Digital battlefield: designers still have much to learn

Recent exercises at training centers in the Western desert drive home some tough lessons for field commanders and systems designers: there is still much work to do in perfecting existing technology before military forces can realistically leapfrog to digital systems across the board

Jun 1st, 1997
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Recent exercises at training centers in the Western desert drive home some tough lessons for field commanders and systems designers: there is still much work to do in perfecting existing technology before military forces can realistically leapfrog to digital systems across the board

By John Rhea

The digital battlefield is one of the most significant military icons of the future. This concept, which represents a wholesale shift in how U.S. Department of Defense leaders plan to conduct future wartime operations, encompasses seamless data networks over which military leaders can exchange information by voice, text, or imagery in real time between anywhere from the foxhole to the Pentagon.

The most pressing challenges of the digital battlefield lie today in moving from concept to practice. These challenges involve phasing out analog, custom, service-specific communications, sensors, and data processing, while introducing open-architecture equipment common to all services and command levels.

Digitizing the battlefield will involve terrestrial and satellite data links, multiband secure radios, graphics displays, small networked computers, and a wealth of software that not only will ease the exchange of information among friendly forces, but also will safeguard it from enemies.

Lessons learned in Bosnia and in two recent major military exercises will help shape the digital battlefield of the future. The two crowning military exercises where officials have sought to introduce new digital technology are the U.S. Army`s Advanced Warfighting Experiment (AWE) at Fort Irwin, Calif., and the Roving Sands `97 tactical air operations exercise at Fort Bliss, Texas. One tough lesson suggests that military officials must perfect the equipment they already have in the field before looking to new digital technology.

While military leaders expect digital data traffic to grow exponentially, they still rely heavily on digital and analog voice communications - particularly at the division level, where commanders insist on timely updates on their military operations. Yet even before the digital systems of the future can be implemented, the Army is struggling to correct recurring analog problems with their existing radios.

During the March AWE, in which officials intended to test 72 new technologies, it was ironic that the biggest problem centered on the venerable Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System (SINCGARS) from the ITT Corp. Aerospace/Communications division in Fort Wayne, Ind. The VHF-FM line-of-sight system provided the required situational awareness in its digital mode, but failed to get an estimated 10 to 15 percent of its voice messages to the intended recipients.

Army and ITT officials tackled the problem immediately during the first week of the exercise and traced the glitch to the SINCGARS built-in anti-jam capability. Tests at the Army`s Electronic Proving Grounds in Yuma, Ariz., involved about 20 ITT engineers assigned to the Experimentation Force (EXFOR), as well as members of the Army`s Fourth Infantry Division (Mechanized) from Fort Hood, Texas.

Experts traced the underlying cause to how SINCGARS responded to the unusually large volume of electronic transmissions during the exercise - considerably greater than the radio would experience in typical battlefield conditions.

There were a lot of emitters around the National Training Center (NTC) at Fort Irwin, located in California`s Mojave Desert - Class 3 FCC transmissions, personal computers, and the like, and the radio automatically went into its "noisy channel avoidance" mode, explains ITT spokesman John Kirkwood. This caused the radio to switch away from some channels and thus missing messages.

By some estimates, the environment was 100 times more electrically noisy than expected. For the radio itself, the long-term solution that emerged was adjusting the system`s software algorithms to create a new baseline for environmental noise. But from an overall operational point of view, the exercise pointed out the need to integrate new technologies in all platforms to isolate interference. A big part of this is paying close attention to antenna placement.

The NATO Implementation Force (IFOR) experienced similar problems in Bosnia. The crux of the problem is that even the most sophisticated command and control system still depends on line-of-sight, packet-switched tactical communications, such as the Army`s SINCGARS and Mobile Subscriber Equipment (MSE), explains retired Army Col. Kenneth Allard, president of Cyber Strategies in Alexandria, Va.

