Often required to deploy to remote areas of the world suffering from a lack of fixed communications infrastructure, armed forces have almost always been challenged to make do with less than satisfactory levels in connectivity.
It’s often made worse by outdated and disparate tactical communications equipment provided to warfighters as a result of lengthy, expensive and cumbersome government procurement processes.
Today, service personnel deploying to any part of the world demand the same levels in connectivity that they would receive when at home — a seamless communications network featuring multiple connections including cellular networks, satellite communications (SATCOM), Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity. That expectation is driven by what we have at home, with all of these connections fused into a single smartphone device providing end users with seamless levels in connectivity, efficient networking, speed and security from cyber threats.
It makes sense that armed forces and the warfighters on the ground would look for the same or better in the field.
The commercial sector is primed to support such requirements through the injection of fast-moving technology upgrades capable of providing deployed warfighters with flexible and multi-use solutions which can be used in any operational environment.
Viasat’s President for Government Systems, Ken Peterman, said armed forces are on the brink of benefiting from a breakthrough in commercial technology, which promises to revolutionize the way ground commanders think about tactical communications today and in the future.
Describing how optimal levels in connectivity and cloud technology could provide warfighters with enhanced situation awareness, he said: “We need to empower the warfighter with new capabilities including battlefield data which can be fused into a cloud to enhance decision-making processes.”
That kind of environment is becoming more and more possible, he said.
“Technology trajectories are accelerating with the commercial sector rapidly applying enabling technologies to ensure mobile network and broadband connectivity. This is the kind of connectivity our young warfighters have grown up to rely on in their everyday lives. To take that away from them when deployed is just wrong.”
This illustration shows how Viasat uses satellites, the cloud, wireless and other technology to create an integrated tactical network for warfighters in the air and on the ground. (Click to view larger image.)
A technological leap
Responding to these requirements, Viasat is using a series of emerging technologies to provide a next-generation leap in capability for warfighters operating far from home. Specifically, this includes enabling technologies such as software-defined networking (SDN), which allows voice and data traffic to be routed through the best path possible.
Even in environments where an enemy is trying to jam communications, SDN is designed to plow through that interference. On a basic level, it’s not too different from how we expect our mobile phones to operate, jumping from tower to tower, from Wi-Fi to LTE and back again without interruption.
“This technology already exists in the commercial sector and end users don’t even need to think about it,” Peterman said, adding that the cognitive capacities of younger generations of warfighters make them ideal candidates to operate such equipment.
Viasat is also observing how the warfighter operates their devices on the battlefield, with network architects and developers constantly engaging in technology upgrades to improve, troubleshoot and update systems in the future.
Room for improvement
The ability to establish and maintain tactical communications remains a critical requirement for any armed force conducting missions anywhere in the world.
In October 2019, Viasat published its inaugural “State of Military Communications” study, which identified how 60% of active duty U.S. military personnel were concerned with levels in connectivity — particularly when operating in contested environments where enemy forces can disrupt communications through jamming.
The study, which found that 98% of respondents claimed to have suffered a “complete loss of connectivity” from digital threats when deployed, also raised concerns regarding the EW capabilities of so-called near-peer adversaries like Russia and China.
In conclusion, the study called for armed forces to be supported with “flexible, mobile, simple, versatile and reliable” tactical communications capable of working no matter what happens on the battlefield. That includes the ability to overcome obstructions such as mountains or buildings in addition to EW and cyber security threats.
Of course, this gets more difficult the further one gets from areas benefiting from fixed communications infrastructure. Viasat’s Head of Advanced Networking, David Schmolke addresses this issue:
“When you look at the tactical edge of the battlespace, a series of disparate networks are usually bridged together by enterprise level equipment including basic routers,” Schmolke said. “These are great in an enterprise environment, but start to fall apart in a tactical environment that is challenged with a rapidly changing network configuration, intermittent connectivity, and diverse communication bearers with varying latency.
