Broadband on the Battlefield: Military Services Follow Dissimilar Paths toward Digital Communications

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SAN DIEGO -- The dream is to push streaming video and the Internet throughout the battlefield.

Air Force pilots want to see what's happening on the ground. Army commanders want to receive live images from unmanned aircraft above or from sensors around the next corner while in a moving armored vehicle. Navy captains want to see what's happening beyond the curvature of the Earth.

All three services have programs in different stages of development that are designed to bring digital communications to the battlefield.

The Army is in the second phase of testing its "war fighter information network-tactical," or WIN-T. The Air Force is funding the family of advanced beyond line-of-sight terminals (FAB-T) that may one day be installed in a wide range of aircraft. The Navy is working on a multi-band network radio--called SeaLancet by its manufacturer--that will move high bandwidth communications around in the maritime domain.

In the civilian world, commercial networks are already providing such services to customers who are "on-the-move." A businessman can connect his computer to the Internet in an airport in Dallas, get on an airplane and fly to New York, and have the same connectivity when he arrives.

The military wants the same. The difference is that commercial systems' infrastructures stay in one place. The armed services need systems where both the "customer" and the infrastructure providing the broadband links are on the move, explained Bill Weiss, vice president of tactical networks at General Dynamics.

"That mobile network introduces complexity that commercial industry doesn't need to worry about," he said.

But will these three systems one day be able to communicate with each other? And therefore, realize the dream of a "joint" world where an Army commander can send and receive what he sees to whomever he wants in the land, sea or air.

Maybe. Vendors at the Milcom conference here had only a passing familiarity with each other's programs--if any at all.

The military communications world has been notorious for creating "stovepipes"--more sarcastically known as "cylinders of excellence"--where systems cannot link to each other.

It's not impossible to make these systems talk to each other, it's just that no one is currently asking them to do it, said David White, FAB-T program manager at Boeing.

"You can imagine a mission in the future where you want to have an Air Force jet and a Navy platform communicate directly," White said.

Added Leo Conboy, Boeing's deputy director of wideband communications and RF systems group: "Just because we don't have a current requirement, doesn't mean we can't do it."

"I don't know enough about WIN-T. They might be on a different [satellite] constellation," he said.

The FAB-T program is designed to create a network to support a family of satellite communications terminals for airborne, ground-fixed and ground transportable on-the-move vehicles.

"What we're providing is the ability to get satellite connectivity on these platforms at a much higher data rate than they've ever had in the past," said Conboy.

The first generation of low-data rate FAB-T terminals were scheduled to be delivered at the end of 2008 to the Air Force. They were to be installed on two B-52 Stratofortresses, a B-2 bomber, three E4B advanced airborne command posts, a RC-135 Rivet Joint Reconnaissance aircraft and the E-6 Mercury communications aircraft.

In this first increment, low data rate communications will be sent through the aging Milstar satellites. Increments two and three are aligned to capitalize on the capabilities of the advanced EHF (extremely high frequency) and the transformational-satellite (T-Sat) program, which has a cloudy future.

As these new satellite systems come online, and are able to provide more bandwidth, the Air Force will be able to install new software without needing to swap out the terminals. …