If a forward-operating Army Reconnaissance unit consisting of dismounted soldiers, tactical vehicles and hand-held drones were separated from a larger armored formation across mountainous terrain - and unexpectedly collided with heavily armed enemy fighters -- its survival would depend almost entirely upon an operational “tactical” war network.
This network would need to be resilient and mobile amid the intensity of war and operate as a collection of hardened “nodes” seamlessly meshed together into a secure, interoperable communications network. This could consist of radios, satellites, cellular nodes, cyber systems and some air-ground data links. Preparing for scenarios such as this forms the inspirational basis for the Army’s current vision for a “mobile” Integrated Tactical Network (ITN).
The Army is now preparing to field its ITN to the 1st Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division as an experimental effort en route to fielding the system in 2021.
An integrated, self-healing network of this kind can, in concept, be distilled into a single combat objective -- keeping soldiers alive. Should one node be destroyed by enemy attack, it can quickly be replaced by other elements of the network.
“ITN systems will allow commanders to choose from different communication options (such as military radios, military satellite communications, commercial cellular networks) depending on what environment they are in,” Paul Meheny, Director of Communications, Program Executive Office C3T, told Warrior in a statement.
While many networking lessons were learned during the ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Army leaders emphasize that a new integrated network is more necessary than ever, given the sophistication of potential major adversaries. In effect, the network will provide a backbone, or what could even be called a lifeline, for ground war forces immersed in massive warfare against a great power adversary. It is precisely with this in mind that the Army is now conducting a wide range of live-fire exercises replicating the exact scenarios soldiers would face in war.
Technology is now evolving beyond the combat limitations encountered when fixed, stove-piped and somewhat disparate communications elements share information in war. With ITN, communications can now be more fully synergized more effectively into one resilient, mobile war network. This, among other things, enables soldiers, combat vehicles, fixed command and control centers and even air assets in a joint fight to seamlessly share critical war information in real-time - while on the move.
For several years now, the Army’s emerging network and battle command systems have been able to do some of this to varying degrees. The Army ITN effort seeks to build upon this and transition to a new, breakthrough phase in network development. For example, some of the existing systems the Army intends to integrate with, build upon and potentially replace include a GPS-enabled force-tracking technology called Joint Battle Command Platform (JBC-P), software-programmable radio, a radio-satcom network called Warfighter Information Network - Tactical, a moving digital battlefield-oriented mapping system called Command Post of the Future and an intelligence database known as Tactical Ground Reporting System, or TIGR.
Dr. Bruce Jette, Assistant Secretary of the Army -- Acquisition, Logistics and Technology, recently told reporters that the Army’s emerging network builds upon and moves beyond technologies proven over the last 15 years of ground war.
“The capabilities we’ve developed and understood in an operational environment were laid with the foundation of WIN-T using a mix of satellite and terrestrial communication, different sized pipes and different sized server stacks in different locations so that we could manage a loss of connectivity and still retain control over data because these things are linked together. All of that was developed in much of what we experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan...and now we’ve moved it over to being able to do that on the move,” told reporters.
Advancing a secure network in this fashion is not without challenges; the prospect of GPS interference, electronic warfare jamming or cyber intrusions will all require a network to adapt in a “self-healing” fashion with built-in redundancy and an ability to shift from one communications system to another as required. As the Army’s Acquisition Executive, Jette manages the Army’s effort to engineer technical “interfaces” between the new and existing technologies comprising the ITN.
“It is always difficult to interoperate with different systems, particularly because we always have legacy systems. We can’t just swap them out...we have to get them to work together. We look for backward compatibility in many of the approaches as we migrate from older systems into newer systems,” Jette said.
Much of the current command and control architecture provides the conceptual and technical apparatus for the emerging ITN network, it also has some limitations which the Army is addressing. Overall, Army developers say the current individual systems need to interoperate more fully. For instance, JBC-P can offer crucial friendly and enemy force position location data, using icons on a digital map. Newer satellite throughput has greatly reduced latency of this system, allowing it to refresh quickly so soldiers on-the-move can track fast-changing details.
