June 23, 2010:
The U.S. Air Force is installing digital data link equipment in its B-1 bombers. This will enable the B-1 crew to share video, and other digital data, with other similarly equipped aircraft, as well as army troops and helicopters, and navy ships and aircraft. This is the next big thing in warfare; a true battlefield Internet.
Put simply, it's all about taking real-time vidcam, radar and other sensor data (sensor fusion) and other information about the battlefield situation (all sorts of databases and reports), and both allowing everyone to share it, and combining (fusing) it to provide commanders, and troops, with a better understanding of the current operation.
Basically, this is nothing new. Commanders have always employed information fusion. Three thousand years ago, a commander created a battle situation (where two opposing armies agreed to stop moving around and form up for a fight) by taking information from scouts, spies in enemy territory and diplomats, and coming up with ways to move his army, and communicate with the enemy force, and others in the area, to convince the other force to stop and fight. The battle itself consisted of the commander, on a horse or in a chariot, and usually on a high piece of ground, looking at his force and the enemies. The commander had aides doing the same thing, and telling the boss anything they saw. Messengers brought information from subordinates. The commander took in all this, and ordered his contingents to advance, or re-position themselves.
But throughout the 20th century, commanders had access to more information. A century ago, it became possible to get aerial photographs. Radio and telephone allowed information to move a lot faster, from a lot farther away. Battles were fought over a much larger area. It was no longer practical to sit on a horse and view the battlefield, or even just stand around staring at a map of the battle area. Commanders were being overwhelmed. Staffs learned to fuse data together, without losing too much of the meaning. Three decades ago, portable computers showed up, and staff officers began sharing their data fusion chores with machines.
Now, early in the 21st century, there are a lot more sensors (vidcams on aircraft and UAVs, plus radars and electronic eavesdropping). Most importantly, there are cheap, powerful and plentiful computers. Finally, there are new techniques for quickly analyzing this flood of data (starting with Operations Research, invented in the 1930s and used successfully during World War II). American commanders are developing new ways to examine the "battle space" and quickly react to new opportunities, before the enemy can.
For over a decade, the U.S. Department of Defense has been trying to develop equipment that would allow the aircraft (including UAVs) of all three services to be able to communicate digitally (as in a battlefield Internet). Getting "battlefield broadband" to work has been a work in progress, just as it has been in the commercial sector (where progress has also been slow.) Five years ago, a test had an army UH-60A helicopter, a navy F-18 and an air force F-15E, sitting on the ground, sending and receiving digital data. A ground station was also tied into the network. The successful test demonstrated that all three services had successfully modified their communications gear to handle the same (USAF Link 16) data. This was followed by tests with the aircraft in the air, including an army UAV and an AH-64 helicopter gunship, followed by tests with aircraft firing weapons, using target data from another aircraft, or someone on the ground. By the end of the decade, the Department of Defense wants to have the capability for troops on the ground, to share targeting data (including live video), with aircraft, and vice versa. Sort of battlefield video conferencing, with weapons. Now the necessary equipment is being installed, by all three services. By the end of the decade, commanders, and their troops, will expect to have an Internet like access to all sensor data their side is generating.
Meanwhile, most of the effort is going into making the system reliable enough to withstand the rigors of combat situations. If the system isn't reliable enough, the troops won't use it. Simple as that. During World War II, the military first encountered high-tech gear that was simply ignored by the troops, because the stuff did not work, or work well enough to depend on in a life and death situation. Those attitudes have continued, and developers know that if their gear is not robust enough, it will be rejected (unofficially, of course) by the troops.
The Link 16 based battlefield Internet system allows data fusion, with commanders and intelligence analysts seeing sensor data (basically high resolution video) from many aircraft (fighters, gunships, helicopters and UAVs) over a battlefield, and use all the information to best select targets and assign air and ground forces to attack most effectively. Currently, all the aircraft with high-res eyes on the battlefield require lots of radio chatter to share their data. This approach is slow, and subject to errors. Pictures do it faster, especially high rez ones.
The data fusion can include data from other sensors. These include those collecting electronic transmissions (from radios, cell phones or even automobiles) and photo-reconnaissance pods (which get sharp images, using 30 megapixel and up, digital cameras to take still pictures and immediately transmit them).
In Iraq, the U.S. Army developed new tools for constantly watching the battle zone, electronically noting minor differences, and combining this with other data on the enemy, and using math, and fast computers, to accurately predict who the enemy probably was, what they were capable of doing, and when they were likely to do it. This new weapon played a major role in breaking the back of the Iraqi terrorist organizations, and saving many American and Iraqi lives (by knowing where roadside bombs were, and the enemy fighters as well.) These techniques are now being applied in Afghanistan. The final step is linking all the services together, making everyone more effective.
A new generation of American commanders are also learning, on the battlefield, how powerful information fusion is as a weapon, or at least as a tool for determining where to point the weapons. This is just the beginning of high speed, multi-sensor information fusion on the battlefield, and the tool will only grow in power and effectiveness.