The Army wants greater network integration with its air and ground units and has started working with industry to make that process more seamless.

Service leaders point to significant gaps in today’s network architecture enabling aircraft to communicate with ground units and vice versa. But, they say, forces in the future will have to operate over significant distances and do so under a near constant jamming threat.

“A lot of units and rifle squads in the 101st [Airborne Division] right now, that squad leader’s radio in many cases can’t interface with similar radios in adjacent units or the helicopter that just delivered him or her to an objective area. Or the helicopter that’s providing close air support … can’t pass data with it,” Maj. Gen. Brian Winski, the division’s commander, said in Nashville, Tennessee, May 30. “We need that capability for ground forces to be able to talk to their aviation partners and have that inextricable link that makes us so incredibly powerful. We also have to collectively figure out how we’re going to communicate over significantly increased distances.”

To solve these problems, Army leaders from the aviation and networking community gathered in Nashville, Tennessee at the end of May to hash out the challenges they face with industry and the operational community. The forum was a venue for members of the operational community to voice their concerns and provide examples of issues they faced while deployed.

“This air to ground focus … is the thing we’ve really got to crack the code on if we are going to penetrate deep into an [anti-Access/area denial] environment … they’ve got to be able to communicate,” Maj. Gen. Peter Gallagher, director of the network cross functional team, said at the event. “Contested in space, contested in cyber, there are no easy answers to that wicked problem.”

Gallagher stressed to the industry representatives that it’s up to their engineers to “help us crack the code to making sure we have assured network transport in a contested environment, terrestrial, aerial and space.”

Operating at long distances

One of the first challenges officials described was ensuring network connectivity over hundreds of miles while facing a jamming threat.

“No longer are we talking about operating at distances of 100 to 150 kilometers. We’re about talking of operating at distance to 400 to 1,000-plus kilometers,” Al Abejon, chief of aviation architecture at the program executive office aviation, said. “Now the challenge is: how do you maintain that continuous mission command, [situational awareness] … throughout that operational distance and oh, by the way, be able to survive the operational environments that are going to be changing at these distances at those air speeds.

"All those rolled into one thing make up a considerable problem set.”

Along with the newtwork, the Army has also listed future vertical lift aircraft as one of its six top modernization priorities. These future aircraft will be capable of teaming with unmanned systems, a concept the aviation community is calling advanced teaming.

From an operational perspective, Winski said the 101st must be able to share information digitally between air and ground units in the Army and with joint and coalition partners to “violently and decisively exploit developing opportunities on the battlefield.” They’ll also need to provide electronic and kinetic fires over the horizon, increase the linkages between intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms and shooters, whether they are existing or future aircraft, future long range precision fires platforms or existing fires platforms.

Gallagher told C4ISRNET that if beyond line of sight satellite communications are knocked out, alternative solutions could include high frequency solutions or mid-earth or low-earth orbit satellites rather than geosynchronous satellites.

Abejon mentioned one option could be to link line of sight communications to the command and control aircraft that have beyond line of sight capability. Those aircraft can then move data forward while still maintaining connectivity to bases. Unmanned systems can also be used as range extension platforms.

Common operating environment

The Army is pursuing a common operating environment that will allow soldiers in a command post, ground vehicle, aircraft or on the ground to easily pass data back and forth, share information, communicate and look at the same map.

Now, the aviation community is trying to change its mission command system and radios into a program called the Aviation Information System (AIS).

This system will “centralize mission command on a single tool that connects war fighting function software and applications with [the] mission command network,” said Col. Ryan Coyle of the aviation enablers – requirements determination directorate. “Converging [the] mission command system and the network to support efficient data management but also rapid voice and data exchange are critical in order to optimize those cross domain effects.”

This is similar to the Command Post Computing Environment, which will shrink stovepiped systems into applications on a common interface allowing all forces to have a common look and feel regardless of their location.

The other part of a common suite of communications gear is having radios that can connect to ground and air forces.

However, for air platforms, such as radios, waveforms or mission command systems, the air community must pass airworthiness standards to fly in domestic or international airspaces.

“If we have a SINCGARS waveform in the bird and we have a SINCGARS waveform on the ground in a manpack radio or a leader radio, there is no reason we shouldn’t be able to interoperate perfectly between those two systems,” said Jim Evangelos, standards branch deputy director of the Joint Tactical Networking Center.

“One way to guarantee this interoperability is to have software defined radios on the ground, software defined radios in the bird operating the same version of the same software. That’s a lot easier said than done. I totally get and understand the aviation challenges and you have to meet some very tough standards especially with airworthiness standards.”

Overall, the top tactical network buyer for the Army says he wants one single network, though acknowledges there will be some exceptions.

“My goal is one network. One tactical network,” Maj. Gen. Dave Bassett, program executive officer, command, control, communications-tactical, said. “There are going to be some exceptions. There are going to be some things the aviation platforms want to do in terms of [man-unmanned teaming] or sensor to shooter and other things where the networks that the common network isn’t going to meet that requirement. We ought to manage those things as exceptions but that should not be the default.”

To the extent possible, Bassett said, the Army should ensure the aviation community is part of the overall Army network using the waveforms and capabilities that are provided and common to all.

The Army is currently soliciting white papers and will evaluate proposals to help solve these challenges.

Learn more about the Army’s progress improving current network offerings in our eBook “Understanding the Army’s Integrated Tactical Network.”