As long as our nation has existed, our military has been ready, willing and able to meet the various forces that have threatened our nations interest, both here and abroad. And from the very beginning, information has played a critical role in our ability to meet these threats. From the first messages carried on horseback to todays global satellite and communications networks, the value, and need, for accurate and reliable communications has been clear. But far from its humble origins providing an often slow and one-way flow of information, the communications systems that we rely upon today have become both real-time and massive in nature, able to convey multiple forms of information between remote forward operating units and multiple levels of central command and control facilities.
As our communications infrastructure has grown in size and complexity, however, it has also become an often self-limiting system, becoming too big or complicated to handle the evolving mission roles that we ask our troops to undertake.
The Current Communications Package
When we look at the traditional transportable communications system that has been commonly deployed by mobile units, including larger forward operating bases, we are usually talking about systems that are designed to support 25 to 100+ warfighters, offering a complete suite of communications capabilities, including:
- LAN-based Data, VoIP and Video Services
- Analog/FXS-based Secure Call Services (SCIP/STU/STE)
- Embedded LMR (Land Mobile Radio) Gateways
- VSAT-based IP Reachback
- Full RED/BLACK separation
To accommodate this set of services and functions, the typical transportable kit includes:
- BLACK-side Communications Rack: populated with a variety of rack-mount LAN hubs/switches, VoIP support systems, video support systems, traffic optimization/acceleration systems and network-side routers,
- RED-side Communications Rack: populated like the BLACK-side racks and including Inline Network Encryption (INE) units,
- Transportable VSAT equipment (anywhere from 2 to 6 cases), and
- Accessory cases storing phones, radios, etc.
Existing Communications Package Issues
Over the past few years, we have seen a decrease in the size of deployed operational units to the point where traditional transportable C4I (Command, Control, Computing, Communications and Intelligence) systems are no longer practical. Communications systems that were designed to be transportable and support 100+ personnel are simply too large to meet many of the demands of todays rapid-deploy forces that often range from 5 to 20 personnel.
Existing Communications Package Shortcoming
- Too many multi-man-lift cases,
- Overwhelming power requirements for COTS in a box racks of equipment,
- Significant time of deployment/redeployment issues, and
- Lack of flexibility in the configuration/reconfiguration of deployed systems.
While forward-deployed units have been a strong part of the Iraq effort, the mission parameters in Afghanistan will likely include a much stronger focus on smaller forward operating bases and highly mobile forward deployed units. Further, forward deployed units are now expected to be capable of seamlessly conducting missions that involve a mixture of urban, suburban and rural/remote locations. In fact, we have recently seen an increase in scenarios where vehicular-based missions now involve a much greater level of out-of-vehicle activities, either by design or in reaction to an encountered threat.
The net effect is that the traditional transportable communications system, one that required a vehicle for transportation and power, does not operate well in such a fluid operating environment it lacks both the size and flexibility to adapt on the fly to changes in location, power availability, and best-available reach-back networks.
The Information Challenges
While the role of the forward deployed war-fighter has become more mobile and responsive, the level of communications required during this type of activity has increased. The same level of integrated communications that used to be required closer to central command and control has now been pushed out to the forward operating bases and is beginning to include individual forward deployed units. The result is a requirement for the simultaneous exchange of secure voice, data, imaging, telemetry, and video communications between mobile boots on the ground and their main base of operations as well as higher levels of central command and control. This is something that simply did not exist as an option ten years ago, but today has become an integral component of the war-fighters arsenal.
Securing, powering, and connecting this level of communications in a highly mobile environment has its challenges especially when you need to take into account true RED/BLACK separation requirements. The types of user devices that must be supported has expanded, including such items as laptops, PDAs, secure phones (STU/STE/SCIP as well as secure V.150 VoIP phones which will likely dominate the voice space within the next few years), fax machines, biometric systems, and video cameras.
Additionally, the requirement now is to properly secure the traffic (which, fortunately, has become almost exclusively IP-based). Of course, with the increase in the types and level of communications, there has been a corresponding increase in the requirement to selectively optimize/accelerate both specific types of traffic as well as specific application streams. This has been mainly in response to the physical size realities of high-speed satellite terminals. While such systems have become a bit smaller and lighter, the overall size has not decreased significantly, and achievements in bandwidth performance and utilization often come as a result of advanced electronics development and self-tracking .96 VSAT dishes.
Throughout this technology drive, the traditional limitations of mobile communications have continued to be present, including unreliable or unpredictable bandwidth, unreliable power, and fluid reach-back network availability.
Improving The Transportable Issue
There are certain constraints that are always going to dominate the information and communications infrastructure our military units must deploy. For example, there is a clear relationship between the size of a VSAT dish and how much data can be supported. Even the smallest of the new breed of mobile VSAT systems are still multi-case solutions. There are several key strategies that can be employed to increase the functionality of forward-deployed communications equipment and improve the mobility of our forces.
