Battlefield comms transformed by mobile ad hoc networks

The traditional battlefield is becoming saturated by huge amounts of real-time, high-bandwidth tactical information that needs to travel up the chain of command from soldiers and sensors on the front line, for it then to be disseminated, if appropriate, more widely.

Awash with information, tomorrow’s battlefields will need to be networked and connected like never before; it’s actually already happening, helped by huge advances in mobile communications in the civil and public safety sectors, which now offer major advantages over typical tactical military communications systems; among them, Mobile Ad Hoc Networks or MANETs.

And with the wealth of high-bandwidth tactical data arriving from an arsenal of sensors – helmet-mounted cameras, night vision devices, situational awareness sensors, satellites, drones and more – that’s no bad thing. Traditional battlefield communications are changing

The Mobile Ad Hoc Network approach has gained traction in recent years, with several militaries and major industry players such as Airbus, General Dynamics, Harris Corp, Rockwell Collins and Thales, all active in the space. We speak to Jeffrey Kroon, Director of Engineering, Global Network Products at Harris Communications Systems and Richard Gascoin, Marketing Director at Thales.

What are the main drivers in the continuing development of MANETs and their adoption by militaries around the globe?

Jeffrey Kroon: MANETs address the need to maintain voice and data (eg. situational awareness, video) communication capabilities among a mobile deployment of users with dynamic connectivity. Increasing reliance on IP-based data transfer as the primary means for information dissemination at the tactical edge, continues to drive the importance of MANET technology. 

One key factor is the much more dynamic pattern of participation of individual nodes in a MANET. Today’s operations can be much more ad hoc in terms of the use of unmanned vehicles, or airborne assets. MANETs automatically allow such an addition and dynamically route data to new network members, eliminating the need for operators and radio planners to manually configure and change networks during missions. 

In essence, a successful MANET maintains connectivity supporting the required services using the minimal bandwidth required, while resiliently countering both intentional and unintentional interference and network partitioning.

Richard Gascoin: Timely dissemination of information throughout the battlefield relies on short reaction times and extended, near-real-time connectivity between users. Secure MANETs can be set up to meet this requirement, quickly delivering on-the-move communications with embedded ad hoc networking layers to offer robust and secure multimedia services including voice, IP, data, video, mail and file transfer.

What are the main advantages of deploying MANETs over traditional non-IP-based tactical military communications or mobile wireless networks? (eg. self-forming, self-healing, dynamic, peer-to-peer?)

JK: A successful MANET automatically maintains connectivity, supporting the required services using the minimal bandwidth required, while resiliently countering both intentional and unintentional interference and network partitioning. 

Utilising IP as the interface to the rest of the networks allows relatively easy migration of IP network services to operate over MANET networks. The automation of the forming, healing and load balancing behaviour of the networks allows it to operate as a mini-LAN in an infrastructure-less environment.

RG: The primary advantage of MANET is that it extends the tactical network to the traditionally disadvantaged dismounted user. With MANET, a soldier at the ‘tactical edge’ remains connected to the network and as such, has available to him all the services traditionally offered over wired IP networks (eg. text, file transfer, data services, intelligence and reconnaissance data, video feeds, etc). The dynamic nature of MANET, providing self-configuration and self-healing, means the network adapts to the changing battlefield conditions and environments.

In any given theatre of operations many MANETs will be operating and dynamic at any given time. How is seamless and uninterrupted comms maintained across the battlefield – and from the individual dismounted  soldier – all the way up to the highest, decision-making echelons?

JK: This is probably one of the more complicated and difficult facets of providing MANET to the battlefield. Despite many of the benefits of a successful MANET, careful network planning is required to ensure that sufficient bandwidth is available to individual networks to meet mission needs. 

For instance, generically, a given MANET network is planned to operate in a given frequency allocation and bandwidth. If the given bandwidth can support 5Mb per second of user traffic throughput and 200 nodes are planned to operate on that network, the individual instantaneous throughput might work out to be about 25Kb per second – which might be okay for text messaging, but would not be sufficient for sending larger files such as pictures. 

The network planner needs to consider what the information load will be on the network across the geographic area where the mission will take place and plan accordingly, creating one or more MANETs, or other communications links, to meet the needs.

RG: Proper nodal density and auto-routing features in a MANET network allow seamless connectivity across the network, including dynamic topologies and at extended ranges. Thales’ MANET waveforms are optimised to maximize node count while minimising network overhead, and also operate in ECCM-protected mode to provide more robust connectivity in hostile radio frequency environments, as compared to fixed-frequency MANET waveforms proposed by some vendors.

Specifically looking at the US Military, how have the US Army’s Global Information Grid (GIG) and Network Operations (formerly Network Centric Warfare) doctrines embraced the concept and real solutions of IP-based MANETs to meet the needs of the networked battlefield, and how is your company involved with DoD developments?

RG: MANET waveform technologies provide a critical capability and allow the extension of the Global Information Grid (GIG) to the tactical edge. Through radios such as that from the Thales SYNAPS and MBITR2 family of radios, which host a variety of MANET waveforms, users, whether operating in dismount or mounted missions, can dynamically access network services and data over the wireless network, seamlessly and securely.  

The US Army has been an early adopter of MANET technology through the Handheld, Manpack and Small Form Fit (HMS) Joint Tactical Radio Systems (JTRS) program. These handled, manpack and vehicle-mounted radios incorporate the Soldier Radio Waveform (SRW), which is one of the first widely fielded MANET waveforms. 

With nearly 25,000 radios fielded through capability sets and the migration to Full Rate Production (FRP), the US Army has fully adopted this technology and the benefits it provides. Thales MANET technology provides the users with ‘fast late entry join/leave and network split/merge fast capabilities’. 

In the US, the HMS JTRS programme is the responsibility of the Program Executive Office for Command, Control and Communications – Tactical (PEO C3T) out of Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. Thales’ AN/PRC-154 Rifleman Radio is one of two qualified radios under the HMS soldier radio requirement, which is currently entering FRP. Thales’ AN/PRC-148B MBITR2 will be a contender for the US Army’s two-channel Leader Radio requirement. 

JK: Harris is playing a large role in the adoption of MANET technology by the US DoD across many of the mobile echelons, having started the evolution in 2009. Army airborne units and marines were the early adopters using the Adaptive Networking Wideband Waveform (ANW2) to substantially extend and improve network connectivity to the edge. 

The full army followed soon after, with ANW2 in the PRC-117G being selected for the first MANET Capability Sets for several brigades. At the higher echelons, the High Band Networking Radio is used as part of the WIN-T solution to provide LAN-like rates using line-of-sight MANET and adaptive antenna technologies. 

The Mid-Tier Networking Vehicular Radio provided by the company is the radio providing the Wideband Networking Waveform (WNW) MANET as a brigade-and-above, mobile backbone component; the SRW MANET waveform is providing the company-and-below, networking solution. 

In 2012, our expertise in MANET was recognised with the award of the SRW Software in Service Support (SWISS) contract, making us the formal SRW capability upgrade and maintenance provider. Harris has subsequently provided several major upgrades and maintenance releases involving performance upgrades and new features. 

At this point, we provide the majority of MANET solutions and radios to the DoD. Recently, Harris has been an awardee on both the HMS two channel Manpack and Rifleman Radio IDIQ contracts that deliver MANET capabilities at the company level and below. 

With these awards, the company will be delivering a family of high-performance MANET capabilities to the DoD from the dismount squad leader all the way up to the brigade headquarters.

Image Credit: Flex

Desire Athow
Managing Editor, TechRadar Pro

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website builders and web hosting when DHTML and frames were in vogue and started narrating about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium.