Can you hear me now?

July 1, 2007
Military designers are using more and more commercial-off-the shelf (COTS) equipment to provide warfighters on land, sea, and in the air with a communications network that goes beyond line of sight and provides data in real time.

Military designers are using more and more commercial-off-the shelf (COTS) equipment to provide warfighters on land, sea, and in the air with a communications network that goes beyond line of sight and provides data in real time.

By John McHale

“Can you hear me now,” is the question repeatedly asked by the Verizon cell-phone technician after every step he takes in a popular series of television commercials.

It is a question warfighters and commanders want to avoid having to ask on the battlefield. They urgently need a network of voice, video, and data that is secure and continuous in environments that are much more hazardous than any seen in a Verizon advertisement.

Ironically or not, it is commercial communications technology that is providing the solution they seek.

Thirty years ago the military drove commercial technology, then in the dawn of COTS the roles reversed and the commercial industry was dominant, and now the military is driving it again, says Pat Ryan, director of defense initiatives for Cisco Systems’s Global Government Solutions.

The military has the greatest need and therefore they are dictating technology development and how it is applied, Ryan continues. The military has a greater sense of urgency than industries such as gaming and finance.

“Think about it,” Ryan says. “The military has the greatest need for speed and survivability and therefore is driving the way technology is developed.”

U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class James Brown conducts a radio check during a simulated convoy attack as a part of mobilization training given by 1st Army Division Public Affairs at Fort Dix, N.J.
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“I think the government has done a wonderful job” of implementing COTS to create a network-centric force, says Ric Vandermeulen, vice president and general manager for government satellite communications at ViaSat in San Diego.

Before the year 2000, only about 500 satellite communications terminals were in the field; now there are close to 3,000 deployed, Vandermeulen says.

The difference is the adoption of commercial technology, he continues. Internet Protocol (IP) and Voice over IP (VoIP) products cost less and perform better than in the past.

TCP/IP (transmission-control protocol/Internet protocol), developed under contract from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), lays out the rules of how the Internet formats and transmits data. TCP controls how data bytes move, and makes sure the information received is correct, while IP serves as the electronic post office by ensuring that messages get to the right address or addresses.

A U.S. Army Soldier from Charlie Company, 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment joins the search for missing Soldiers in Yusufiyah, Iraq, May 20, 2007.
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COTS and IP are key to a completely networked force. Eventually every element on the battlefield-air, sea, or land-will have an IP address, Ryan says.

Currently, COTS is at the brigade and above level with programs such as the Joint Network Node (JNN), while low-level tactical forces-individual soldiers, airman, sailors, and marines-still use radios and RF communication, Ryan says.


The JNN is a communications package that enables the warfighter to use advanced networking capabilities and retain interoperability with current force systems. It provides a suite of voice, video, and data communication tools designed to meet the needs of UA/UEx and Battalion Command Post structures. It is a rapidly deployable, early-entry system housed in an S-250 shelter and mounted on an ECV HMMWV for roll-on/roll-off mobility. The JNN typically takes about 30 minutes to set up, say officials at General Dynamics C4 Systems in Scottsdale, Ariz.

“The JNN is performing exceptionally well in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It provides a significant upgrade in capability across the entire spectrum of operations, providing greater bandwidth across the force and increased access to DISN services,” says Bill Weiss, vice president of tactical networks for General Dynamics C4 Systems.

WIN-T (Warfighter Information Network-Tactical) is the next evolution in battlefield communications after the Joint Network Node (JNN). WIN-T will provide communications at all times from a non-line-of-sight perspective satellite communications.

It is the Army’s tactical enterprise network, providing voice and data communications services to commanders and command posts both at-the-halt and on-the-move, from theater level, down through battalion. General Dynamics is the prime contractor and overall system integrator, and their principal partners are Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, Harris Corp, L3, and Cisco.

A U.S. Army Blackhawk uses on-the-move networking capability from ViaSat.
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The critical advantage of WIN-T is its ability to give commanders the right information at all times, even when forces are moving-a capability not widely available today. The key enabler of WIN-T is network connectivity while on the move, Weiss says.

Total on-the-move capability is not deployed yet, ViaSat’s Vandermeulen says. Basically JNN and the U.S. Marine Corps Support Wide Area Network (SWAN) program are the current standards on the battlefield and they are line-of-sight communications.