Most importantly, we need to place an extremely high level of effort on the development of smaller cases required to make up a complete communications system. The advantages of replacing even one or two multi-man-carry cases with single-man-carry cases is significant.
This can come about through the implementation of newer GOTS (Government Off The Shelf) technologies that replace traditional COTS rack-and-stack systems with systems that integrate at the board level, not the component level in essence, repackaging a rack-mount piece of hardware equipment into a hand-held sized version. This alone can result in a significant space/weight savings when applied to multiple components.
By investing in the development of board-level integrated systems, we can also help significantly reduce the power requirements for the overall system. This is important in that many mobile missions operate in areas where reliable power is not always an option. Even operating using a vehicular power source, or portable generator, may not always be viable, or offer enough power to support a trailer full of comms gear.
By developing communications systems from the board up, rather than the rack down, we can begin to think about the integration of embedded micro UPS (uninterrupted power supply) systems that can off-load at least part of the power requirement now supported by generators and massive rack-mounted UPS systems. Already we are seeing system appearing on the market that offer this type of embedded battery capability (some even offering hot-swappable batteries for extended operations).
Another side impact of compacting traditional rack systems into smaller GOTS systems involves thermal control. Cooling, for example, can be accomplished on the micro, and not the macro level. This is an important point, given that all signs point to a deployment strategy over the next few years where temperature extremes (both hot and cold) will stress any deployed equipment.
One of the shortcomings of a traditional rack-mounted communications system is the inability to quick configure, or reconfigure, a system to adapt to a change in mission operations. Rack-mount systems, by their very nature, are difficult to hot-swap components. However, if we take advantage of the development of smaller GOTS versions of traditional rackable components, we can start to think of these smaller components as being modules as part of a fully functioning system. If the modules are deployed in a mobile chassis, we can easily deploy communications systems that allow for the quick removal/insertion of specific modules that provide the support for the mission at hand. For example, the benefits of being able to rapidly select and install user interface modules in a RED-side system (perhaps to accommodate an increased requirement for VoIP phones in place of FXS-based STU/STE/SCIP devices) could be invaluable.
Improved modularity can also be used to meet the changing requirements of network reachback. Given the varied deployment scenarios our troops now face, there is no standard network that can be considered available anywhere, anytime. The best available reachback network especially for first-in or extreme forward-deployed units may be a low bandwidth BGAN or even IP over ISDN GAN (or 3G cellular) network. Being able to select on the fly the appropriate network module, along with the appropriate form of IP acceleration, greatly expands the flexibility of a mobile communications system.
The Emerging Tactical Package
The goal moving forward is to design a man-portable communications system that is capable of replacing the traditional multi-case, physically independent, RED/BLACK units presently deployed. An ideal package would include the following:
- Independent BLACK and RED-side communications modules (required for RED/BLACK separation) with sufficient user interfaces to support a mixture of PC, PDA, Secure Phones, etc.,
- Multiple embedded reach-back technologies, allowing IP over anything (VSAT, BGAN, GAN and Cellular),
- Sufficient IP or voice/VoIP optimization and acceleration technologies to improve the performance of critical applications over either high-latency satellite links or low-bandwidth cellular or BGAN/GAN links,
- Embedded battery power sufficient to operate both the RED and BLACK modules, an INE unit and the reach-back interfaces, and
- A packaged size that not only meets a single-man carry requirement but is also capable of being classified as airline carry-on (accepting that a satellite terminal will be a second component)
The challenge in deploying such a unit is to ensure the unit can truly provide the same level of support as the traditional transportable unit (including features such as simultaneous multi-vector reach-back and embedded IP optimization/acceleration systems) in a package that is both small and sufficiently lightweight to be considered a real man-portable system under the harshest of circumstances.
Developing The Solution
There have been many attempts at creating smaller, lighter communications packages. Many, however, have sacrificed one or more key features in order to reach weight or size limitations. Others, in contrast, have been successful in achieving a single RED/BLACK case but have ignored weight or power considerations.
This does not mean such a system is not possible to implement. To the contrary, advances in the physical integration of traditionally stand-alone components into smaller, modular packages have allowed traditional rack-mounted systems to be replaced by lightweight, low-power alternatives that are now commercially available in the market. Featuring advances in power management technology and flexibility through increased use of modular component designs, these emerging systems offer the best promise for advancing the deployment of full-feature communications systems at the man-portable level systems that can offer the complete spectrum of data, imaging, fax, video and voice support that our forward deployed troops require to complete todays evolving mission requirement.
About the author
Fred J. McClimans is the Chief Information Officer for DTECH LABS.