What if JBC-P could instantly interoperate with radio, cellular or computer networks interchangeably alongside its reliance upon GPS? What if it were seamlessly connected with otherwise separated combat intelligence systems in real-time? What if it functioned more fully as just one node on a larger integrated communications apparatus?
While some of this happens to a limited degree already in certain circumstances, the Army’s ITN is being engineered to assure and advance a system of this kind to a new level of security, functionality and lethality. For example, a faster, more seamless and secure interface between JBC-P and its companion intelligence database TIGR would greatly improve operational effectiveness. TIGR’s database details moments of relevance or risk along a particular route, along with other critical intel. TIGR can inform forces on-the-move where previous attacks or IEDs might have existed. Other elements of somewhat stovepiped networking nodes include airspace deconfliction and a fires node called Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System (AFATDS).
Army weapons developers say many of the current technologies may ultimately be replaced, yet they are designed to address those essential missions necessary for real-time combat attack and defense. In particular, Jette referred to both artificial intelligence and current experimentation with software-programmable radio as key developmental areas already informing the trajectory of the ITN. Unlike the Army’s previously pursued Joint Tactical Radio System, the current software programmable approach is almost entirely different; it is based upon commercial networks and commercial waveforms; the shift, beginning several years back, is intended to keep pace with rapidly emerging commercial applications which can keep pace with new technology and new threats.
Software-programmable radio, particularly new systems referred to by Jette, offer what might be described as an indispensable combat advantage. Each radio can operate as its own router, or node, within an ad-hoc terrestrial network to transmit voice, data and even video using high-bandwidth waveforms. This offers a combat advantage of being able to share information across a mobile network without needing to rely on a fixed infrastructure. However, at times these networks can be limited by line-of-sight connectivity, and, like any radio, they can emit a signature detectable by an enemy or run the risk of being “jammed or hacked.” Hardening networks such as these, using state of the art commercial and government technologies such as encryption, offers a two-fold advantage; it not only protects an operational network but can also share sensitive data with other transport systems such as satellite or cellular networks while being less vulnerable.
Jette also referenced AI as an areas of focus regarding ITN development. AI could potentially process vast volumes of data transmitted as IP packets of information, traveling through high-bandwidth waveforms. Once data arrives at its intended destination, information must, in many cases, be decrypted, organized and processed quickly to inform decision-makers of fast-changing combat dynamics. This, it seems clear, is an area wherein evolving adaptations of AI could be quite impactful. Using AI and advanced algorithms, incoming data could instantly be compared against volumes of existing data to draw parallels, perform analysis and organize time-sensitive information. The faster commanders can receive processed information, the more quickly they can make time-sensitive decisions.
Multi-pronged networks can also function to better defend against an increasingly wide array of attack methods, such as attempted cyber-intrusions or Electronic Warfare. When it comes to various command and control nodes and a corresponding need to improve safeguards against modern EW attacks, industry and government developers have been working on directional antennae able to emit narrow beams in a particular direction, away from an enemy location(General Dynamics Mission Systems worked on this with several transport layer communications systems, such as WIN-T.)
By narrowing or directing signal beams, command and control systems on-the-move can emit a much less detectable electronic signature. Naturally, the moment a device begins to transmit a signal broadly, it then potentially becomes detectable by enemy sensors. This is one of many reasons why an interoperable, multi-faceted network can massively change the equation when it comes to increasing survivability in combat. For example, should radio comms become too dangerous, information could then instantly transfer to other elements of the network, such as SatCom, cellular or cyber connectivity.
Finally, the most cutting edge current networks could quickly become obsolete, or even useless, if they are not engineered for continued modernization. Therefore, by pursuing technical strategies related to the often-overused term “open architecture,” Army developers are now using the most advanced engineering techniques to build systems with common standards, such that they can quickly accommodate new technology.
When it comes to identifying the key method for rapid technical progress, Army leaders point to one thing -- soldiers. Live Fire demos, experiments and warfare scenarios seek to harness soldier feedback as a way to prepare the network for major war.
“The Army’s first responsibility will always be to soldiers in combat. That will never change. We continue to focus on many ways experiments with new technologies can help in theater,” Gen. John Murray, Commanding General of Army Futures Command, recently told reporters.