TACTICAL COMMUNICATIONS UPDATE 2010
By Stefan Nitschke, International Defence Analyst and Consultant
Military operations on the today’s digital battlefield are depending upon information superiority and intelligence. Therefore, wideband communications are being increasingly used to provide voice, data, and text messaging capabilities. These are inherently needed to provide battlefield commanders and the individual infantryman with maximum situational awareness. However, if the information is not properly managed and digested, the abundance of data can result in information overload. Whilst absolute deficiencies clearly do exist in the capabilities of the military, there are several key programmes underway throughout Europe which will generate new capabilities in the tactical radio domain for use in major sustained operations.
Why are mobile ground communications to be used?
The key of the today’s and the tomorrow’s military operations is connectivity. Military forces today and tomorrow will need the most accurate and up-to-date information on the battlefield to provide for the right decisions to achieve mission success. The “top to bottom” approach therefore is digital communications, including SATCOM and the latest in IP-based communications. When compared with current terrestrial communications systems (which do have difficulty to cope with the increasing demands for bandwidth), global, highly secure SATCOM technology delivers an increased capability through multi-band solutions to individuals, teams, units or vehicles acting in varying operational scenarios. Although faced with some shortfalls (e.g., abundant traffic collisions), SATCOM technology enables the transmission of huge volumes of latency-sensitive traffic like VoIP (Voice-over-IP) calls, GPS maps, e-mail messages or databases.
British SKYNET 5
A key SATCOM programme in Europe, the British SKYNET 5, is being realised by Paradigm, a wholly owned subsidiary of Astrium Services. It has signed a contract with the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) to extend and enhance the SKYNET 5 private finance initiative (PFI) programme. This will involve the manufacture, launch, test and operation of a fourth satellite, SKYNET 5D, and the extension of the SKYNET 5 contract by two years until 2022. The contract extension will guarantee the MoD additional capacity on the SKYNET 5 constellation. Since 2003, the ground-breaking SKYNET 5 programme has provided the MoD with a suite of highly robust, reliable, and secure military communications services, supporting operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Balkans. The programme commenced by using the legacy SKYNET 4 satellites and then augmenting them with a fully refurbished ground network before launching the SKYNET 5A, 5B, and 5C satellites between 2007 and 2008. The SKYNET 5 PFI programme has been a huge operational success for the MoD, and has reduced or removed many of the technical and service risks, whilst ensuring unrivalled secure SATCOM communications to UK forces.
In more recent years, the quality of the information disseminated by modern mobile communications systems has been continually improved which resulted in timely and seamless decision processes, thus considerably reducing response times from hours to only a few minutes. As digitisation of the battlefield is currently being achieved under the umbrella of acronyms like NEC (Network Enabled Capability), NBD (Network Based Defence), NCW (Network Centric Warfare), or even NetOpFü (“Vernetzte Operationsführung”), many European NATO members are now beginning to invest in better ground communications assets. This includes real-time communications links which are being brought into service to achieve connectivity and interoperability across the traditional boundaries of land, air, and sea mission spaces.
Any of the current procurement programmes can be seen as the principal political/military decision aids to fully cope with the new operationa