WASHINGTON — Those with boots on the ground are looking to the skies for the extended, accelerated and protected communication and data-sharing capabilities needed to meet the challenge of high-tech opponents on battlefields the world over.

The U.S. Army is experimenting with what it calls the aerial tier network, airborne assets that can relay information, reduce reaction times and help resolve communication breakdowns in areas where foliage, mountains and buildings impede signals.

Specifically, the Army is tackling two conundrums with its experimentation: first, how to extend lines of communication on the ground, perhaps by using unmanned systems such as small drones; and second, how to quicken the pace of air-to-air and air-to-ground information exchange to address threats more efficiently.

“When we talk about aerial tier, that means a lot of things to a lot of people,” Col. Greg Napoli, the unified network lead for the Network Cross-Functional Team, part of Army Futures Command, said at an industry meeting in Philadelphia last month. “It can mean aerostats to some people. It can mean fixed- or rotary-wing aircraft comms relays or” intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, “or even weapons delivery platforms to other people.”

The improvements will be critical, Army leaders and technical experts agree, as the service transitions into multi-domain operations, or MDO, the ability to fight and win against a technologically advanced enemy on land, in the air and sea, and across cyber and space. The same thinking also considers how an adversary — such as Russia in a battle for Europe, or China in a battle for the Pacific — would contest, intercept or otherwise mess with American chatter.

“As part of this, we’re going to look at the ability, under these learning objectives, to communicate under jamming conditions,” said Scott Newman, a project manager at the Program Executive Office for Command, Control and Communications-Tactical, or PEO C3T, an Army network modernization outfit. “We’re going to be looking at detectability, we’re going to be looking at directionality with this.”

Upgrading and hardening Army networks is one of several heavy lifts the service is conducting as it wrangles the challenges of larger, dispersed fighting. Other priorities include air-and-missile defense, future vertical lift and long-range precision fires.

Both the Future Vertical Lift Cross-Functional Team and the Program Executive Office for Aviation are assisting with the aerial tier endeavor.

To create the network of the future, the Army, via PEO C3T and its sister organizations, is using what are known as capability sets: streams of research, feedback and in-the-field testing that introduce new and needed tech to the battlefield every two years.

The effort kicked off in fiscal 2021, with results expected in 2023, 2025, 2027 and beyond. The aerial tier is an important element of Capability Set ‘25, maturing now, and Capability Set ‘27, further down the line and still coalescing.

“In Capability Set ‘21, we have a capability called the variable height antenna,” which can rise above the canopy and boost the range of the Army’s network, Napoli said. “What we would like to look at doing for Capability Set ‘25 is expanding that capability to a drone that can loiter at the time and place of that S6, where that S6 and where that commander needs it to, in order to extend that tactical mesh network, what we’re calling the ITN mesh network.”

Getting things right has been difficult. Napoli described a “continuing challenge” for the Army, as it attempts to clear technical- and physics-related hurdles.

Kinks can be worked out at events including the annual Network Modernization Experiment, or NetModX, hosted by the C5ISR Center, and the grander Project Convergence, the Army’s contribution to the Pentagon’s vision of seamless communication known as Joint All-Domain Command and Control.

Both replicate real-world conditions to generate data that will shape consequential decisions. Napoli said input from the military and its labs and from industry is critical “as we move forward.”

There were some 1,500 participants at Project Convergence 21, and more than 100 pieces of advanced gear entered the crucible. The Army, specifically, put into play aerial prototypes and surrogates to enable communication across ground and air nodes. Aerial tier communications on an unmanned system “performed well in a dedicated communications relay role,” the Army said in a late-April update.

The 2021 experimentation underlined the value of an aerial tier for Brig. Gen. Jeth Rey, the director of the Network Cross-Functional Team.

“We did not realize how important it was to have an aerial tier overhead loitering for more than 20 to 26 hours and providing an extension of our network,” Rey said in December, recalling his lessons learned. C4ISRNET previously reported Rey was interesting in pursuing and improving the capability.

Colin Demarest is a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covers military networks, cyber and IT. Colin previously covered the Department of Energy and its NNSA — namely Cold War cleanup and nuclear weapons development — for a daily newspaper in South Carolina. Colin is also an award-winning photographer.

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