Over the past decade, the United States has witnessed remarkable advances in personal communications technology. Most of us now take for granted the ability to share all forms of information quickly, efficiently and cheaply. Our men and women in uniform have that same expectation.
However, the modern warfare environment is complex and much different from what it was even 10 years ago. Additionally, preparing for current and future wartime environments is especially challenging in our fiscal climate.
Fiscal responsibility will mean extending the useful lives of proven systems, leveraging investments in commercial technologies, making current systems more effective through affordable upgrades and exploiting new operational concepts made possible by small technical enhancements.
In the case of the U.S. Army, it places more emphasis and responsibility on the squad. These squads need a substantial amount of flexibility and autonomy while staying connected to each other during the fight. U.S. forces need to collaborate and coordinate with unprecedented speed and accuracy. These well-trained fighting forces will need to make decisions on their own, and must have necessary information readily available. Networking is the uniquely powerful advantage for operations today and into the future.
For example, networking sensor systems — including radars among ships, aircraft and tethered aerostats — creates a more complete picture of the theater. Information from netted radars can be combined to see enemy missiles and aircraft earlier, and to detect threats that might be able to evade individual radars. When our aircraft battle adversaries are equipped with capable air defenses, networked jamming can be used to more effectively blind the enemy’s own radars.
A commander in the field can rely on netted sensors to receive alerts detailing enemy fires and maneuvers. Even on the move, a commander can use mobile mission command systems to request intelligence, plan a counterstrike, direct networked weapon systems to execute it and call on surveillance systems to deliver the information needed to assess the results.
The technology empowers a single person or small unit to direct an action involving calls for intelligence, fires and surveillance. Shared, secure networks enable a convergence of intelligence and operations.
Here’s another example of convergence: Vehicle-mounted night vision systems were developed originally to allow a gunner to see and engage targets at night and in degraded weather conditions. That mission expanded to the driver and commander. Once on the net, those cameras on the Army’s combat vehicles become sensor nodes. They become surveillance assets for the larger force, able to capture and deliver ground-level imagery to another unit that needs a different look at an area.
With networks that scale from the tactical edge to headquarters, that same video footage can be shared and become part of the theater intelligence database, where it can help analysts fill gaps in regional imagery. A similar story could be told about images or audio captured by an infantry soldier.
The dismounted soldier should be a major focus of investment in new networking technologies.
Rich intrasquad communications enhance the autonomy and effectiveness of small units by going way beyond voice communication. “Here’s what I think” becomes “here’s what I am seeing.”
A mission plan or tactical situation can be marked up white-board style by forces collaborating in silence. This results in a leap ahead in situational awareness at all echelons.
Soldiers’ communication tools need to have effective filters to identify which information matters. During a firefight, a data glut is just as bad as a data dearth. There isn’t time to sift through all the information.
Data that matters needs to be quickly and automatically flagged, integrated and shared. Small, high-definition cameras can now be easily and unobtrusively attached to weapons and armor. So intrasquad communication tools need to be able to carry full motion video. And data needs to be available immediately and without decay in its quality; even a few seconds of lag can mean the difference between a successful mission and one in which the enemy escapes or American lives are lost.
During the push to upgrade military networking technologies, it’s still important to maintain fiscal responsibility. So the military and industry should collaborate and take advantage of existing systems that can be affordably upgraded, and make targeted investments in new tools that are compatible with these systems.
Improving networking capabilities doesn’t require the military to break the bank, and equipping our forces with the networking tools they need will save lives and help them defeat our enemies.
Andrew Zogg, vice president, Network Centric Systems, Business Development, Raytheon.