A strategic approach to tactical data links

Militaries must include industry from the start, with a multi-domain viewpoint


Adapted from a speech delivered by Simon Peterson at the Mobile Deployable Communications conference held Jan. 26-27 in London. Peterson is business development director for Viasat-UK.

VIASAT-UK —Tactical data links are becoming ever more prevalent and important in the land battlespace. And while they appear at first glance to be just that, tactical, in reality their value is operational when you combine all that tactical information. However, unless you start with a strategic approach to their integration and implementation, it is easy to end up with an incoherent and ineffective system that does not optimize their potential for the forces using them. In fact, I would go one step further and say that it compromises those forces in timeliness and accuracy, which ultimately means greater risk to their lives individually and the operation collectively. But I get ahead of myself.

Let’s start with some context: Tactical data links were born in the 1950s when conflicts like Vietnam were conducted primarily using voice as the principle information bearer. There were several issues identified:

  • Firstly, the amount of information that can be conducted is limited
  • Secondly the accuracy of that information is subject to human factors – normally judged to be in the 1 in a 100-error range at best which, if you think about the fact there is a human on each end of a link, it’s more like 1 in 50 for each information exchange.
  • Finally, the security of voice both in terms of interception but also jamming was being compromised.

Now the work which was conducted to fix these issues led amongst other things to the development of the original JTIDS programme (Joint Tactical Information Distribution System) in the early 1980s, which is one of a family of radio equipment that implements probably the most well-known data link: Link 16. But almost at its inception there was a problem. The U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps determined that Link 16 was both too expensive and too inflexible. It is also a fact to say that issues like the lack of close air support or ground warfare messages in the first messages sets implemented on Link 16 were genuinely a problem for ground units. This led the U.S. Army and Marine Corps to develop an alternative way to move information between units, which is called VMF or Variable Message Format, which as the name suggests allows a much greater degree of flexibility in the message packets it uses – a variable message. That’s in contrast to Link 16, which is a very prescribed set of what are known as J Series messages.

The result of all of this, in my assessment, is that in two of most recent large conflicts conducted by U.S.-led coalitions — Iraq and Afghanistan — it is fair to say that the majority of close air support was done by voice through the so-called “nine liners,” which allowed the forward air controllers to verbally describe how they wanted a target attacked in nine concise fields and transmitted to the aircraft by voice.

How can it be that, in the first and some of the second decades of the 21st century, it is deemed acceptable that the best way to describe where you want to drop a bomb from an aircraft at 15,000 feet is with a visual description from the ground of what to look for and which way to approach? Believe me, the view is very different from up there. I am not saying that there aren’t some very capable and professional forward air controllers and aircrew who got the job done. But had there been a more joined up interoperable system of moving data digitally between ground and air elements, in an era where the technology existed, this could have been done faster, more securely, and with less risk for those involved. This has been shown to be demonstrably true by U.S. forces in some subsequent operations — for example in Syria.

But there is a second more subtle part to the story in here as well. On one level, VMF and Link 16 appear to do almost the same thing, albeit using a different format, bearers, waveform etc. They move information between one user and another. However, their network characteristics are actually very different because of the philosophy of their design. Link 16 at its heart was developed to provide a much broader level of situational awareness than VMF. It aimed to provide tracking and targeting information and allowed end users to benefit from the awareness of a controlling platform (the C2 platform) without necessarily compromising their own position. It was originally envisaged for all domains and a broad spectrum of end users as you can see from the theoretical array of J Series Messages that can be generated. But as described above, it was adopted by the air and naval forces who controlled air platforms significantly ahead of their corresponding land brethren.

In the first instance, this was used by Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft (AWACS) used to provide command and control as well as a recognized air picture for fighter aircraft. This is one of the reasons that ir forces have been so reluctant to change to VMF. It also explains why air forces and navies were so less bothered about the expenses associated with early Link 16 products. In the context of the price of one of these aircraft or a warship the cost is frankly just less noticeable. But if you want to put Link 16 on vehicles — or even now on individual soldiers — the costs rapidly look daunting.

The current position with tactical data links

It’s safe to say that the world is changing – to some degree because of the issue I described in Iraq and Afghanistan but also because of the advancement in technology to produce smaller, lighter, and cheaper Link 16 radios. There is a growing awareness that the ability to have a genuine common operating picture (COP) is not only possible but actually an essential requirement if you want to act quickly enough to defeat your opponent without risking the fratricide that has been the unfortunate footnote of most conflicts ever fought. This broader use of tactical data links in all environments except land aims to achieve what is known in the UK as “information advantage.” But it’s throwing up a number of unforeseen issues.

One of the problems is that this common operating picture was traditionally a theatre-wide picture of all enemy and friendly forces. That’s fine when you have relatively small numbers of individual TDL-capable assets spread over a large area. And I when I say “small,” I mean in relation to the numbers of individual land units and level of complexity you’d have within the same area of the land domain. Not only is there an issue of the picture potentially becoming very cluttered if you substantially increase the number of users, but the truth is that a ground commander with a limited area of operation is not interested in having the whole picture.

