In the past half-century, military communications units and the systems they use and encompass have become a cornerstone of nearly all successful armed forces programs and operations. Unfortunately, they still leave a lot to be desired.
That’s a problem, since anyone who has ever been deployed knows that communication could make the difference between life and death. Maintaining contact with fellow operatives, calling in an airstrike, evacuating the injured, or making a situational report to leadership are all high-profile examples of communication’s importance. Still, they’re also just the tip of the iceberg. Information superiority reigns supreme in all domains of modern warfare, from strategy development to operational awareness to tactical execution.
Achieving and maintaining that superiority has necessitated an evolution of MILCOM platforms from voice-only systems to ones with capabilities across various data types. The resulting challenge is one of the size, weight and power (SWaP) requirements associated with higher-bandwidth hardware. On top of that, line-of-sight factors like range, elevation, topography and infrastructure impede data transfer speed.
Furthermore, effective systems require interoperability. Troops on the ground may need to communicate with the pilot of an F-22, who may need to communicate in turn with an F-15 and an airborne warning and control system, who may confirm with the ground unit again — all in a matter of seconds. Solving the communication needs of one unit type does little to aid in the success of a multifaceted mission which may necessitate coordination between displaced operatives, pinpoint location accuracy and near-zero delay.
Engineering platforms that meet all of these requirements (are well-suited for in-theater use, have maximal data-sharing capabilities, can seamlessly connect a plethora of network nodes of various types, and are acceptably secure and reliable) have proven to be a significant challenge for armed forces around the world.
So far, failing in that regard has led militaries to embrace a shotgun approach to communications solutions — figuring out what’s best for individual operations or troops and attempting to bridge the gaps that arise. U.S. armed forces, for example, make use of everything from proprietary networks to commercial 5G. The side effect is stove-piped data that must undergo a time-consuming process of translation and re-translation (typically multiple times) before it can provide value to adjacent operational functions.
The light at the end of the tunnel
To say that the strategic, operational and tactical benefits of seamlessly connected troops are “game-changing” would be a radical understatement. It’s no longer a matter of gaining the tactical edge over near-peer adversaries like China or Russia; these communication capabilities are necessary just to stay current.
The resilience of modern data networks, coupled with ever-more power being stuffed into smaller and lighter packages, provides some interesting options for force modernizers. One such solution is the concept of a “self-healing network” of devices. These devices push data and voice transmissions from each transmitter and extend them to other devices in the same mesh.
The result is a high-speed network capable of getting data to the warfighter who needs it most, and all they need is other devices within range. Every device that’s running the same software can retransmit data to another device within range. It’s like a series of overlapping circles, all of which are building links with other devices in the same network. And, of course, it’s running end-to-end encryption to secure that vital data.
In the past, this sort of software has been limited to running on proprietary hardware, but the military has realized this method of fielding equipment is outdated. It doesn’t allow it to keep pace with rapid technological advancements. There are programs capable of being installed on a variety of platforms; once installed, the software identifies the device’s capabilities and then chooses the best path that maximizes throughput, speed, and resiliency. It’s constantly analyzing performance and can adjust even if that first path becomes compromised or degraded. It’s an exciting application of AI that can give troops the tactical edge in future wars.
New MILCOM platforms are also leveraging available 4G and 5G cellular networks to tunnel data through. Much of the globe is covered by commercial cellular networks, so utilizing that existing infrastructure is a plus. Keeping those communications secure can be challenging, but with technology like VPNs installed on military devices, that problem becomes less of an issue. There’s a constant need to adapt, but there are solutions to these problems to keep the U.S. at the forefront of technical capabilities for future conflicts.