Vandermeulen says he expects networking on the move capability to be completely deployed by 2009.

Within two years COTS IP technology will reach the individual level, making every soldier an IP node on a network, Ryan says.

Cisco just finished an exercise in Europe that demonstrated the capability of an IP backbone for networked military communications.

Combined Endeavor

Cisco led the Combined Endeavor exercise in Baumholder, Germany, this spring that used an all-IP core network infrastructure, powered by Cisco equipment. Combined Endeavor 2007 was a two-week operation designed to test and document the interoperability of vital communication systems of 42 nations for multinational forces deployed in humanitarian, peacekeeping, and disaster-relief efforts. The exercise’s large-scale move to IP, which began last year, is continuing to advance because of IP’s ability to transform the way defense organizations fulfill their missions to protect and defend.

Combined Endeavor brought coalition and allied forces together using Internet Protocol as the internal point to bring networks together, Ryan says. It is turning voice, video, and data into IP. Cisco brought up the backbone linking the more than 40 countries together in a day and a half, Ryan says.

The U.S. European Command-sponsored exercise brought military communicators from the U.S., NATO, Partnership for Peace (PfP) and other nations together to plan and execute interoperability testing of command, control, communications, and computer systems from participant nations.

During the two-week exercise, more than 1,000 tests focused mainly on the ability to pass data with a high level of security over a Cisco-powered IP backbone, using VoIP, private mobile radio, high-frequency, and satellite communications, with the goal of a smooth exchange of information.

“As the largest C4 interoperability and security cooperation event in the world, Combined Endeavor benchmarks coalition units’ ability to deploy IP in the battlefield,” says Army Lt. Col. James Pugh, exercise director of CE. “This exercise is the only international interoperability program geared at coalition missions’ preparation. And as participants move to IP, they begin to realize that this must operate as a single, federated network rather than as a network of networks.”

Last year, testing documentation from Combined Endeavor partner nations played a key role in real-world operations in Lebanon among a French-led United Nations team from Canada, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States. This year’s exercise will see VoIP testing levels triple, enhancing the ability of forces to operate in rugged environments and life-or-death situations. Information assurance is another key focus area this year for participating nations, as is resolving difficulties of securing VoIP and video teleconferencing across firewalls.


Another major U.S. military communications program that will enable on-the-move capability with IP technology is the Transformational Satellite Communications System (TSAT), the military’s next-generation protected, wideband satellite communications system for military and intelligence users.

Using high-speed optical communications (lasercom), Internet Protocol network routing, and communications-on-the-move capability, TSAT will provide a dramatic increase in connectivity, speed, and mobility for future warfighters.

According to the Los Angeles Air Force Base (AFB) website “TSAT, through its constellation of five satellites, will deliver improvements in connectivity, capacity, interoperability, availability, security, and speed. TSAT’s total worldwide capacity will be 28.5 gigabits per second and will support a broad range of users across ground, air, and space. For example, a ground mobile TSAT user can connect at 1.5 megabits per second (T-1 equivalent) using a one-foot antenna. Where feasible, the burden is placed on the satellite to allow users to connect at high rates with smaller antennas. This reduction in user antenna size provides battle command on the move (BCOTM) capability for more maneuverable and lethal forces. The higher protected data rates provided by TSAT will significantly decrease the time required to send and receive vital information. Airborne and space based ISR assets will also be supported at high data rates using RF and laser links.

A U.S. Army Humvee uses a ViaSat mobile satellite communications system to provide beyond-line-of-sight communications.
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“Network-centric interoperability is an essential element of TSAT. The network aspects of TSAT are managed through the TSAT Mission Operations System (TMOS). TMOS includes both the operations management element that provides the long-term policy and operational planning functions for the TSAT system as well as other legacy MILSATCOM systems including AEHF; and the network operations element that provides real-time management of the operation and configuration of the TSAT network, similar to a typical terrestrial network operations center, but with the addition of satellite network resource management functions. TMOS also provides the terrestrial TSAT interfaces to the Global Information Grid.”

The TSAT team-Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Northrop Grumman-recently reached a milestone with the lasercom capability, demonstrating the operation of the laser communication brassboard hardware and software at 2.5, 10, and 40 gigabits per second.