This for me spawns two ideas:

Firstly, although Link 16 is the only TDL that inherently produces this overall theatre-wide COP – the shift has been to support not one, but multiple Link 16 networks across a theatre using the advances in technology to provide operators with both the big picture and smaller, localized tactical pictures for small (especially ground-based) units.

Secondly, it also seems unlikely that Link 16 will be your only data link. There is almost certainly a requirement to use other links such as VMF, which can be achieved over a variety of other radios. The trick therefore will be in orchestrating both networks to move data between them if needed or, at the very, least allow a smaller number of key users — like forward air controllers, say, at the company level — to see both pictures on a single device. Commanders will also need to be able to participate in both. This orchestration would also allow the use of other protocols like JREAP C – Joint Range Extension IP protocol — which enables services like satellite backhaul to move the picture and data within a theatre … or even from a theatre back to, say, a combined operations center elsewhere in the world.

This also gets at the very heart of why I think you need to take a bigger view when it comes to thinking about your tactical datalinks — and Link 16 in particular. Simply put, tactical data links isn’t in itself a program of record in any nation that I am aware of. It’s part of many platform implementations and is being included on a growing number of military radio programs, but there appears to be little if any thought given to how the overall joint picture will operate and function.

This is my fundamental proposition today: That in order to bring together all the elements in the network picture you see here, it is critical that someone higher than the individual platform delivery teams or radio procurement programs needs to take a view on how it all fits together. That view needs to be inherently joint and therefore strategic, because it must balance some operationally competing requirements. It cannot be done by the individual force generating front line commands, i.e. the navy, army, or air force. It must be done by a separate organisation which can enforce its decisions and demand compliance with the determined strategy or policy. In the UK, from my point of view, this is exactly what Strategic Command was charged with doing.

Here’s an example: U.S. forces have had the handheld Link 16 for some time now and have used it on operations overseas. However, the networks they plug into, particularly the training networks back in CONUS, have been largely designed by air-minded people. That’s not surprising, because that’s where most of their design expertise lies, and they do not really consider the potential number of individual users. There are insufficient timeslots designed into the networks to meet the need. These training networks are designed for use in several different scenarios dependent on the exercise or training requirement. So there is an understandable reluctance to simply make more of the relatively precious timeslots available and thus potentially reduce the overall flexibility of the training network. Work is now underway to solve some of these problems, such as use of Link 16 Enhanced Throughput (LET). This is a feature of the modernization program, but it is all being done after the fact.

What to do about it

The first thing is to recognize that there is actually an issue. The challenges of increasing the use of Link 16 — particularly in the land environment and the associated need to integrate it into the network layer — is not something currently well appreciated. And the problem will not be solved through traditional stove-piped and domain-facing procurement activity – it is a genuine multi-domain integration issue and it is about understanding which part of your organization ought to be responsible for really considering the joint outcome required. I recognize that not all MoDs have a strategic command, but most recognize the need for a part of their organization to look at joint outcomes.

It is also true that the number of people who have a deep understanding of the way to deal with the issue is limited, especially people in uniform. So there are two elements to ensure that you have suitably qualified subject-matter experts helping you think through the issues. Part of the solution will be about having suitably qualified, informed customers, and this may involve some investment in their development and training. But a greater part of the solution here lies not in the MoD but in industry.

Viasat and other companies have people who’ve been working with Link 16 almost since its inception, and if you accept the proposition that Link 16 is not the complete answer for the battlespace, then that automatically means this is not a vendor-locked conversation. You actually will want a number of industrial partners working together to offer options and demonstrate or even develop solutions. Instead of running acquisitions through a traditional waterfall methodology and spending a long time working up detailed requirements, it seems to me that there is a huge opportunity to spend some early investment de-risking eventual solutions through demonstrations and experimentation.

Really embracing a true methodology of sprints to produce a spiral development program offers a much better chance of success, and it leverages the technology available today as opposed to bringing it into service in five years’ time when it is already obsolete. It also avoids the challenge of freezing a design too early in the process and failing to be able to react to rapidly changing operational requirements or missing out on new technology as it arrives. I would also argue that it makes the inclusion of commercial technology such as 5G much more viable because we evaluate and understand it from both a commercially-facing and government-facing business perspective because we have to.

Finally, there’s the perennial problem of obsolescence, not only is it already a serious challenge but, given the rate of development in the communications technology space, it is only going to get worse. By way of example, civil airlines had high-capacity commercial Wi-Fi on board their aircraft way before even the President of the USA. That has since been resolved, but it is indicative of the challenge we face. Only with a fundamental change in philosophy for this kind of problem are we going to solve it in a sustainable and dependable manner.

So, my key takeaway is that integration of the land TDLs must be done from a joint perspective as a multi-domain activity, and industry partners can help bring existing and developing technology to the table faster if you include us from the very start. We get it.

But all of that starts from a birdseye strategic approach to the whole issue of tactical data links.