Information Warfare: Networking With The Battle Droids


June 13, 2014: The U.S. Army has developed and is testing a much wanted “hack” that enables small unit (squads, platoons, patrols) leaders to easily view what cameras in small UAVs and robots these units have are seeing. Currently the unit leader has be looking over the shoulder of the UAV or robot operator to see what is on the small screen the operator uses. This is restricting and annoying (for both leader and operator). Using existing networking hardware and Android software the army put together a system that transmits the video to smart phones or tablets nearby (using encryption) so the leader can be elsewhere (as with the troops) and still have essential video feeds in front of him. Some problems were encountered, but the basic idea works and it’s just a matter of working out the quirks. This is all part of a project that first provided the army with programming tools that make it possible for systems like this to be quickly created. In effect it is now possible for its troops that use Android smart phones and tablets to have special apps quickly created that use military battlefield wireless networks.

This is all a necessary addition to the new army communications system (CS 13 or Capability Set 13) created for combat troops. In 2013 four combat brigades successfully tested CS-13, which consists of several different technologies the army has been developing since the 1990s. This includes Nett Warrior (an effort to get networking down to the squad leader), Win-T (Warfighter Information Network-Tactical Increment 2, a battlefield Internet), BFT 2 (Blue Force Tracking 2 for tracking troop location in real time), Company Command Post (giving company commanders more data), and tactical radios like AN/PRC-117G, Rifleman Radio, and combat smart phones and tablets.

CS 13 is the result of over a decade of effort to create better battlefield communications, including a combat version of the Internet. The final selection took place between 2012 and 2013 years as 115 systems were tested by troops and those found wanting (most of them) were dropped. The most common feedback was about troops wanting the same kind of wireless capabilities they already enjoy with their smart phones and tablets as well as military apps for these devices. 

The army has been moving in this direction since the 1990s but in the meantime wi-fi and portable electronics like smart phones and tablets leapfrogged them. The army is playing catch up the best it can. The army had already developed the CS-13 tools which include items like WIN-T, which was designed to allow troops to simultaneously exchange text, data, video, and voice data using a new generation of radios. Personal computers and smart phones (including both off-the-shelf and "ruggedized" military models) can now hook into WIN-T and use the future improved communications and networking. JCR (Joint Capabilities Release) is the latest version of BFT (Blue Force Tracker). JCR is part of an effort to link everyone in a combat brigade electronically while in the combat zone and, most importantly, while in combat. The new gear equips individual troops as well as vehicles. Commanders can use a handheld device or laptop to view BFT locations. The commanders’ app can also be used to take data from troops about enemy locations or where minefields or other obstacles are and post it, so that everyone else with JCR equipment can see and share it. JCR also includes better encryption and improved reliability.

This all is part of an effort that began in 2003, when BFT was first used, and that turned into a larger project to perfect the “battlefield Internet”. All of this goes back to the American 1990s era Force XXI Battle Command Brigade-and-Below (FBCB2) project. After September 11, 2001 BFT evolved into JCR and became part CS 13. Back in 2003, parts of FBCB2 (mainly BFT) were quickly issued to the troops for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. BFT is a GPS/satellite telephone device that was suddenly in thousands of combat vehicles. Anyone with a laptop, satellite data receiver, the right software, and access codes could then see where everyone was (via a map showing blips for each BFT user). The spectacular success of BFT got the attention of generals everywhere. Since 2003, the U.S. Army built new versions of the BFT and this produced BFT 2 and now JCR. This single device has revolutionized the way commanders handle their troops in combat.

Company Command Post gives a company commander the ability to quickly send and receive (and sort out) text, voice, and data with his troops (three platoons consisting of nine squads and special teams of snipers and machine-guns). This provides company commanders, using a laptop and other gear that can be carried while on foot, the same kind of command post capabilities previously restricted to battalion, brigade, and larger headquarters.

The key radios in CS 13 currently are the AN/PRC-117G, the AN/PRC-154, and combat smart phone. AN/PRC-117G is a 5.45 kg (12 pound) radio that can be carried or installed in vehicles. About a third of its weight is the battery. It has a maximum output of 20 watts and handles FM, UHF, and VHF signals, including satellite based communications. On the ground max range is 20 kilometers (depending on hills and the antenna used). The U.S. has been using the AN/PRC-117 since the late 1990s, as an interim radio, and found it a solid piece of equipment. The AN/PRC-117 is based on a commercial design (the Falcon series) that several foreign armed forces and many civilian operations use. The AN/PRC-117 has been regularly upgraded in that time (going from version A to the current G).

AN/PRC-154 (or RR for Rifleman Radio) are lightweight (1 kg/2.2 pound) voice/data radios for individual infantrymen. RR includes GPS and a battery good for over ten hours of use. The RR began field tests in 2010. For most of 2012 U.S. Army Rangers used them in Afghanistan. Since then over 21,000 of these radios have been given to troops. By itself, the two watt RR has a range of up to two kilometers. But it can also automatically form a mesh network, where all RRs within range of each other can pass on voice or data information. During the field tests this was done to a range of up to 50 kilometers. The RR can also make use of an aerostat, UAV, or aircraft overhead carrying a RR to act as a communications booster (to other RRs or other networks).

The mesh network enables troops to sometimes eliminate carrying a longer range (and heavier) AN/PRC-117 for the platoon leader. The new combat smart phone is a ruggedized Android smart phone, equipped to handle military communications via the mesh network. This device will supplement the AN/PRC-154. Now the army is making it possible to add the video feeds from small UAVs and robots that all combat units have.

CS-13 provides capabilities that, before September 11, 2001, where not expected until the 2020s. But because of all the American troops seeing combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, there were opportunities to try out new equipment under combat conditions, and this accelerated the development process.

Android has already been accepted for military use in many countries and military-grade security systems have been created to make the battlefield Android devices compliant with military security requirements for wireless devices and portable computers.



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