Achieving greater connectivity through airborne networking

This article first appeared in the April/May 2022 edition of Air Warfare – a Shephard Publication.

Written by Gerrard Cowan, freelance defence journalist, with contributions from Macy Summers, Blu Wireless.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has underscored the evolving threat to air arms from peer rivals. Multi-domain operations are a crucial focus for this developing environment, linking assets across the battlespace to multiply and enhance their effects. This relies on connectivity, with airborne networking playing a critical role.

The growing demands of multi-domain operations (MDO) – also called Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) – have become a key focus across industry. Elaine Bitonti, VP of JADC2 demonstration and experimentations at Collins Aerospace, said that the operational benefits of having access to sensors or effectors in all domains, especially space, will be required for the future contested fight.

Stovepipes of information

There are currently networks in each of the warfighting domains, often multiple, most of them purpose-built for a specific operational need like ISR or tactical operations. This creates stovepipes of information. ‘Getting that sensor data between domains is very slow with, in some cases, manual translation that operates in terms of hours and days. To meet the speed of battle, data needs to flow more seamlessly between domains and users,’ Bitonti noted.

‘To meet the speed of battle, data needs to flow more seamlessly between domains and users.’

The JADC2/MDO environment will mean connecting existing and emerging networks across all services, including coalition partners, she said. This ‘network of networks’ will need to focus on both today’s systems and future ones. ‘Utilising open architecture approaches, we can begin to connect existing networks together through gateway approaches and continue to update and integrate new capabilities when they come online.’ According to Bitonti, Collins is focused on two dimensions of the problem: connecting networks across both military and security domains; and the ways in which intelligent sensing can reduce the amount of network traffic needed. She pointed to a demonstration with the Utah National Guard in July 2021, which showed how air force, navy and army networks could be connected as one with an intelligent gateway on persistent airborne platforms, in this case a KC-135. The work will continue during the Valiant Shield exercise in summer 2022.Among other focuses, the company has demonstrated for the US Army approaches to address range and scalability in the air and ground domains. During a trial in December 2021, networks that operate at operationally relevant ranges with hundreds of users were demonstrated in both domains, in addition to the ability to bridge between them. The company is also working to enable provision of global Link 16 coverage through a constellation of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites.

Mesh Networking

A spokesperson for Lockheed Martin pointed to airborne mesh networking as a crucial area for the company. Through this concept, communication nodes interact and connect dynamically, rather than via a traditional, ‘hierarchical’ system, which relies on areas of central authority and could thus be vulnerable to attack.‘ Airborne mesh networking is foundationally imperative to the successful execution of the JADC2/MDO vision,’ the spokesperson said. ‘The intent is to extend that mesh network across services and with coalition partners to bring assets into a multi-domain operational environment so that the warfighter can maintain an asymmetric advantage in A2/AD environments.’

Mesh networks provide a variety of benefits over point-to-point or hub-and-spoke equivalents, the spokesperson said, most notably added robustness and the elimination of single-point failures, which could prevent data being exchanged. They also support routing data dynamically through a variety of paths from source to destination and can be useful to meet data latency requirements or ensure data can get from a source to a destination, among other advantages. ‘Lockheed Martin is looking at how we connect space, air, surface, ground and subsurface nodes into a resilient network,’ the representative noted. ‘We’re also looking to take that connectivity a step further and explore how to tie together dissimilar networks into one larger network that can handle different data at different classification and releasability levels, especially as we introduce coalition partners to the network.’

Enabling technologies

The spokesperson pointed to a number of areas of focus for the company, including ensuring network robustness in challenging electromagnetic environments, automated control and optimisation to reduce operator workload, increased network capacity and the development of a larger virtual network consisting of multiple physically different links and message protocols. Lockheed Martin has worked with the US Army to show how 5G connectivity could be integrated into a convoy of autonomous trucks, the spokesperson said, through an airborne network based on its 5G.MIL technology. ‘Similar demos with autonomous systems simulating satellites have shown the greater potential value that 5G from space could provide in contested and remote environments,’ the spokesperson explained. The evolution of 5G is one of three key enabling technologies supporting advanced, resilient data networks, they added, alongside open architectures and multi-level security. Open architectures, and specifically Open Mission Systems (OMS), have enabled affordable, swift integration of new capabilities for the warfighter at the tactical edge. This has facilitated flow of data between dissimilar networks by having a ‘common language’ to act as a bridge between them. Used in conjunction with gateway nodes, this allows higher-fidelity data to be shared between platforms. ‘In this networked battlespace, where connected systems need to share data between platforms operating with different data links and security environments, we have to exercise proper control over critical data,’ the spokesperson said. ‘That ensures maximum collaboration and increased situational awareness for everyone on the JADC2 network – including with coalition partners – while adhering to data security protocols and appropriately translating data across systems.’ Multi-level security allows for reuse of software and hardware, even though it may go on different edge nodes. ‘Coupled with platform-agnostic, 5G.MIL OMS-compliant tactical gateways, this combination provides a plug-and-play capability that enables rapid integration of additional sensors and data links to offer operational flexibility, reusability and interoperability.’ The largest technological shift has been the move from purpose-built systems to the prominence of open architectures and interface standards, said Bitonti. ‘There has been a recognition by the [US] government and industry that the proliferation of these stovepipe systems was not effective or sustainable. The ability to incrementally upgrade these systems as new capabilities emerge will be key to pacing the threat.’ She also highlighted the emergence of 5G capabilities and the proliferation of LEO SATCOM constellations, both of which are ‘providing alternative communications paths that greatly enhance the throughput and resiliency of connectivity’. Additionally, Bitonti noted that utilising data from multiple platform types requires access to multiple security domains. Until recently, moving information between domains meant shifting it back to large data centres first. ‘With the advent of cross-domain solutions that can operate on tactical platforms, these capabilities can now be applied to the forward edge.’

