by Nicholas Yuran
Trends in Reducing Size, Weight, and Power in the Modern Military Satcom Architecture
Mobility is a critical requirement in todays tactical satellite environment, with manpacked systems and vehicular Communications-On-The-Move (COTM) at the forefront of the US militarys most high-profile satcom programs. Major programs such as Win-T (Warfighter information NetworkTactical), CAMC2 (Common Army-Marine Command and Control), FBCB2 (Force XXI Battlefield Command Brigade and Below), SWAN (Satellite Wide Area Network), FCS (Future Combat System), HC3 (High Capacity Communications Capability), among many others, all incorporate a requirement for motility or mobility. This has influenced military requirements to steadily trend away from the traditional transit case solutions toward more lightweight and portable technologies.
Size, weight and power, or SWaP in military parlance, is being reduced both at the terminal level and the individual networking device to more effectively provide COTM capabilities. These trends are compelling satcom vendors to make some bold R&D investments in new and emerging technologies, and develop a new generation of satellite products to meet the requirements of the modern mobile warfighter.
The COTS Factor
Just as many military programs are looking to reduce their SWaP, so, too, are commercial networks investing in technologies that minimize the footprint of their equipment. The emerging market for satellite capabilities in private and commercial aircraft and vehicles closely parallels the requirements of the airborne and vehicular comms programs in the U.S. DoD (Department of Defense).
Satellite equipment vendors are capitalizing on this shared requirement to build smaller systems that can be simultaneously sold into both markets. This reduces development costs and encourages more rapid technology release cycles. Military programs benefit from this trend in Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) products through shorter acquisition cycles and a broader choice of technology vendors from which to procure. As more COTS products are specified for military programs of record, expect to see increasing competition among vendors based not only on technical capabilities, but also on how small they can make those capabilities.
The Transit Case Dinosaur
In recent years, the tactical satellite (TACSAT) terminal has been deployed in a series of hardened transit cases. These case typically house cryptographic equipment, routers, accelerators, and other baseband equipment. While the capabilities of these systems have increased substantially over the last 20 years, the embark footprint has generally remained the same.
The SWaP of such architecture has limited the on-the-move warfighter to what is commonly termed a comms-on-the-halt capability. Many transit cases fielded today can weigh between 150 and 200 lbs, requiring 2-man and 3-man lift teams to transport them. While this architecture may be movable, it does not fit the modern military definition of mobile. Such is not a practical response to the rapid and highly portable deployment requirements of todays on-the-move warfighter.
In addition to being cumbersome, high SWaP systems put a security strain on the warfighter. One of the primary concerns in the combat zone is that when you send out a comms team, someone has to provide security, says Captain Billy Cornell, USMC, of the Marine Corps Tactical Systems Support Activity (MCTSSA). The smaller, lighter, vehicle-mobile terminals are much easier to secure and safeguard.
In his role as Engineer Support Officer for the Satellite Wide Area Network (SWAN) program, Captain Cornell has worked with the satellite communications integrator DataPath, Inc., to produce a small, lightweight, baseband package that meets the portability requirements of the SWAN program.
Dubbed the SWAN Mini, this package features a man-portable baseband package weighing a fraction of its predecessor cases. Despite the significant reduction in size, it provides all the networking capabilities of many of its larger transit case equivalents. Captain Cornell views the SWAN Mini as a model for future comms packages, since it combines the best features of a transit case, including ease of access and manageability, with the mobility of a man-portable kit.
An emerging technology that is starting to see deployment in airborne, naval, and ground forces networks is a line of products generally classified as communication kits. For all practical purposes, they are a mobile, lightweight equivalent of the transit case solution, reduced in SWaP to better suit the man-carried and on-the-move environment. Typically housed in a weatherproof and ruggedized briefcase-style enclosure, and powered either by internal batteries or an external power source, these devices combine cryptography, SCPS (Survivable Collective Protection System) acceleration, and routing into a single man-portable product. With all the baseband equipment conveniently stored in a single suitcase, all that is needed is a bandwidth source (Inmarsat, VSAT, terrestrial media) and the warfighter can be connected to their home network.