While SINCGARS and MSE are an order of magnitude better than the systems of Korean War vintage that they replaced, they are still 1970s technology. Engineers designed MSE and SINCGARS before the current acquisition reforms - particularly the encouragement of open-system architectures and commercial off- the-shelf (COTS) technologies, and will be difficult to integrate into the digital battlefield of the future.

Allard, a former senior military fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies of the National Defense University in Washington, participated in an on-site study of information operations in Bosnia last year and reported his conclusions in November. One of his principal findings: line-of-sight communications hampered, rather than helped, operations there.

"Because most Army tactical radios operate on line-of-sight transmissions, it is essential to place repeaters and relays on mountain tops," he says. "But with large numbers of radio nets required for the 15 brigades operating in the U.S. sector, there is a real problem with interference," which he calls "signal fratricide."

He continues, "Ironically, even in one of the world`s most mountainous regions there is only so much high ground to go around," When these critical relay sites must be fortified and defended, support requirements can consume 7 to 8 percent of combat manpower in addition to the U.S. signal brigade of more than 1,100 soldiers.

Not only are mountaintop repeaters and transmission stations difficult to set up and defend, but they may be technologically inferior to purely commercial systems, Allard suggests. "Compare this ratio with the AT&T satellite phone system operated in U.S. base camps by roughly 24 company employees," he says. "Although the military communications system features free morale calls, most U.S. soldiers `phone home` with AT&T prepaid credit cards, expense outweighed by clarity and convenience."

The former warring factions in Bosnia, meanwhile, were using cellular phones, which one brigade commander rated as better than his own communications. Despite the inherent information security limitations of cellular phones, U.S. military planners are considering this technology to supplement future battlefield communications, particularly by the Special Operations Command, whose officials have been exploring acquisition of their own communications capability independently of conventional forces.

The exercises also uncovered problems with computers, which are expected to be at the heart of the "system of systems" concept for the future digital battlefield proposed by Adm. William Owens, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Computer viruses were rampant in Bosnia, and by some estimates afflicting as many as 50 percent of the IFOR`s personal computers. Further, the large numbers of single-purpose, stand-alone databases made integration of information more difficult, especially in the intelligence arena. This forced some to seek work-around solutions and adapt equipment for jobs that were not in the original specifications.

The Bosnian experience also sheds light on data input for the proposed digital battlefield. The results here were mixed. The Bosnia Communications and Control Augmentation (BC2A) system developed with assistance from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) started operating in January 1996 and became the first direct-broadcast satellite communications system in Europe to support Operation Joint Endeavor at the Secret/NATO level of classification. The system operates at 30 megabits per second one way, and 6 megabits per second full duplex.

Using high-bandwidth commercial satellite equipment and advanced information tools such as the Netscape World Wide Web browser, 29 locations in the theater were able to distribute real-time video from the Predator unmanned air vehicle and other surveillance aircraft. The network also handles imagery, maps, and other operational information, says DARPA Director Larry Lynn. "For the first time, information producers are `on-line` with the users, who can access information servers throughout the continental United States," Lynn told members of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee in March. The BC2A has since been transferred to the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA).

The BC2A also got high marks from a task force of the Defense Science Board, whose members looked into ways to improve battlefield intelligence gathering and dissemination. In a March 3 report, Craig Fields, chairman of the task force (and a former DARPA director), recommended a "special sense of urgency" in three broad areas:

- continuing the process of getting information and tools down to the battalion level;

- executing a paradigm shift where high-level intelligence centers become more proactive and push tailored products to lower-level users; and

- organizing collection management teams that can integrate national, theater, and organic assets to provide the warfighter with needed information.

Although top-level information flowed to headquarters operations as needed in Bosnia, problems remained in getting the right information to the units in the field. "On one recent operation, a brigade commander who had requested overhead imagery of his area complained that `the system` took three weeks to provide photographs that eventually turned out to be six months old," Allard says. "The reasons are many: communications pipelines too narrow to efficiently carry digital data to the field, outmoded tactical equipment, and automation resources easily overwhelmed by what data is available."

