Tactical communications technology must facilitate interoperability, but legacy systems and technological limitations create challenges in implementing reliable cross-domain communications. Macy Summers, President and CEO of Blu wirelessexplores the potential of mesh networks as a potential solution.
The ability to share battlefield data and intelligence between a nation’s military services is critical to enabling effective tactical communications. It is also important that this data can be shared across command and control (C2) structures, from those in the field to those at fixed C2 facilities.
Yet, over the years, different types of information sharing technologies and systems have developed within the forces specific to the needs and requirements of each service. These systems are often incompatible, which makes it difficult to share data directly between different domains, such as between air and sea.
Data-intensive apps cause problems for legacy technology
Often the technology and networks used within the forces were originally developed for low levels of data usage. This means that the available technology and bandwidth is no longer adequate for today’s massive data usage involving video footage, high-definition sensor data and mega-pixel images.
These legacy systems and siled ways of working pose a complex challenge when it comes to securing an overwhelming military advantage with close adversaries.
The UK Ministry of Defence, through its Land Environment Tactical Communications and Information Systems Program (LE TacCIS), aims to provide tactical military communications through the TRINITY sub-program. Similarly, the United States Department of Defense (DoD), through its Joint Cross-Domain Command and Control Initiative (JADC2)is also working to overcome these challenges.
JADC2 aims to enable a more resilient communications network that will ensure its military is quicker to respond to threats. JADC2 also wants to ensure a coordinated approach that will enable data sharing between military services, while ensuring parity of access to information and reliable communications between command and control structures.
Similarly, the Morpheus program (also part of LE TacCIS) will provide new technology so that soldiers on the front line can more easily share large amounts of data and updates with headquarters and vice-versa. . The program also aims to ensure easy sharing of information between different domains and to set up autonomous formations of land, air and naval platforms.
Data sharing between forces is vital for tactical advantage
However, the reality is that integrating data from electronic weapons, sensors and online is incredibly complex. To ensure that commanders can communicate through a fully integrated system, it is essential that data can be shared in a variety of different formats. All new systems and technologies must also be able to communicate with current platforms already in place, but this in itself is a challenge.
For tactical data to be shared across multiple platforms, the available technology must be able to handle the needs of those operating in a range of complex environments. It must work for soldiers navigating difficult terrain in the Middle East, for pilots who need up-to-the-minute surveillance data and information from the ground, for those who operate naval vehicles. This requires dramatically increased bandwidth compared to today’s sub-6 GHz radios and resilient wireless networks capable of interconnecting from land to sea to space.
The use of satellite systems, particularly Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, is part of the answer to these problems.
Because they are in low orbit, latency is improved compared to using geostationary satellites. However, to operate with high availability and efficiency, LEO satellites require sophisticated tracking antennas as well as reduced size, weight and power profile. LEO communications are generally not peer-to-peer, so a hop through a terrestrial ground station (or space relay) is often required. LEOs are also bandwidth-limited compared to terrestrial communications. Therefore, in many respects, LEO satellites do not meet all the connectivity requirements for complex universal environments.
How Mesh Networks Provide a Tactical Advantage
Terrestrial mm waves mesh networks are proving to be a key element in providing resilient networking at the tactical edge.
Mesh networks are made up of several points called “nodes”. These nodes are wireless radio devices that communicate with each other, creating an overlay mesh that does not rely on a central hub. This enables fast and efficient data routing. The nodes are autonomous and self-managing, finding the fastest and most reliable paths.
Mesh networks are designed to connect multiple systems, working in tandem with existing technologies, to create a holistic system that provides reliable transmission of massive amounts of data.
They can deliver gigabit bandwidths (up to 3 Gbit/s per link today, growing to over 30 Gigabits in the near future) while providing a very small electronic signature – a key near-peer requirement . However, mmWave networks are limited to line of sight and only a few miles in range. Mesh networking (“daisy chain” extensions) can significantly extend this range, but will not solve the wide area network (WLAN) interconnectivity problem that is so critical in C2.
Connected to a LEO WLAN, mmWave mesh networks can connect a peer-to-peer tactical edge network to higher echelon C2 (fiber optic) networks. Finally, a fully interoperable broadband solution is envisioned, capable of providing end-to-end strategic and tactical connectivity while operating with low critical probability of interception/low probability of detection and anti-jamming features.
Additionally, dynamic peer-to-peer mesh networks will enable the tactical integration of multispectral sensor data from multiple sources in real time, in line with the vision outlined by JADC2.
Uninterrupted gigabit communication links between vehicles
IEEE 5G mmWave-based systems are emerging as the secure and stealthy solution to meet tactical communications needs. They use distributed peer-to-peer mesh networks rather than a centralized central network, which means there is no single point of failure. Not only can 5G mmWave technology connect manned and unmanned weapons platforms, command posts, ISR and C2 with the edge, but it also enables defense departments to go through IT governance , cybersecurity, data management and rules.
A recent trial of 5G mmWave systems has interfaced this technology with ground vehicle networking systems. This setup was then tested in a variety of simulated battlefield scenarios. The technology can provide 360-degree communication coverage through a mesh network to efficiently provide uninterrupted gigabit communication links between vehicles.
This mesh network has been tested in a range of environmental conditions, from congested areas with multiple obstacles to rocky, hilly terrain and high-speed chases. Even under these difficult conditions, tests showed that the system was able to maintain a reliable and secure communication network.
Military services around the world are looking for reliable solutions for communications and data sharing in complex operating environments. The ability for different military forces to share data with each other will provide tactical advantage. There are solutions available that can help address these issues, and IEEE 5G mmWave mesh networks should be a key consideration.