When lives and national security are at stake, not just any network will do.

"Special operations forces missions are often characterized by lightning quick actions in a denied environment," said Cedric Leighton, former deputy director of training for the National Security Agency and chairman of Cedric Leighton International Strategies. "That means special operations forces need to have networks that can provide resilient real-time connectivity to intelligence feeds and command and control links."

As the special operations forces' mission evolves, so must the networks required to support that mission. "Today's expeditionary forces need networks that are agile, persistent and flexible, as no operation is the same," said Jerry Mamrol, Lockheed Martin's director of Army strategic and tactical solutions.

As they return to more traditional global missions, deployed special operations forces expect the situational awareness and information they have known after a decade of "owning the ground" in places like Afghanistan, said Marc Beacken, director of LGS Innovations. "Securely pushing information and enabling converged intelligence and security/war fighting operations simultaneously is driving network needs today down to the most tactical levels," he explained. "Security, optimized throughput, increased bandwidth and a common operating picture are all requirements behind the evolution of special operations force networks."

A key component of the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) budget submissions under Major Force Program-11 is building robust, resilient networks that can connect each element of the chain of command down to the "pointy end of the spear," said Leighton. "Hallmarks of such networks include miniaturization, larger bandwidth and robust encryption suited to a very tactical environment."

Having the means to distribute relevant ISR information to special operations forces members on the ground during high-risk missions is vital. "Enabling the individual operator with access to a secure network in remote and austere environments is an evolving need," said Joe Adams, director of strategy for Harris RF Communications.

Self-sufficiency is key

Special operations forces need to be completely self-sufficient in deployed environments. Denied or austere locations do not typically provide the infrastructure a military force requires can rely on. "A special operations forces network needs to support full tactical control of war fighting and ISR assets, as well as the throughput to provide a converged common operating picture in real -time to all parties involved," Beacken said.

Special operations forces team members also need to be able to communicate with aircraft, ships and combat vehicles without carrying excess bulk into the field. "These forces need high-speed transmission capacity for voice and data communications," Mamrol said. "They require the ability to be mobile and need untethered secure access from across the globe." Communications must also be flexible for use by each service and , yet interoperable in joint environments.

"Special forces in general have more access per person than other military services, and this results in more networks and bandwidth per user," said Brad Truesdell, director of strategy for Harris Government Computer Systems. "They have a greater variety of network needs, and there is a lot of training involved." Truesdell added that special operations forces also require a "greater level of infrastructure" to perform tasks. "This is the principle challenge for SOCOM, to be able to leverage their needs from the assets they have."

Further complicating matters is the fact that special operations forces typically operate in small, disparate environments that are more often than not disconnected from any existing communications infrastructure. "This requires that the operator carry high-grade communications devices that can provide robust and secure communications from anywhere in the world," Adams said. Given the sensitivity of many special operations forces missions, such devices frequently need to be discrete with limited spectrum visibility.

Big bandwidth needed

Battlefield networking is complex, particularly on the special operations level. "There is an abundance of configuration and provisioning occurring in the background," Adams said. "It is absolutely critical to ensure that the special operator is not burdened with these complexities."

Special operations forces "need secure, jam-resistant, high-speed digital network connectivity," Mamrol said. "Some of this is achieved through line of sight, by tactical Internet or by satellite communications links."

Like their conventional counterparts, special operations forces often complain about a shortage of bandwidth. Such criticisms aren't likely to disappear anytime soon, Leighton observed. "With big-data-style information needs only increasing the requirement for bandwidth, special operations forces will need to continually increase the amount of bandwidth available to its operational elements," Leighton said.

"Throughput is probably the biggest challenge facing special operations forces today," said Beacken. "As ISR capabilities are pushed to the tactical edge ... the networks can quickly become overwhelmed and endanger a common operating picture for the special operations forces operator."

Efforts are being made to increase network throughput under DISA's Joint Information Enterprise. "That should benefit special operations forces, because they depend on a robust Defense Information Systems Network," Leighton said. Advances in technology will also allow the secure transmission of larger data elements, he added.

Adams noted several approaches are being implemented to squeeze more data through existing networks. "There are compression techniques to allow for data distribution in constrained networks," he said. "There are also ways of increasing channel bandwidth to accommodate higher throughput communications modes."

Mamrol added that shrinking network latency remains a critical challenge. "Seconds in network latency is all it takes to save a life or miss the opportunity to accomplish the mission."

Embrace creative problem solving

New technologies and methodologies promise to solve many of today's network shortcomings. "Capabilities that could assist the mission of expeditionary forces include better cross-domain security that would enable real-time cross-domain intelligence sharing," Mamrol said.

Adams believes enhanced mobile ad-hoc networking technology will provide robust network connectivity without security risks. "[Adaptive Networking Wideband Waveform], for example, fielded with the handheld and Manpack radios to SOCOM, enables wideband ad-hoc networking capability," he said.

Commerical off-the-shelf (COTS) technologies, meanwhile, promise to help special operations forces communicate more reliably and nimbly, even in an era of shrinking budgets. "Cellular solutions can provide great options for special operations troops and support personnel, because commercial industry has invested a great deal into this area," Truesdell said. "[COTS devices] have relatively robust security behind them, and it's a technology that everyone is familiar with."

Leighton sees exciting technologies heading down the pipeline. Phased-array optics, for example, promises to allow users to communicate reliably and securely via modulated light.

Leighton noted a shift to new theaters also challenges special operations forces network planners. Planners need to think about the possible need to conduct missions in modern urban, nonpermissive environments.

Truesdell, however, thinks current and emerging network challenges will be resolved. "SOCOM has been very creative in coming up with communications solutions to meet their needs," he said. "They did a great job in Iraq and Afghanistan."