One vendor leading the trend in communication kits is Norfolk, Virginia-based Dataline, Inc., According to Datalines Vice President of the Communications Products Group Dr. Dave Glovier, they first observed the urgent need to reduce satcom equipment SWaP several years ago in the systems that were being deployed on C-130 aircraft.
The systems took up most of the aircraft, says Dr. Glovier, and when we reduced the solution to a 14u case, it exceeded everyones expectations. But Dataline realized they could go even smaller. After an extensive R&D effort focused on miniaturization, they found the solution in their Data Communications Device (DCD) product line. The DCD kits took the 14u solution down to the size of a briefcase and reduced weight to less than 40 lbs.
The kit supports voice, video, and command and control communications over SIPR (Secure Internet Protocol Router) and NIPR (Non-Secure Internet Protocol Router) channels and can also support a broad range of power sources. Of the mobility of the product, Dr. Glovier adds, Simply stated, our users can now take their garrison or command center capabilities with them anywhere in the world independent of the communications path and power available. What once took almost an entire aircraft to house can now fit in the passengers overhead compartment.
SWaP and Cool Software
What may not be obvious is that just as hardware vendors face SWaP issues in DoD, so do their counterparts in the software industry. At Global Protocols, Inc., a company that produces the SkipWare® software line found in most of todays DoD satcom acceleration products, producing more efficient software with less resource consumption and a smaller footprint is critical.
Our licensees are all going smaller with their hardware, says Global Protocols president Monty Deel. As they shrink their hardware, we have to make sure our software can shrink with them. The software we develop today is designed to be as lean as possible, with a smaller footprint and minimal resource consumption. This allows us to port to virtually any of our partners platforms regardless of the form factor.
In addition to the portability issue, Mr. Deel points out that efficient software puts less of a strain on the hardwares resources, allowing it to operate without radiating a high thermal signature. Producing cool software reduces the detectability of the host hardware and makes it much more durable when operated in a high-temperature theater.
Limitations on Reducing SWaP
While every program office may be demanding a reduction in their equipment SWaP, there are considerable limitations that will prevent wide scale miniaturization of the military satcom equipment suite from occurring overnight. The technologies required to reduce SWaP are often the result of considerable R&D investments by the commercial vendor community. These investments can only be recovered by passing on the costs to their customers, and the assumption is that the military will pay a premium for equipment with a reduced SWaP. However, as Gerry Michael, Chief Engineer for Satcom Space Systems at the US Army CERDEC sees it, not everyone is going to be able to pay this price.
Everyone wants smaller and lighter technology, says Mr. Michael, but even in the on-the-move programs, there has to be a balance between SWaP and price. Mr. Michael notes that the optimal form factor and high performance must be affordable, especially in large programs with high volume procurements. Otherwise, the perfect low-SWaP technology can lose out to a larger, heavier, but much more affordable solution.
As Gerry Michael points out, there are always going to be the limitations of physics that prevent miniaturization from going beyond a certain point. Physics simply wont allow a 9-meter antenna to be replaced by a 6-inch equivalent, for example.
Nevertheless, where there is necessity, there is inventionit is becoming increasingly apparent to satcom technology vendors that in order to remain competitive, they must find innovative ways to miniaturize their solutions. The physics of the matter notwithstanding, the vendor community is beginning to recognize that in order to grow their businessthey must first shrink it.
About the author
Nick Yuran is the Director of Sales and Marketing for Global Protocols, Inc. As a founding member of the company, Nick has worked to promote SCPS and other standards through DoD. His focus is on interoperability in tactical systems. Prior to joining Global Protocols, Nick served as a telecommunication analyst for various U.S. intelligence agencies. He possesses a BA in Slavic Languages from the University of Arizona as well as a MS in Telecommunication from George Washington University.