“You also have physical blockages in urban and mountainous areas as well as jamming and EW threats which near peer adversaries are very effective at conducting,” he said. “That’s in addition to cyberattacks.”
In these types of operating environments, legacy military communications networks just aren’t able to support the tactical communications requirements of today’s warfighters.
“Even without those electronic warfare threats, these networks are very difficult to set up, manage, maintain and configure. And even then, they don’t deliver the performance that the warfighter ultimately needs,” Schmolke said.
A better way: Viasat’s assured, resilient and integrated network solution
Today, warfighters operating at the tactical edge demand a 21st Century communications network capable of providing them with automatic connectivity, clear voice and high data capacity, irrespective of whatever manmade or natural obstacles lie in the way.
Responding to calls for enhanced connectivity, Viasat has created an “assured, resilient and integrated network” concept.
Designed to provide secure and resilient tactical communications to the warfighter operating far from home, the network comprises a self-forming and self-healing network capable of accommodating any type of legacy or next-generation communications network and device.
What Viasat’s assured, resilient, integrated network provides
Assurance The guarantee that one or multiple networks (commercial and military SATCOM in LEO, MEO and GEO orbits; Link 16 data links; MANET; Line of Sight 5G, Free Space Optics (FSO), Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and cellular LTE) can satisfy warfighter communication requirements at any given time and in any given scenario. Resilience The protection of networks from disruption by natural factors and enemy force actions, including the identification of false data. Integration A common set of open standards allowing legacy through next-generation systems to interoperate throughout a wider tactical communications network. Network A common platform and capability that allows warfighters to benefit from the rapid deployment of new solutions through spiral development to support independent decision-making processes.
Capable of being set up and maintained autonomously, the network supports the tactical communications requirements of dismounted warfighters, ground vehicles and even aircraft, allowing personnel to focus on missions at hand as opposed to troubleshooting connectivity problems.
“It’s not just dealing with situation awareness, it’s about creating situation understanding and helping the warfighter to operate more effectively,” Peterman said.
Viasat’s solution is enabled by multiple system components including SDN routers, multi-path bonding, cybersecurity and EW sensing, secure multi-domain technologies, hybrid cloud technology, network and radio orchestration tools. These all combine to find the most efficient routes for voice and data communications across the battlefield, no matter what obstacles are in the way. Networks include commercial and military SATCOM constellations; Link 16 next-generation tactical data links; Mobile Ad Hoc Networks (MANETs); Free Space Optics (FSO), Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity; plus 4G/LTE and 5G networks.
System components can be integrated into command posts, ground vehicles as well as aircraft, while dismounted warfighters also benefit from Link 16 tactical data link access through Viasat’s AN/PRC-161 Battlefield Awareness and Targeting System-Dismounted (BATS-D) tactical radio. For example, this allows warfighters to speak to and share data with helicopter and aircraft to reduce timelines associated with close air support missions.
Viasat’s concept is designed to be virtualized and is also supported by an open architecture, which allows any non-proprietary command, control, communications and computer (C4) equipment to be integrated into the network as and when required. In other words, it’s designed to work with much of the equipment already in the field.
“It’s about surveying what’s out there in the communications space in terms of technology and binding all of these capabilities together,” Schmolke said.
“Achieving the nirvana of a self-forming and self-healing network today at the tactical edge seems out of reach as current solutions rely on an army of field service representatives to setup and maintain,” he added. “This is probably the number one complaint we have when we talk to end users. Our goal is to have the network intelligence all the way out to the tactical edge where it automatically sees the entire network and has the intelligence to predict and automatically adjust to changes through data-driven analytics.”
Viasat’s network concept can be sub-divided into three capability areas: Sensor Fusion and Network Integration; Cloud Processing; and Cyber Security.
- Sensor Fusion and Network Integration
This is enabled through the integration of decision engines and SDN management software across the battlespace on board ground vehicles, aircraft and command posts. Designed to identify the best performance from any given communications network at any given time, the technology autonomously selects the most efficient routes to share data, full motion video and voice communications across the battlefield.