“Our team met the demanding performance criteria required for the next generation of military communications satellites to send and receive data using laser links,” says Alexis Livanos, president of Northrop Grumman’s Space Technology sector.

Laser terminals communicate by sending modulated beams of light rather than radio signals. For the highest data rates needed by U.S. warfighters, laser terminals are smaller and more cost-effective than radio-frequency terminals. The beam width of a lasercom terminal is extremely small, requiring precision pointing, scanning, and tracking performance to lock on to and communicate with another terminal mounted on a spacecraft as far away as 50,000 miles.

Lockheed Martin serves as the prime contractor, while Northrop Grumman is responsible for the communications payload, including laser and radio-frequency communications and on-board processing. The U.S. Air Force is managing the program at the MILSATCOM Systems Wing, located at the Space and Missile Systems Center, Los Angeles Air Force Base, Calif.

DataPath team works with Army personnel to repair frontline communications

Late last year, incoming mortar fire at a forward base in Sadr City, Iraq, caused multiple instances of damage to one of the nodes supporting the U.S. Army’s communications network.

The enemy fire damaged satellite equipment on Joint Network Node (JNN) terminals. The trailer-mounted SATCOM transportable terminals (STT) enable beyond-line-of-sight communications and are DataPath ET 3000 Portables. They are towed behind a Humvee or other vehicle.

In one incident, a mortar blast significantly damaged an STT’s internal electronics of the terminal, rendering it inoperable. The line-of-sight (LOS) cable that supports the secure network (SIPRNET) for operations was also destroyed. As a result, the 2nd Brigade, 2nd ID headquarters was unable to communicate with soldiers in the field via the satellite-connected network.

A DataPath field-support representative on the scene was able to modify a Battalion Command Post Node terminal to work as a JNN terminal using components from the damaged STT. Just moments later, another field-support representative arrived by helicopter with the LOS cable that was needed. The DataPath team worked rapidly with soldiers to replace the destroyed cabling, including the vital LOS link.

Secure communications were back up within 15 minutes, and the vital “unclassified but sensitive network” (NIPRNET) and back-up SIPERNET were fully restored within three hours. This rapid response helped to keep warfighters in contact with each other and with headquarters, minimizing any compromises to their safety, DataPath officials say.

In Sadr City, a DataPath team supports the satellite communications network that keeps the U.S. Army 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division (ID) up-and-running and connected with the 1st Cavalry Division.

“They were able to repair the satellite terminal and bring the network back up very quickly,” says a U.S. military G6 representative in Iraq. “It was an impressive show of resourcefulness. We were back in business in no time.”

During a second incident in December, an STT at the same forward operating base took a direct mortar hit, completely destroying the generator within the STT. Both the NIPRNET and back-up SIPRNET went down, and the base lost key communication capabilities, DataPath officials say.

The DataPath’s technician’s first step was to power up the STT by connecting it to an external generator. Next, a damaged amplifier was replaced, and both networks were operational only three hours after the initial outage, company officials say.

The DataPath team went on to combine elements of a destroyed STT with an STT that had been damaged during transport, resulting in one fully operational STT and one training terminal.

“Time and time again, the DataPath team has helped us make the most of the resources we have on hand,” says the U.S. military G6 representative.

DataPath’s Integrated Logistics Support (ILS) provides the services that are essential to installing, operating, and maintaining communications networks, even in extreme locations and conditions. In Iraq, more than 75 experienced DataPath field-support representatives work alongside the military to ensure the connectivity that is critical to operations. Many of these DataPath experts have military experience in addition to their technical communications knowledge.

“We are all extremely pleased with the support we’ve received from DataPath,” says the U.S. military G6 representative. “They’ve been able to integrate into our unit very well. DataPath has proven their ability to think on their feet and help us maintain communications that are essential to the success of our mission and the safety of our soldiers.”

ViaSat to improve Blue Force Tracking for U.S. Army

While not an IP system yet, Blue Force Tracking recognizes individual military assets such as tanks and helicopters as nodes on a network. ViaSat in San Diego recently won a contract to develop the satellite ground equipment for the follow-on Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below-Blue Force Tracking (FBCB2-BFT) satellite-network upgrade.

