Air Force researchers develop a new approach to secure information delivery

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An enduring challenge for military IT people: getting just the right information securely to people who need it, especially in contested environments. Now researchers from the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Information Directorate think they have a solution. It’s called robust information provisioning layer, or RIPL. To find out more about it, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with program manager Brian Holmes.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin
So tell me what RIPL is designed to do. And then we’ll get into how it does it.

Brian Holmes
So RIPL is software that enables different military platforms on different networks, exchanging different types of messages to communicate seamlessly and transparently in contested environments that are characterized by having degraded and denied communication links. So this has been made possible through the development of information dissemination techniques that allow ripple to provision and prioritize what information goes out over these bandwidth constrained tactical links. And RIPL can also shape the data going out over those links to meet bandwidth constraints.

We also combined advances in artificial intelligence, and machine learning to aid in disseminating only the most critical information necessary to execute the mission, and only disseminating information that’s actually been requested by an end user.

Tom Temin
Right. It limits what goes out where there is limitations on what can go out, and somehow finds a way to send what is most relevant to that endpoint. Fair to say?

Brian Holmes
Exactly, Tom, instead of flooding the network with all of the information that a user might not need. The system ensures that only the most mission critical information is sent out over these links that have a limited amount of bandwidth, you summarized that perfectly.

Tom Temin
And give us an example of the situation where this might apply.

Brian Holmes
So the RIPL system can be used to overcome the issue of limited and intermittent connectivity, experienced in contested environments, in order to quickly and efficiently deliver mission critical information to the end user. So RIPL can also provide unhindered and protected access to content for all the participants within a particular network through security mechanisms that we’ve baked into the system. So the whole purpose of RIPL is to support secure, tactical level, multi domain information distribution, and interoperability in support of the Air Force’s Combat Cloud Initiative, which is a crucial component of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Joint All Domain Command and Control, and also the United States Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System known as ABMS.

Tom Temin
All right, well, let me ask you this, how does it happen now? And what does ripple replace or build on? I mean, how did this information in contested environments, how was been sent so far?

Brian Holmes
So really, there’s not a solution out there that really exists. So there’s these stove pipe systems with proprietary interfaces, and they can’t communicate, really in the field, we got the motivation to create RIPL from several high level DoD requirement documents. So most importantly, the Air Force’s Combat Cloud vision for information sharing and data distribution at the tactical edge. So that vision was to have a network that covers the full range of military operations, and allows each authorized node, platform or user to be able to transparently receive and offer essential and significant information and utilize it within the battlespace. So what we did was we took that vision, and we determined what would be the key capabilities necessary to turn this combat cloud vision into a reality. So the first thing we determined was that RIPL would need to provide the ability to store, share and exchange information seamlessly and transparently without a participant within the combat cloud necessarily needing to request it.

Tom Temin
Sure, we’re speaking with Brian Holmes. He’s a program manager at the Air Force Research Laboratory. And this cloud vision and the Air Force’s idea for its own battle management system, talk about how this can also interoperate with the future components of the other armed forces, their equivalent of the battle management system, because together those all make up JADC2.

Brian Holmes
Absolutely, so right now we’ve worked a little bit with integrating with commercial SATCOM. So one of the things that we actually integrated with for our demonstration was something called Starlink. And Starlink is SpaceX’s commercial, SATCOM, they’ve come out with. So we’ve already started down the path of space domain interoperability, through the most recent demonstration that we just executed. Starlink was one of the links that we incorporated for that demo. But for future enhancements, we’d like to continue down the path of supporting JADC2 through the incorporation of, you know, additional data links, networks and waveforms that’ll make RIPL interoperable with even more platforms, and systems rather than to the DoD. We’d also like to collaborate with the Army and the Navy, moving forward to make RIPL more interoperable with surface and sea assets as well.

Tom Temin
But all of that sounds like will require satellites, the cloud would be kind of satellite-based in this case, because in contested environments, you may not have, you know, the standard commercial clouds available on the ground. And then you therefore need to be able to use more than one satellite network, because those things can be interrupted also.

Brian Holmes
Absolutely. So the thing is, with RIPL is it can take advantage of different links. So it doesn’t necessarily have to be a satellite communication system. It can be a terrestrial base communication system, it could be an aerial-based communication system. And we’ve integrated with those different types of waveforms previously. So that’s the nice thing about RIPL is that it’ll take whatever path is available. You can even fine tune it to take the optimal path based on the lowest latency, or based on things such as the lowest observability.

Tom Temin
Sure. And in the coordination of air support and air forces in a joint operation, clearly information has to get to and from aircraft. And so the links between the aircraft and the people on the ground controlling them, that pretty much already exists, because you have your own proprietary, I don’t know how military aircraft communicate, but some sort of a radio system. So the issue is the information that is outside of that narrow pipeline, that informs what it is that the air forces would have to do based on the battle situation.

Brian Holmes
Yeah. And so another component to RIPL is these information, interoperability mechanisms that we’ve built into the system. So RIPL can take in messages of different types that might not be native to, you know, an aircraft platform, they can convert those messages into a common format, and then disseminate those messages in that common format. So that the messages can be ingested and understood by all the different platforms and systems within the network.

Tom Temin
Now we’ll deployment of this type of system, this multi network interoperable type of system require operators of every platform to buy 54 new antennas?

Brian Holmes
Well, no. So basically, it would require every platform to have the RIPL software installed on it. So one of the nice things about the software is that it’s government owned. So any government agencies out there that are interested in taking advantage of these capabilities, they can do so free of charge, and leverage the investment that’s already been made by the Air Force Research Lab. And then RIPL would use whatever links are already on the platforms, it would use whatever radios are already on the platforms. If that makes sense.

Tom Temin
Sure. So the Army could then adapt it, for example, to its own use, using the basic software you’ve developed.

Brian Holmes
Exactly.

Tom Temin
Almost like an intergovernmental open source platform. And by the way, what did you code it in, what language?

Brian Holmes
So there’s portions of it that are in Java, and then there’s other portions of it that are in C++.

Tom Temin
So pretty much there’s a good base of contractors I guess, and uniform members and civilian employees that would be able to understand what they’re looking at?

Brian Holmes
Correct. We worked extensively with Raytheon BBN on the RIPL software. So on the government side, we kind of determined what would be capabilities that we would need to develop. We examined kind of where the gaps and the shortfalls existed in current technologies. And we’ve worked with Raytheon BBN to execute that plan and develop the RIPL prototype over the course of approximately the last three years.

Tom Temin
And what comes next, it’s in the labs, how does it become operationalized?

Brian Holmes
So right now, AFRL is working with BBN and the Air Force Lifecycle Management Center, in particular, the aerial networks division to integrate RIPL into something called the Common Tactical Edge Network, or CTEN. And CTEN is charged with the mission of developing aerial networking capabilities in support of ABMS, and also in support of the DoD’s JADC2 two program. So that’s kind of what’s next on the horizon for the technology and what’s being done currently to integrate it into an actual system.

Tom Temin
Brian Holmes is program manager at the Air Force Research Laboratory. Thanks so much for joining me.

 

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