Information Warfare: The Kids Want Their Connectivity


October 16, 2010: The U.S. Army is running an interesting test of their new wireless networking tools. One of the new items is the NIK (Network Integration Kit). This provides the equivalent of a battlefield Internet, so that pictures, voice and video data can quickly be shared by troops in a brigade, in a combat situation. This is supposed to increase the "situational awareness" of the troops, and it does. But the enemy also tries to adapt to all this surveillance, and often comes up with clever, and effective, ways to do so. Exercises like this are more effective if they find out what the enemy can do in reaction to the new tech.

Thus it is no surprise that the most interesting aspect of this test was the opposing force (the "red force"), of soldiers in civilian clothes, who are under orders to do whatever it takes to mess with their high-tech adversaries. This is providing useful insights into what the Taliban, and other irregular forces can do to deceive and defeat the UAVs and Internet capabilities American troops now have. The red force admitted that they had the most problems with the UAVs, and believed that the stationary vidcams, in towers or aerostats (tethered blimps), were an even greater problem. Less of a problem were the sensors planted in the ground. These wireless devices detect sound, motion and seismic (movement through the ground) data. But they can be spotted and messed with. The army has been keen on these sensors for decades, despite the need for them to be concealed to be effective.

While the army planned, in the 1990s, to bring Internet-like connectivity to the battlefield, it has happened mostly because of civilian gear quickly adapted to combat use. That happened fast largely because of September 11, 2001. Wartime conditions are much more conducive to the rapid acceptance of new technology by the military.

Thus the Internet is coming to the battlefield, year by year, piece by piece. Troops who grew up with the Internet and cell phones expect this degree of connectivity, and are dismayed when they find it lacking in the combat zone.

The U.S. Army is spending several hundred million dollars a year building its GIG (Global Information Grid) and Win-T (Warfighter Information Network-Tactical). This effort will cost over $10 billion to build, and won't be complete until the 2020s. This wireless battlefield communications network uses the latest civilian wireless technology, combined with heavy duty cryptography, to enable combat and support units to have access to, well, a "battlefield internet." WIN-T will allow troops to simultaneously exchange text, data, video and voice data using a new generation of radios. Personal computers and smart phones (including both off-the-shelf and "ruggedized" military models) will hook into WIN-T and use the better communications to fight faster and more effectively.

The army is connecting local battlefield nets to the worldwide military network with AN/TSC-185 satellite communications systems (a satellite dish and related electronics mounted in a two wheel trailer that can be towed by a hummer.) An AN/TSC-185 unit weighs about two tons and includes a 7.5 kilowatt generator to power the electronics for transmitting data to satellites, and cooling the electronics. The army has been receiving about 30 of the AN/TSC-185s a month, and will continue production until every field (able to operate outside a base) battalion, as well as smaller specialized units, has one. Each AN/TSC-185 costs about $300,000, and is a key component in building a battlefield Internet capability. This is the (WIN-T) project.

Companies like Harris Corporation, Cisco Systems, and QUALCOMM, which have long built such systems for corporations and government organizations, are working on WIN-T. Parts of WIN-T have already appeared on the battlefield, cobbled together (like Blue Force Tracker) and shipped out because the technology worked and the troops needed it right away. Recent examples are a militarized version of an Android smart phone (RATS). The hardware and software, before military mods, is commercial stuff, and Android apps will run on a RATS phone.

WIN-T will use satellite communications technology, although the persistent shortage of communications satellites has the army and air force looking to use UAVs and aircraft acting as the airborne equivalent of satellites to move the huge quantities of data around the battlefield, and the world. The army is also developing UAVs that can act as communications satellite substitutes, by taking nearby signals from American military radios, and passing it on to a distant ground receiver (with a satellite dish), or another UAV acting as a signal booster.

WIN-T expects to allow troops in distant combat zones to hold video conferences with troops back in the United States, or anywhere else on, or above, the planet. For support troops, this means better access to experts elsewhere on the planet. This sort of thing was used during the recent Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns, and proved very useful. While it means that people in the Pentagon and the White House can see live video of combat, it also means that the reality of the battlefield becomes immediate and real for the senior leaders far from the actual fighting. While phone connections between the White House and the battlefield were possible during the Vietnam war, this led to harmful micromanagement. But seeing live video gives the senior people back home pause, causing them to avoid interfering, and using the remote video feed to better understand the results of their orders. Many elements of Win-T are already being used by troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.





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