On the positive side, one lesson learned in Bosnia was that U.S. fighting men can still improvise with success in the same spirit they displayed in World War II. U.S. personnel found they could digitize imagery from gun cameras of the Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopter and adapt the imagery for intelligence uses for an investment of less than $1,000 in commercial software and off-the-shelf equipment.

The Apache helicopters of the 1st Armored Division`s Fourth Brigade, "documented Dayton Accord violations and, as unclassified imagery, they were occasionally handed over to the former warring factions," Allard reports. "Not only did these pictures display the exact time and location of such typical violations as tanks in the zone of separation, but they also featured targeting cross-hairs centered on the offending equipment, an unsubtle but highly effective means of compelling compliance."

In the case of the Roving Sands exercise in April, the results are still being evaluated, but its principal contribution to future battlefield digitization will be demonstrating progressively higher levels of interoperability. This year`s exercise focused on joint command and control for tactical missile defense against Scuds and decoys, says Maj. Gen. James Hill, deputy chief of staff for operations at the U.S. Army Forces Command. The exercise employed a variety of defensive missiles, including Patriots, Hawks, Rolands, and Stingers, Hill says. For the first time three targets were attacked simultaneously.

Interoperability in this case came from the Joint Tactical Information Distribution System, which tied together 20,000 personnel from all the U.S. services plus participants from Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands. But the exercises also simulated the Joint Tactical Ground Station, which recently moved from a technology demonstration program to a "first unit equipped" status and is being upgraded to integrate with the Space Based Infrared System.

In another exercise applicable to the digital battlefield called Spring Thunder, leaders of the U.S. Air Force in March used their E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft - better known as Joint STARS - to detect "red" forces at the NTC in a simulated surprise attack on the Army`s Fourth Infantry Division.

The exercise marked the first time that Joint STARS became the first large support battle management aircraft to integrate into the close air support battle. Typically, that aircraft supports jet fighters and attack helicopters.

While the E-8C, based at Robins Air Force Base, Ga., captured enemy movement on its multi-mode radar system, operators of a Joint STARS Deployable Ground Support System (DGSS) called in backup support for friendly troops on the ground. The DGSS on the ground received the same information via data link as the 18 console operators on the aircraft. The exercise marked the first time the E-8C provided mission support within 48 hours of receiving execution orders, say Air Force officials.

Despite the mixture of problems and successes, the quest continues to apply emerging technologies to the digital battlefield of the future. Based on the operational experience of the BC2A system in Bosnia, the Science Board task force summed up the situation this way:

"The good news is that we have made the information flow down to the forces much more robust. The related bad news is that we need to make sure that we don`t saturate the warrior with data while starving him of useful information."

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Army Sgt. 1st Class Roy Bartinck glances out of the laser range finder of the Battle Combat Identification System to intercept through Applique digital equipment whether the approaching vehicles and equipment are friendly or not. DOD photo

Plasma displays capture command and control applications

Designers are beginning to replace conventional cathode ray tube (CRT) displays in U.S. Army ground vehicles and helicopters with plasma displays as part of a general upgrade of command and control capabilities. Plasma displays offer advantages such as reduced size, reduced susceptibility to electromagnetic interference (EMI), and lower life-cycle costs.

Engineers from the Eaton Corp. Instrumentation and Controls Division in Danbury, Conn., have installed 21-inch displays in U.S. Army M2A3 Bradley Fighting Vehicles (through Bradley prime contractor FMC Corp. in San Jose, Calif.) for test trials at Fort Hood, Texas.

Meanwhile, three more similar Plasma displays are undergoing tests in workstations in the Army`s Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter command and control system. Eaton integrators buy their glass from the Japanese corporation Fujitsu, and ruggedize it for operations at altitudes as high as 6,500 feet, says Jeffrey Kilgore, Eaton division sales manager.

