June 1, 2009  

Radio revolution

JTRS is essential to true joint operations

After World War I, the French built the Maginot Line, a series of defensive fortifications to guard against invasion by Germany or Italy. The French spent a lot of money building the Maginot Line, based upon their linear thinking of the battlefield and experience with World War I trench warfare. Ultimately, it is considered by many to be one of the great military mistakes of all time, since the Maginot Line made little difference in World War II and was fairly easily bypassed by the Germans, who conquered France by 1942. I bring up the Maginot Line to bring attention to a capability that our soldiers lack today — joint, networked communications.

Consider this scenario: in the battle space today, can 100 soldiers take their hand-held devices to Afghanistan and pass e-mails among one another? No. It won’t work because the towers, the routers, the cables — the network needed to make it work are not in Afghanistan.

The nature of conflict in our world today underscores the need for us to look to a different direction for advancements in warfare. Our adversaries are asymmetric, highly adaptive and look to the sanctuary of ungoverned territories to survive. To anticipate and deter enemy action, war fighters need persistent communications over a wide range of operation — often in areas where line of sight communication is not feasible. For our forces to be strategically responsive, there has to be a shortening of the “sensor to shooter” chain. The network provided by the Airborne, Maritime/Fixed Station Joint Tactical Radio System, or AMF JTRS revolutionizes military communications. How? AMF will get the information to the guy in the foxhole. As a key part of the JTRS family of radios, AMF will network war fighters in the air, sea and on the ground, providing seamless, secure, wideband mobile communications. The combat value of our fighting forces will be multiplied through information superiority — the payoff of this “system of systems” that will allow war fighters to locate, target, engage, assess and re-engage with greater speed and efficiency.

Returning to the Afghanistan scenario, AMF provides the technology to interconnect those 100 soldiers to a Global Information Grid (GIG) point of presence using one box. Such a point of presence may be reached via satellite or a flying relay, bringing all the services of the GIG to the tactical edge. With AMF, those soldiers can talk and exchange any type of information to one another — anytime, anywhere in the world. That is a revolution in military affairs.

AMF JTRS will enable interoperable communications to take place without requiring war fighters to carry multiple radios. Because the communications capability is defined digitally in software, the signal processing is handled by computer, not special-purpose hardware. This means that helicopters, ground stations, ships, aircraft or other military platforms with AMF JTRS installed can communicate with each other regardless of the type of communications gear used. Soldiers can board a C-130, deploy and drop into an environment anywhere in the world and be on a network — line of sight or not. The pilot in the helicopter, the soldier in the foxhole and the commander at the Combined Air Operations Center will have access to the same information at the same time. The instantaneous nature of being able to understand the battlefield and get the information to those who need it will change the way the operator operates. Once forces can interoperate, they exchange information and understand better what is unfolding on the battlefield.

Inside the OODA loop

The OODA Loop — observe, orient, decide and act — states that decision-making occurs in a recurring cycle of observe-orient-decide-act. “If I see the battlespace, if I can outthink and out-decide the enemy, I can defeat him.” By connecting aircraft, helicopters, submarines, surface ships and ground stations on a common network, AMF will give war fighters insight into the enemy’s OODA Loop.

By transmitting intelligence to deployed troops,this advanced communications network will help deter threats, allow war fighters to take decisive actions in combat and save American service member lives.

The network uses software defined radios — a collection of hardware and software technologies — that will allow new features and capabilities to be added to existing infrastructure via software upgrade without requiring major new capital expenditures and without requiring new hardware. The AMF JTRS architecture will simultaneously support today’s legacy waveforms such as Link-16 and SINCGARS as well as advanced Internet Protocol (IP)-based waveforms such as the Soldier Radio Waveform, Wideband Networking Waveform and the Mobile Objective User System waveform. With these IP-based waveforms, the war fighter can access a wide range of information much like we do when we use the Internet.

With AMF JTRS and the IP-enabled waveforms it will support, users simply join the GIG in real time and can communicate with all participants. AMF JTRS enables higher data rate IP-enabled waveforms that provide greater bandwidth so the war fighter can receive a clearer picture of the environment sooner. This awareness may not provide perfect intelligence, but it will get us inside the enemy’s OODA Loop while limiting the enemy’s knowledge.

When war fighters are in disadvantaged areas — an urban canyon, for example — current line-of-sight communications may fail when communications are needed the most. This network provides that direct link the war fighter needs to avoid losing contact with the command post. Too often, units at lower echelons are unable to leverage the power of the enterprise to achieve the synergistic effects promised by net-centric concepts. Tactical units lack the capability to access the information available to higher commands — all at the expense of speed and agility. This produces information that is “too little, too late” for tactical war fighters operating in a fluid battlespace with time-sensitive and specific mission needs.

