By Bill Sweetman
One problem with networked military operations is that in the past communication systems were not designed to be networked. In fact, the reverse was true: They were designed to be secure, which means they can generally communicate only with other radios in the same system. Software-defined radio systems, like the U.S. Joint Tactical Radio System, are one approach to this problem, but integrating new radio technology into an inventory is a huge challenge.
Alternative approaches to the communications problem are being worked on, however, and a couple of potentially revolutionary ideas were unveiled at recent air and defense shows.
At Aero India in Mumbai, Israel’s Rafael was marketing the C4I-Connect system for air and land applications. It is already built into a system being developed for the Israeli Air Force. In essence, C4I-Connect is a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) system, plus radio over IP (RoIP). As such, it resembles Skype or the other VoIP systems that consumers use to replace landlines: Voice is converted into Internet packets, which are delivered across the network between any two IP addresses.
The system is based on a high-performance, scalable network controller that manages and allocates bandwidth to different users and connects the system together. Operators—such as commanders or air controllers—work with a voice terminal that features a simple graphical user interface and allows them to store, select and talk to multiple users on the system. The terminal comes in desktop, rugged-portable and compact form factors. Finally, a telephony and radio gateway connects the system not only to existing radio transmitter/receiver systems, but standard landline or mobile telephone systems.
The commander using C4I-Connect can, on a single screen, call up any user (color codes show whether they are online) and set up two-way or conference calls with as many as 40 users. With frequency use managed automatically, the operator can set up a virtual channel as needed for two users to stay in contact. The system is designed to work with larger battle-management systems, supplying them with an integrated communications function. Text and chat functions are fully integrated.
Simply put, C4I-Connect makes it possible for a fighter pilot to get through directly to the chief-of-staff’s secure mobile phone. It can also include a complete recording and debriefing system that stores every voice, data or video transmission over the net for later playback and analysis.
One important feature of C4I-Connect is that it is “waveform-agnostic.” Rafael’s advanced compression algorithms require as little as 10-20 Kbps. to carry voice calls. The result: It delivers many of the advantages of networking without requiring the user to modify or replace hundreds or thousands of user terminals.
At the IDEX show in Abu Dhabi, Hydra Trading—one of the United Arab Emirates’ biggest technology and defense companies—unveiled a tactical communications system based on ultra-wideband (UWB) radio technology, developed with Fanna Technologies, an Abu Dhabi electronics house. A technology that has been on the verge of a breakthrough for about a century, UWB communicates by using extremely short pulses with wide bandwidth—i.e., without a constant carrier frequency—but very low power. Voice or data are coded into the pulse sequence.
A prototype of the Hydra UWB system was shown at IDEX, installed in a Russian BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicle (IFV). It is essentially a short-range wireless system, like WiFi or WiMax, but because of its low operating power it can be used over tactically useful ranges without interfering with conventional radio or radar systems. Because signal pulses are in the picosecond range, it has no problem with multi-path effects. According to Hydra, this makes it possible to use the system for wireless data communications at up to 1 megabit/sec. between electronic systems inside the vehicle. The developers call this “put inside and play” as opposed to “plug and play.”
With internal and external antennas—the Hydra system incorporates a proprietary antenna not shown at IDEX—the UWB network can link together soldiers in a squad and the vehicle commander when they are inside an IFV and outside it. The team also says it can form a “body area network” linking different soldier-carried electronic systems, and that because it uses very low power it reduces the need for batteries. The company claims that UWB uses only 0.04 megawatts to transmit video over 40 meters (about 130 ft.), with a radiated power of 0.0000002 microwatts.