Battlefield technologies exposed

Battlefield technologies will be networked and integrated in the future. E&T gathers intel.

In the summer of 1940, Britain was fighting for its survival over the skies of south east England, as the Royal Air Force beat off repeated attacks by Germany's numerically superior Luftwaffe in its attempt to pave the way for a full-scale land invasion. But, although the RAF was outnumbered, its network of radar stations gave it a decisive advantage, enabling Fighter Command to deploy aircraft wherever and whenever they were needed most. As history shows, this denied the Luftwaffe the air supremacy vital for a planned invasion.

The Battle of Britain was one of the first military conflicts to be decided by the use of 'networked' information. The RAF was able to use data from its radar stations to build a dynamic picture of events across a battle area and respond swiftly and efficiently to changes in the situation. Since then of course the nature of warfare has changed radically, but even so - and precisely because it has changed so much - the concept of network-enabled combat is now central to all military strategy.

Current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for example show that the days of opponents pitting sheer numbers and firepower against one another are long gone. The contemporary battlespace is asymmetric or unstructured, where opponents have significantly different military power and tactics. We can all think of past examples of such conflicts, but the difference now is the central role played by digital networks and IT.

This doctrine of network-centric warfare (NCW) was pioneered by the US Department of Defense (DoD) in the mid 1990s, and represents a fundamental shift in military culture away from powerful compartmentalised war machines towards interconnected units operating cohesively. Its tenets are being followed by militaries around the world: in the UK for example it's called Network-Enabled Capability (NEC); in Sweden it translates as Network-Based Defence; NATO calls it NNEC; and in Australia the term used is Ubiquitous Command and Control (UC2). But they're all the same approach and they're all being designed across national armed forces as well as in coalitions.

The global information grid

The US is the principal driver behind this transformation, and the DoD has specified that the primary technical framework to support NCW will be the Global Information Grid (GIG), to which all advanced weapons platforms, sensor systems and command and control (C2) centres will eventually be linked across an IP-based infrastructure.

Its aim is to put an end to US servicemen and women on operational duty being at the mercy of someone remote from the fight deciding which information they need. Information posted to the GIG will be available to all relevant personnel, allowing them to call in whatever they need or have it sent to them according to predefined criteria.

Key to making GIG work are six DoD programmes - four dealing with transporting information, one with enterprise services and one with information assurance. The four transport components include terrestrial networks, mobile networks such as the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) using IP, space-based comms such as the Transformational Satellite (TSAT) and teleports to link the ground and space segments together.

JTRS is a software-definable system that will ultimately replace the numerous service-unique radios with common software units, allowing interoperability between radios across the US forces and bringing joint wireless comms to US, Allied and Coalition forces. TSAT will be vital for the many personnel deployed in areas where terrestrial comms are unavailable and where information sources such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, are airborne, making connecting to them difficult.

The enterprise services component of the GIG consists of a suite of applications for tasks such as finding potential new users or data sources, mediating between various data formats, finding data and applications to solve problems and providing the appropriate security services and keys to allow access to the data required.

Within the GIG architecture will sit a range of C2 systems, and the principal capability here for the US is Network Enabled Command Capacity, (NECC). It replaces the current joint- and single-service C2 systems, notably the Global Command & Control System family. The UK's equivalent programme is the Joint Command & Control Support Programme.

Service-Oriented Architecture

The UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the US DoD have begun developing standardised methods for IT systems to support strategic C2 and share applications and services, and they are moving towards an NEC-based system that will use Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) models.

SOA, a concept used in commercial enterprise networks, is an IT infrastructure that allows different applications to exchange data with each other as they participate in business processes. In commercial networks, an SOA unifies business processes by structuring large applications as an ad hoc collection of software 'services'. Different groups of people, both inside and outside an organisation, can use these applications, and new applications can be built from a mix of services from a global pool to provide greater flexibility and uniformity.

SOA therefore allows enterprises to focus functionality on business processes and package them as interoperable services. As an example of SOA in operation, when you make an airline reservation and you also want to hire a car at the other end, your travel and credit card information is transferred automatically from the airline site to the car rental site.

The US and UK NEC systems can already share email, attachments and common operational picture data, but the ultimate goal is more seamless integration of information and applications within the GIG to support joint battlefield operations. To be successful, however, the effort will take agreement on a range of standardised and programming rules that will form the basic vocabulary of the joint SOA. And that process of course involves a lot of give and take between the two governments.

Although driven by the US vision of NCW, the MoD is taking a different approach to NEC. For example, it did not start its programme from scratch, and it's had to build in the need to support legacy systems. Its vision of NEC also goes wider than defence. In overseas operations, NEC involves networking with other departments and government agencies such as the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development, as well as non-governmental organisations such as the UN and the Red Cross. And at home, NEC is intended to allow better networking with other government departments, the security services and the emergency services.

The UK is also bringing or has brought a number of sovereign programmes into service, including the Skynet 5 family of satellite comms networks, ground-based secure digital voice and data comms systems such as Bowman, the Falcon secure comms information infrastructure - essentially a battlefield Internet backbone - and the Defence Information Infrastructure, the services within which are the UK's equivalent of the GIG enterprise component.

The technical challenges for these efforts on both sides of the Atlantic are either largely solved or soon will be; the greatest hurdles now are at the systems level, in a cultural and procedural context. Much of NEC is about changing processes and culture, not the technology, since achieving connectivity is not the end in itself - it is about what personnel do with the tools available to them.

That will take training and education. While future recruits - the Facebook generation - are increasingly likely to come with basic ICT skills that enable them to exploit and manage information, the very openness of the culture they bring with them will create tensions between sharing data and protecting it.

All of this begs the question of when this raft of technologies will be in place. While DoD and MoD reports place the US ahead of the UK in NEC transition, the overall timetable calls for NEC readiness in 2014, with some US systems - include a common enterprise infrastructure, improved bandwidth management and migration to SOA-type operation - in place this year.

NEC maturity

In the UK, implementing NEC is being carried out in three steps known as the NEC maturity states. The aim is to reach the initial maturity state by 2012, the intention being to achieve a rudimentary but growing NEC capacity. After that, work will start on the transitional state, which will focus on achieving medium-term improvements in operational capability and integration through changes in doctrine, processes, training and equipment. Beyond that lies the mature state, where these developments will eventually be fully in place.

So there is still some way to go, and land forces may yet prove the toughest to integrate because of the range of mobile infrastructure that needs to be taken into account. Even within the US armed forces, there are still problems passing information between systems. And since integration is the ultimate goal, the pace of progress in the US influences affects the pace in the UK.

Then, in the UK at least, there is the spectre of the Strategic Defence Review due after the General Election on 6 May, which is widely expected to entail cuts in spending. Whatever happens though, NEC is here to stay - operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have already proved the value of the concept, and it is set to influence every aspect of defence.

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