD and service branch decision-makers are facing increasing pressure to adopt commercial mobile technologies.
DoD is awash with various types of highly secure terrestrial- and satellite-based mobile computer and communications platforms. But commercial alternatives tend to be more versatile in terms of real-world compatibility and application support, and they are usually cheaper, easier to use and faster to deploy. The Defense Information Systems Agency is setting itself up as a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) to manage a million devices or more across the Defense Department. DISA recently solicited Industry’s help for at least a million subscribers, showing the military's growing use of smart phones by its members. DISA seeks to manage smart phones and other endpoint devices, and wants advice from industry, especially from existing MVNOs, about the resources and time needed to set up such a network. Security concerns come with the territory for owners of a smart phone, tablet or other mobile device. Yet few people are more focused on mobile security than defense community personnel who fully understand that missing or compromised data could lead to lost lives, not just lost money.
Smart Phone Apps for the Warfighters
The Army does not have a plan to give every soldier a smartphone yet. But Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army’s vice chief of staff, recently said that if the devices proved themselves in testing, the service would “buy what we need for who needs it now.” Many of the applications the Army wants to develop—for instance, the ability to watch full-motion video shot from a drone—can already be done with equipment now in the field. The potential advantage of smartphones and tablets is their lighter weight and ease of use. Another app, called “SoldierEyes,” turns a smartphone into a sort of battlefield navigation device. In addition to displaying a digital map, it features an “augmented reality” mode that enables the user to flip on the camera and scan the horizon. Digital markers pop up on the screen, displaying the direction and distance to objectives on the battlefield. The Army is experimenting with Apple devices such as the iPhone and iPad, but is also trying devices built around Google’s Android operating system. All told, the Army has identified around 85 digital apps for testing, some created by commercial software designers, and some developed in-house by soldiers. The service is also developing downloadable apps to substitute for bulky instruction manuals that need constant updating, often at considerable cost.
But the Army could have some big challenges when — or if — it decides to try to field all this stuff in an actual war. It could be in a position where it has to deploy with its own cellular network infrastructure, meaning towers, cables and computers, which sounds potentially complicated and expensive. And it will need to figure out some way to protect all this data zipping back and forth, especially if troops are using their devices full time. The U.S. Marines are in the smart device game as well. A few Squadrons in the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) have been using iPads to carry their charts; it’s easier to load up all the documents and view them on the tablets than it is to deal with the paper copies. It might sound like an expensive convenience, but it makes a lot of difference when you are strapped into your Whiskey Cobra gunship: “There are hundreds of thousands of buildings in the area of operation. Essentially there is no room to carry all of the maps in the small cockpit of the Cobra. It can be a real inconvenience to pull them all out and reference them during flight,” explained Capt. Michael Christman, an AH-1W Cobra pilot with Marine Light Attack Squadron 267. “Instead of scanning sheets of paper, we type in a sector name or a four-digit grid coordinate and the iPad will center on the desired area,” said Blankenbicker. Blankenbicker said another advantage of using the tablet over traditional maps is the pilots’ ability to mold its functions to whichever platform they are flying. “We are not forced to use only one or two configurations or applications for the entire wing,” said Blankenbicker. “The iPads can be tailored to each platform. The ability to remain flexible is what has made innovations like this so useful.” The story goes onto explain that the Marines’ use of the iPads was something the pilots came up with themselves, not an initiative from higher up. Naval Air Systems Command initially was skeptical about the crews using the tablets this way, but now the authorities say they’re on board. It’s a dream story for the mobile device industry, even if the Marines do not necessarily need the iPads’ mobile-network capability for the ways they’re using them. If mobile-device manufacturers can get troops hooked on using their products when they’re on duty as much as they do off, it could lead to lucrative new deals with one of the biggest customers.
There is a lot going on in the world of C4ISR needs that have been summarized here. RF and Microwave engineers and their companies can and will play key roles enabling advanced communications networks, software defined radios and network centric warfare capabilities. This market space is moving very rapidly, with technology establishing new thresholds every day. Companies who choose to become players in this huge business opportunity can win substantial new RF and Microwave business, supporting all the major C4ISR prime contractors, and the military services.