Information Warfare: How Much It Sucked In The Bad Old Days

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August 15, 2015: Poland recently purchased Link 16 digital communications for its 48 F-16 fighters. In addition eight Link 16 terminals for warships and ground units were also ordered. All this is to enable Poland to operate more effectively with other NATO commando, naval and air defense forces. This is part of a program to equip all NATO combat forces with a common digital communications capability. The U.S. has developed most of this technology and already implemented it widely so that recon and control aircraft to share digital data. Thus now JSTARS and E-2 carrier based radar aircraft can quickly share data with UAVs and ground users.

All this work has been going on for some time. In 2008 the U.S. Air Force successfully tested a battlefield Internet system on an AC-130 gunship. This allowed the AC-130 crew to share videos from their sensors with other aircraft. A series of NATO exercises between 2005 and 2010 enabled NATO commanders to see this technology in action and that convinced most NATO members to adopt this technology. Although expensive, some NATO nations are already doing so, and the U.S. wants to develop agreements so it's easier to develop communications gear that will talk to gear from non-NATO countries.

Since the 1990s the U.S. Department of Defense has been trying to develop equipment that would allow the aircraft (including UAVs) of all three services to be able to communicate digitally (as in a battlefield Internet). Since 2003 work has been going on to make this happen in a practical sense. The troops wanted and needed this sort of thing. Getting "battlefield broadband" to work has long been a work in progress, just as it has been in the commercial sector (where progress has also been slow.) But now it is working.

Everyone (including NATO) is using the U.S. Air Force Link 16 data format for sending digital data over a wireless network. In 2006 it was shown that an army UH-60A helicopter, a navy F-18 and an air force F-15E could send and receiving digital data with each other. A ground station was also tied into the network. This successful test demonstrated that all three services had successfully modified their communications gear to handle Link 16 data. This was followed by tests with the aircraft in the air, including an army UAV and an AH-64 helicopter gunship, followed by tests with aircraft firing weapons, using target data from another aircraft, or someone on the ground. By 2010 American forces had the capability for troops on the ground to share targeting data (including live video) with aircraft, and vice versa. Sort of battlefield video conferencing, with weapons.

At this point, most of the effort is going into making the system reliable enough to withstand the rigors of combat situations. If the system isn't reliable enough, the troops won't use it. Simple as that. During World War II, the military first encountered high-tech gear that was simply ignored by the troops, because the stuff did not work, or work well enough to depend on in a life and death situation. Those attitudes have continued, and developers know that if their gear is not robust enough, it will be rejected (unofficially, of course) by the troops.

The Link 16 based battlefield Internet system would allow data fusion, with commanders and intelligence analysts seeing sensor data (basically high resolution video) from many aircraft (fighters, gunships, helicopters and UAVs) over a battlefield, and use all the information to best select targets and assign air and ground forces to attack most effectively. After 2001 all those aircraft and UAVs with high-res eyes on the battlefield required lots of radio chatter to share (by verbally describing it) their data. This approach was slow, and subject to errors. Digital sharing and data fusion could include data from other sensors. These could include those collecting electronic transmissions (from radios, cell phones or even automobiles) and photo-reconnaissance pods (which use high rez, like 30 megapixel and up, digital cameras to take still pictures and immediately transmit them). With technology like Link 16 and all these new sensors the battlefield suddenly became a lot less murky and that made a huge difference in higher enemy losses and a lot fewer friendly casualties. Military personnel who have only been in service for a few years do not realize what a huge change this is. But find some soldier, sailor or pilot who started in the 1990s, or earlier, and they can describe how much it sucked in the bad old days.

 

 


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