Examples include Viasat’s Channel Bonding technology, which enables the network to set up “virtual paths” that automatically adapt to current conditions and provide the best route for an email or voice call across the battlefield in the face of bad weather, cyber threats and jamming by enemy forces. The selected route could be completed using SATCOM, MANET, 4G or 5G networks or even a combination of these.
This is achieved in part using industry standard Dynamic Link Exchange Protocol (DLEP) which connect routers and the tactical radios used by the warfighter.
As Schmolke said: “The network is designed to leverage the available tactical edge connections at any given point in time. If one of those communication networks is not available, then it won’t be used and alternative connections will be.”
Although the open architecture approach allows the network to accept any number of communications networks or devices, Viasat has already demonstrated the concept with the integration of a number of its own products.
Examples include the portable Move Out/Jump Off (MOJO) terminal, which is small enough to be integrated on board ground vehicles, boats and aircraft. MOJO translates incompatible messages from disparate networks into clear and interoperable communications, providing warfighters with maximum levels in real-time air/ground situation awareness, line of sight and beyond line of sight communications as well as an on-the-move capability.
The intelligent network is also optimized to protect warfighters from cyber and EW threats, with decision engines identifying any threats and diverting communications through alternatives networks to avoid disruption to connectivity.
In addition, Viasat’s solution is forward compatible to handle emerging wireless communication networks built from FSO and 5G, which will comprise a natural fit for warfighters seeking to achieve high data performance with anti-jam and low probability of intercept/detection (LPI/D) enhancements on the battlefield. Viasat has established key industry partnerships where they are actively adapting these critical technologies for adoption to the future battlespace.
- Cloud Support
Cloud processing plays an integral role in the support of the network at the tactical edge, providing warfighters with the ability to store and access data securely even when deployed to communications-deprived areas. To make that happen, cloud connections must be accessible to warfighters even when connectivity across the network is not available.
The solution can be supported by two different types of cloud servers. These include a large remote cloud server covering the entire area of operation, plus a local or tactical cloud server. This one can be accessed by small teams of warfighters working in communication blackspot areas.
“Remote cloud access is a big part of overall situation awareness in the battlespace,” Schmolke said. “But in reality, warfighters will not always be connected to it. So having a distributed local cloud capability on board ground vehicles, ships and aircraft at the tactical edge will provide an interim capability for warfighters before they are able to sync up to the larger remote cloud again.”
- Cyber Security
Protection against cyber threats is a critical element, particularly with armed forces relying more and more on technology that can be hacked or jammed by the enemy.
Viasat’s network is supported by the company’s Cyber Security Operations Center (CSOC) in Carlsbad, CA, which processes 2.4 billion events per day and analyzes over 35TBs of network data in 24 hours across its commercial and government networks.
Big data analytics are used to understand, predict and warn of cyberattacks anywhere in the world, particularly useful for the network as it seeks to find the best route for communications across the battlefield.
A smart, forward-compatible solution
Designed as a truly “smart” system, the assured, resilient and integrated network concept comprises a forward-compatible solution capable of supporting the critical connectivity requirements of armed forces operating at the edge today.
As Peterman said, the network’s decision logic and analytics will provide a game-changing capability for warfighters as they seek to maintain the tactical advantage over the enemy.
“The capability not only anticipates what is happening in the battlespace at a precise moment in time but it could also anticipate what enemy forces are planning to do in the future, predicting which networks will be denied and how threats will appear,” he said. “This technology could evolve to the point where it could support military operations in a way that has never been possible before. That’s where the power of this really lies.”
View products part of this network solution
Integrated Tactical Networking: https://www.viasat.com/integrated-tactical-networking
ELITE Solider Kit: https://www.viasat.com/elite-solider-kit
ELITE Headquarters: https://www.viasat.com/elite-headquarters-combat-employment