Less data

Companies have also worked to reduce the amount of data that needs to be collected and transmitted to achieve the same operational effect. For example, Collins Aerospace has worked to make UAV collections more efficient, using machine intelligence to autonomously prioritise the assets that can most effectively gather information, reducing the amount collected overall. UAVs are today a key element of airborne connectivity and are set to grow more important. Adding such platforms – and other new technologies – to a network is a challenge that is driven by a number of factors, Bitonti said. First is the number of sensors and amount of data that needs to be shared. Second is the SWaP constraints placed on the platform, which could potentially limit the amount of processing and communication links that can be carried. ‘Especially now, it’s easy to have sensors that can overwhelm the ability of networks to carry data,’ she said. ‘That is why we need to have a balanced architecture that can support data acquisition and processing on the platforms as well as links that adapt to the need to transfer information, especially in contested environments.’

Cross-domain collaboration

In operational service, systems and platforms have limited collaboration capabilities, as they have been developed to fulfil a specific operational demand, said an Airbus spokesperson. ‘We have to break up those silos to achieve cross-platform, cross-system and cross-domain collaborative capabilities.’ They said that such challenges will increase with each participant in the network in a denied environment. Spectrum management and information-sharing in a cognitive manner are demanding tasks by themselves, but routing data across the battlefield in a secure environment to provide the right information at the right time and in the right place will increase demand and level of complexity. ‘Where nowadays human interaction is required to bridge gaps in the digital data chain, open service-oriented architectures complemented with artificial intelligence will allow for a seamless exchange and distribution of data,’ the spokesperson said. ‘This also will heavily influence the way we plan and operate these networks.’

The solutions will have to be based on an open architecture, the spokesperson added, combining NATO standards and C3 taxonomy with the principles of Federated Mission Networking. Airbus is developing a wide range of C2 solutions, the spokesperson noted, such as the Fortion 1 SkyControl, which will serve as the basis for the fourth generation of the German Improved Air Defence System. ‘Our customers have an increasing need for tighter coupling beyond air assets – the success of data sharing depends very much on communication and network capabilities,’ they added. ‘While in legacy systems communication was very limited within specific operational domains, eg air, land and maritime, the needs and evolution will cover interoperability aspects and reliable communication links between them. This has been improved in the past on national initiatives, eg the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) masterplan, to mature specific data link capabilities, its robustness and management of communication means between different assets.’ While JADC2 is the future of how battlefield communications will be shaped and managed, the reality is that integration of data from sensors, electronic weapons, cyberspace and more across every domain is incredibly complex, according to Macy Summers, president and CEO of Blu Wireless Technology. ‘For airborne platforms, vital ISR information needs to be detailed, accurate and quickly available. Pilots need surveillance data, information from the ground and information from other platforms to form this complete picture, with any one missing piece having the ability to put lives, information and platforms at risk.’ Blu Wireless works with 5G MMW technology, which aims to bring high-bandwidth, flexible communications to the front line. It is particularly suited to military C4ISR applications, such as scalable tactical communications, according to the company.‘With the increasing use of high-altitude autonomous ISR/communications platforms and mesh networking through drone swarming, we see significant potential to meet the vision that JADC2 lays out through the ability to connect and network these airborne platforms with ground forces, giving them the best possible chance of successfully meeting their operational objectives and with minimal risk to personnel,’ Summers added.

Upcoming challenges

However, the success of such ambitions will depend on the ability of the platforms to share and communicate C4ISR data securely and seamlessly. This can be achieved through 5G MMW, he argued. ‘The challenges around integrating new and existing platforms are multifaceted. Existing platforms carry out a vast array of roles and are manufactured by many different companies and at different times with differing technologies available. Particularly in the case of airborne platforms, SWaP considerations have a significant impact on operational capability, meaning that systems delivering ISR data and vital operational intelligence have to adhere to a strict set of requirements that could potentially place limitations on capability.’ The Lockheed Martin spokesperson pointed to a range of upcoming challenges, such as the inclusion of commercial providers in the spectrum and ensuring that future networking solutions are interoperable between legacy platforms and future assets. Pointing to cybersecurity, the spokesperson said: ‘As all these systems are connected together, the importance of cybersecurity, including protection and authentication of nodes in the network, will be an imperative.’ There has been a significant recent focus on how communications operate in highly contested environments, said Bitonti, as well as on the capabilities required. ‘The focus will shift to also include a more holistic view of connecting the forces across highly contested and permissive environments,’ she concluded. ‘Once the really hard problems have been solved, understanding how they support the broader fighting force will be key.’