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Navigation Brief

This is an e-newsletter originally published October 16.

WASHINGTON – Good Afternoon, Drifters

This is a Thursday evening email and you are getting it on Friday. For that I apologize, we had some technical difficulties last night.

Anyway, some big things happening inside the Navy right now, all with very uncertain futures.

The DoD has bought off on a very different Navy force structure than to one we have now. It will probably not reach 500 ships but will likely stick to the principles laid out in the new plan: More numerous, smaller ships with more unmanned and a heavy emphasis on submarines.

But this week we also saw progress on something I’ve been reporting on all year: The Navy’s move toward building a new network that can link all the platforms and sensors it needs to connect to execute its “Distributed Maritime Operations” concept.

You can read about that here:

The US Navy’s ‘Manhattan Project’ has its leader

On Twitter, I opined – as I am wont to do – that this is the most important thing happening in the Navy today. I stand by that. Everything the Navy wants to do is dependent on them getting a resilient battle network that can connect its platforms, weapons and sensors over broad distances in the Pacific. Everything else is window dressing, at this point, if we can’t make that work.

If you’ve ever read Stephen King’s fantasy series The Dark Tower, this network is just that: The Dark Tower. It is the nexus that stands in the center of all things radiating power, containing all worlds and domains.

That’s what we’re talking about tonight.

Let’s Drift!


All Things Serve the Beam

The basic story from this week was that Rear Adm. Doug Small is the new head of what the Navy is calling “Project Overmatch.” Overmatch is an effort that CNO likens to The Manhattan Project, referring to the effort to develop the Atomic Bomb in the 1940s. In his letter to Small, he compared it the development of Aegis or the fielding of the nuclear Navy.

Talk about expectations.

But this network, this Dark Tower, is difficult to wrap your head around.

Some of you may know that I was a datalink operator for a spell, went to the school for it, and have a bit of a background in this stuff. But while I understand the basics of it from the schoolhouse, I just operated the equipment. I didn’t fix it, I didn’t know how it worked beyond what I needed to know for my job, and I wasn’t responsible for the enabling equipment. That was all the realm of the ITs and ETs.

But I do know from experience that Link 16, the Navy’s primary battle network, is at once resilient to jamming yet incredibly temperamental. It requires operators to perform physical functions such as loading the correct crypto into the system daily, something that would be a challenge if you are operating unmanned vessels on encrypted nets (who’s going to change the crypto?).

It is range limited when not connected with satellites (which could be denied in a high-end fight) and there are limitations with how many users can reasonably be included in a participation group (a net) at one time without interfering with each other or bogging down the network. A slow network means latency and latency means low track quality and low track quality means you probably will not be able to shoot the track reliably unless you have one of your own sensors on it.

All told, to do what CNO Mike Gilday has tasked Small with – Connect any shooter to any sensor – this is not possible in the current Link 16 architecture. The Navy’s Cooperative Engagement Capability may get you a little closer to something to build off. CEC shares tracks that are kill quality, meaning you can shoot what someone else has detected, in other words what you need for an “any sensor/any shooter” network.

But CEC is a line-of-site system, as is the F-35’s advanced, high data-transfer rate Multifunction Advanced Data Link. CEC, however, is being paired with the E-2D to create a network that can assign a ship’s missiles to something it can’t see with its own sensors. That’s a big step, but it requires and E-2D, which requires an aircraft carrier.

I suspect what will ultimately need to happen is the network will need to use multiple pathways – really any and every pathway available, including low-earth orbit satellite constellations – routing data through the appropriate pathway based on what’s most available, determining what data is important and what’s garbage before its even transmitted to the network participants.

Now, as a general rule, data transfer rates diminish over long distances. If you think about it, it makes sense. The Extremely Low Frequency system that used to be used to communicate with our submarines underwater transfers a few characters a minute, so I’m told.

The frequencies that enable commercial 5G can move huge amounts of data, but the system needs an antenna and radio every 500 meters or so. Obviously, we’re not going to be able to create commercial 5G data transfer rates across the South China Sea, We can’t put enough nodes and relays in the air or on the water to do that effectively.

So, how are we going to do this, connecting hundreds of unmanned sensors with dozens of manned nodes over long distances, all without bogging down our networks, creating latency and reducing the quality of our data?

Well, there are some clues out there. If you need to send a ton of sensor input data over a network but you don’t have the bandwidth because you just don’t have the nodes and relays you’d need, maybe the idea is to find a way to use less bandwidth.

My friend Nathan Strout over at Defense News sister publication C4ISRNet had an interesting story today that gets at one way you might be able to send high-quality data over a network with sub-optimal bandwidth: It’s called “edge processing.”

You read more:

At the virtual Association of the U.S. Army conference this week, officials emphasized that in order to get sensor data to weapons systems even faster, they need to push computing to the edge. And to hit deep-lying, protected targets, the Army needs to see farther to sense potential threats, create targeting data and send a solution to the best fires system for rapid response.

“Edge processing is something that we’re very interested in for a number of reasons. And what I mean by that is having smart sensors that can not only detect the enemy, [but] identify, characterize and locate, and do all those tasks at the sensor processing,” said John Strycula, the director of the Army’s task force focused on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

Processing at the sensor provides two major benefits. First, artificial intelligence will process that data faster than a human could. Second, if data is processed at the edge, the sensor doesn’t have to take up massive bandwidth to send all of the raw data it’s collecting back through the network; it just needs to send its final product.

“If I only have to send back a simple message from the sensor that says the target is here ― here’s the location and here’s what I saw and here’s my percent confidence ― versus sending back the whole image across the network, it reduces those bandwidth requirements,” Strycula said.

“We are trading network for compute in a lot of areas, and what I mean by that is we are adding compute to places it was never meant to be ― never envisioned to be ― such as on the sensor itself or on the platform co-located with the sensor,” said Alexander Miller, senior G-2 science and technology adviser. “By trading that compute for the networking time, we don’t have to leverage so much of the network to move those data.”

Read the whole story here: The US Army wants to trade network for compute, but why?

We’re going to keep writing about this. Stay tuned.

On to The Hotwash.

The Hotwash

Straight to the links.

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David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.

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