The price for the ruggedized versions, in small quantities, runs about $25,000. However, with pressurized aircraft cabins, the same displays can operate at altitudes as high as 30,000 feet for commercial and military aircraft, Eaton officials say.

Fujitsu designers notched a major advance in plasma displays in January when they began initial shipments of a 42-inch plasma display - the largest yet for this technology - through their American distributor Fujitsu General America in Fairfield, N.J.

The 42-inch display, priced at slightly less than $14,000 before ruggedization, aims primarily at commercial applications, says Carl Mandelbaum, Fujitsu national sales manager. But he also expects it to find military applications in benign environments such as teleconferencing and telemedicine.

Mandelbaum says the next step is a 55-inch plasma display, probably due to go on the market next year and aimed at the commercial high definition television applications, but also available for command and control applications at military headquarters.

As previously reported, Thomson Components and Tubes Corp. of Totowa, N.J., is developing a 40-inch plasma display for the U.S. Air Force`s Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft - better known as AWACS - as well as the U.S. Navy`s E-2C carrier-based surveillance and early warning aircraft and the New Attack Submarine, and U.S. Army ground vehicles. -J.R.

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The Bradley Fighting Vehicle is a candidate to receive 21-inch plasma flat-panel displays. DOD photo

COTS has central role in the digital battlefield

Commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology is already playing a role in the digitized battlefield of the future, says Jeff Milrod, president of Ixthos Inc. of Leesburg, Va.

System integrators "are trying to sell systems that are relatively finished rather than seeking development contracts," Milrod says. "This requires a little NRE [non-recurring engineering], but it`s a tremendous positive for the COTS vendor."

Ixthos, a supplier of Analog Devices 21060-based SHARC digital signal processing (DSP) VME boards, is cashing in on this trend by offering its boards as building blocks that can be inserted into an available slot of a distributed communications receiver (two slots for spread spectrum) so that the algorithm designers have plenty of options to optimize the system for specific missions. The DSPs, in effect, become general-purpose devices.

With non-military markets for these technologies growing, the vendors and systems integrators are more willing to invest in their own research and development money and thus the COTS products become commodity items, Milrod notes. -J.R.

DISA extends common environment, to test Autodin replacement

Leaders of the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) in Falls Church, Va., have issued a new version of their Defense Information Infrastructure Common Operating Environment (DII/COE) that they expect to incorporate into the Pentagon`s Global Command and Control System (GCCS) by year`s end.

DISA experts, furthermore, will begin initial operational test and evaluation this month of a messaging system to replace the venerable Autodin.

DISA leaders issued version 3.0 of the DII/COE in April, say agency spokesmen, and are planning further upgrades - versions 3.1 and 3.2 - over the coming year to add further enhancements, including Windows NT.

GCCS is currently at version 2.2, but officials expect it to meet 3.0 standards by this fall. GCCS is intended to extend the flow of high-level information to tactical forces in the field.

The COE is a suite of software tools and operating systems, working off a Unix core, that ties together information from the individual services into a unified data pipeline that is available to many members of U.S. and allied fighting forces at many different command levels.

The Autodin replacement, called the Defense Messaging System (DMS), will undergo initial tests by experts at DISA`s Joint Interoperability Test Command at Fort Huachuca, Ariz.

DISA officials say it will extend back reach "from the fox holes to CONUS [Continental United States]." This is essentially an e-mail system, encrypted end to end, that Defense Department officials will slowly work into military communications systems as they phase out Autodin.

A significant change, however, is the reach of the new system. DMS will tie together contractors and other non- official personnel - 2.8 million addresses in total - while Autodin provided only official-to-official links.

The tests are due to be completed in 11 weeks, according to DISA spokesmen. - J.R.

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U.S airmen adjust the angle of a dish on a Raytheon AN/TRC-170 tactical digital tropospheric scatter radio during recent desert exercises. The microwave communications system use adaptive digital modulation techniques for line-of-sight or tropospheric scatter paths of as far as 140 miles. DOD photo

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