With AMF JTRS, war fighters will have capabilities similar to what iPod and advanced cell phones, with multimedia, GPS, Internet and video capability, provide. It all adds up to seamless handoff, wideband networking, clear communications, ease of upgrade and interoperability with all users on the net. And it will do all this in a secure, encrypted radio.

Imagine a battlefield situation where troops on the ground have limited visibility but can go online and obtain a view of the entire battlespace — through streaming video from an aircraft pilot, perhaps, or intelligence from a satellite sensor. War fighters get a much clearer picture of the battlefield and greatly improved coordination between air, ground and surface/subsurface elements. The aircraft that is connected to the network has a real-time view of the battlefield and can connect directly to troops on the ground. This is the technology connection and how the doctrine changes. This is the revolution in military affairs.

A communications bridge

AMF JTRS is not a radio replacement program but rather a bridge to the future of truly joint communications. It is a move toward fulfilling the original vision of JTRS as a replacement for legacy radios, helping war fighters to overcome the limitations of many hardware-based, stovepipe systems used today and providing the leap forward in tactical communications capability needed on the battlefields of today and the future.

This joint connectivity does not exist today. Many legacy tactical radio systems operate on a single frequency band, are limited to a single waveform and generally can interoperate only with like radios — mandating multiple radios for weapon platforms and command and control nodes. In addition, they are not capable of simultaneous voice, video and data operations in the same or other domains.

AMF provides a vertical extension of the joint ground domain. The ground forces, enabled by the JTRS Ground Mobile Radio (GMR), will establish a critical network for terrestrial operational forces. All too often, the ground domain and airborne domain are characterized as separate layers, each having their own network that requires a strategy to link the two. In reality, it is one network that is enabled by the GMR JTRS and AMF JTRS. Interoperability demands a singular view of a joint network that empowers the soldier, sailor, airman and Marine regardless of his service or combat platform.

For years, the emphasis has been on achieving interoperability of systems, but a more appropriate word for today’s thinking is “interdependency.” “Interoperability” implies systems that are built to work together, creating a fixed, predictable network. “Interdependency,” on the other hand, reflects an understanding that a broad community’s interests can intersect, and anticipating that a military operation may grow to include different government agencies and coalitions.

There is a critical need to decrease the types of tactical radios employed by our joint forces — each for the most part requiring wholesale replacement or expensive modifications to support new operational or mission requirements. This is because they were designed with mutually exclusive nonmodular architectures to perform a specific task. They do not comply with applicable information technology standards that embrace commercial open architectures and modular designs to deliver multiple communications means and network functions from a single platform.

Though cheaper initially than developing to the standards, not complying with these standards results in unique systems, consisting of numerous components and parts that require specialized support requirements that create a logistics burden. It also results in systems that are not conducive to the cost-effective improvements and modifications dictated by interoperability requirements, as the systems developed to the standards (such as JTRS) provide.

Noncompliance with standards and the lack of a modular architecture also requires, when modifications or new capabilities do present themselves, extensive depot-level equipment or component changes to implement new capabilities in installed platforms as well as high recurring integration costs to add these new capabilities to platforms. This gives AMF JTRS an enormous advantage over legacy tactical radios in sustainment effort and cost and represents an investment that will return great dividends in life cycle cost savings.

While some may argue that simple upgrades and patches to existing communications equipment and radios can provide a few of the capabilities that will come from AMF JTRS, nothing can duplicate the joint networking capability that this new system will provide. Imagine having to reconfigure your cell phone each time you moved from the line-of-sight of one cell site antenna into the area of another. Or having to equip your car with multiple radios to enjoy FM, AM, satellite or even compact disc-based programming. Instead, we want cell phones that seamlessly hand off from tower to tower as we move about and radios that provide multiple functions in a compact and affordable unit.

When users have access to applications that deliver clear-cut benefits, it can fuel information demand. When mapping applications first appeared on the Internet for travel and directions, people no longer needed to keep maps. Today, you can go to the Web not only to get directions, but learn about road conditions and traffic and work alternate routings.

In a way similar to how the Internet and iPhones have opened up scores of new applications, AMF JTRS will not only deliver on the government’s key objectives and goals of establishing true joint communications across the services, but will also quickly spur new uses that flow from having such an accessible capability. This is why AMF JTRS has been designed using commercial open standards that are flexible and scalable.

Most true revolutions in military affairs are the result of radical rethinking of operational concepts and capabilities. AMF will only become revolutionary if it is recognized as such. AMF JTRS will open up a new era of interoperability — allowing the Army’s AH-64 Apache helicopter, the Air Force’s AC-130 gunship and the Navy’s destroyer and guided-missile submarine to communicate seamlessly. This alone may be enough to convince even the most hardened skeptics that this is a capability war fighters must have. This is a technology innovation that will have great impact on our ability to dominate the future fight and will help us retain America’s information edge.

Col. Raymond Jones is an Army officer and the AMF Joint Tactical Radio System program manager.