ViaSat will build a prototype network and terminals that are designed to increase network capacity and improve accuracy over the current system under a contract from Northrop Grumman Corp., the Army’s system integrator for FBCB2.

The Army wants to increase the capacity of the system and its accuracy, says Ric Vandermeulen, vice president and general manager for government satcom at ViaSat. Improving Blue Force Tracking network ability will reduce friendly fire incidents and increase situational awareness.

The FBCB2 network is a digital command and control system that provides battle command and situational awareness information from brigade down to the soldier/platform level using GPS navigation signals and communication satellites. ViaSat is teaming with the RF Communications Division of Harris Corp. Work under the contract is scheduled to be complete in one year, and production and delivery of FBCB2-BFT replacement terminals may begin as early as 2008.

A U.S. Army soldier tracks friendly forces with the Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below/Blue Force Tracking (FBCB2-BFT) satellite network.
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Current military operations require improvements in BFT network capacity, accuracy, and operating costs along with expanding coverage worldwide. The ViaSat approach is based on its ArcLight spread spectrum technology, which can dramatically reduce latency and increase the number of simultaneous users in high-density operational environments. In addition, the terminal will be designed to operate in a dual mode that enables it to use commercial communication satellite resources, on-demand, in less dense environments.

With Blue Force Tracking, latency is incredibly important, Vandermeulen says. For example, if the current latency is one second, that creates problems for tracking things such as helicopters, which can move pretty far in one second, he explains.

ViaSat will remove the latency caused by processors, etc., and keep to just the latency caused by the satellite, which is milliseconds, he adds.

System improvements to be implemented by ViaSat include providing a prototype network operations center, upgrading a satellite ground station hub, as well as design, development, test, and delivery of new transceiver prototypes for aircraft and land vehicles.

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Northrop Grumman to develop new B-2 satellite communications system

Engineers at Northrop Grumman in Palmdale, Calif., have begun work on a 62-month, $171 million system-development-and-demonstration (SDD) contract for the first increment of a new extremely high-frequency (EHF) satellite communications system for the U.S. Air Force’s B-2 stealth bomber.

Under a planned three-increment upgrade program, the new EHF system will eventually enable the B-2 to send and receive battlefield information as much as 100 times faster than its current ultra-high frequency (UHF) satellite communications system.

Northrop Grumman is the Air Force’s prime contractor for the B-2, the flagship of the nation’s arsenal of long-range strike aircraft.

“This SDD contract provides significant momentum for the work Northrop Grumman and its subcontractors are doing to increase the B-2’s fighting effectiveness in the face of technological advances by our enemies,” says Dave Mazur, vice president of Long Range Strike for Northrop Grumman’s Integrated Systems sector.

The authority to proceed with the SDD phase follows the Air Force’s Milestone B decision in February authorizing Northrop Grumman to proceed with this first increment of the EHF upgrade program, Mazur adds.

During Increment I, the Northrop Grumman-led team will replace the B-2’s current flight-management computers with a single, integrated processing unit developed by Lockheed Martin Systems Integration in Owego, N.Y. The contract will also involve development of the fiber-optic network that will support high-speed data transfers to, from, and within the aircraft, and delivery of a disk-drive unit from Honeywell Defense and Space that will facilitate future transfer of EHF data onto and off of the B-2.

Increment II of the B-2 EHF program will give the aircraft the ability to send and receive information at EHF frequencies, while Increment III will fully integrate the new EHF communications capabilities into the aircraft’s controls and displays.

According to Mark Rhoades, Northrop Grumman’s EHF Satcom program manager, the EHF Satcom system will also allow the B-2 to connect easily to the U.S. Department of Defense’s Global Information Grid, a worldwide network of information systems, processes, and personnel involved in collecting, storing, managing, and disseminating information on demand to warfighters, policy makers, and military support personnel.

The B-2’s new EHF Satcom system is the latest in a series of modernization programs that Northrop Grumman and its subcontractors have undertaken with the Air Force to ensure that the aircraft remains fully capable against evolving threats. Other recent or current B-2 modernization programs include:

The B-2 Spirit stealth bomber is one of the most survivable aircraft in the world. It remains the only long-range, large-payload aircraft that can penetrate deeply into protected airspace, Northrop Grumman officials say.

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