Creating a mobile battlefield
Getting information from the front-line back to the command center, fast and accurately
Whether for border patrol agents or dismounted soldiers, the emphasis these days is on providing those at the pointy end of the spear with as much computing and communications capability as possible. That’s pushing rugged IT companies to come up with some innovative ways to take systems that have traditionally sat in static shelters and make them portable.
It’s the result of a fundamental switch in strategies over the past few years. At one time, most of the computing and communications systems were large machines that sat well back from front-line operations. Analysts used these machines to crunch numbers and data and then push whatever intelligence resulted out to the warfighter on the battlefield.
That’s changing. In the military, for example, the goal is not only to get information to the soldier but to get data that dismounted soldiers collect with their increasingly sophisticated mobile sensors and communication devices back into the network so that others can take immediate advantage of them.
It’s what Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army’s vice chief of staff, described as an inversion of the traditional pyramid. The battlefield network is still the focus of Army IT efforts, but the direction is which information flows through it has changed.
The squad or the platoon has now become “the decisive element” of Army formations, he told a meeting of the Association of the United States Army’s Institute of Land Warfare last year.
That means that many of what used to be static, immovable systems now must be portable. The processing power of the many servers that sat in large air-cooled buildings miles away from the action have to be compacted into just a few physical servers contained in portable racks that can be quickly moved to set up a forward-deployed command post.
Increasingly, much of that processing and communications power will have to be downsized even further to fit into the vehicles that carry soldiers into battle. Future iterations of the Army’s Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below, the battlefield command and control system that will apply from the brigade level all the way down to the individual soldier, will rely on those vehicles as essential nodes on the tactical command network.
And that means a relatively new and expanding market for the likes of Parvus Corp., a developer of embedded computing and communications subsystems for both military and commercial integrators.
“Some 80 percent of the federal government’s networking infrastructure is based on Cisco Systems technology, but Cisco’s primary markets are for more benign environments than you see on the battlefield,” said Mike Southworth, Parvus’ director of marketing. “We’ve partnered with Cisco as a solutions technology integrator, taken some of their Ethernet switch and router products, and hardened them for use at the edge of the network.”
The market is going in this direction because the government has employees trained to use Cisco code, and the government often specifies knowledge of Cisco software for its IT programs, he said.
However, it’s not a straightforward ruggedizing of Cisco products but, in order to fit it for the physical environments they have to operate in, it usually entails a complete rebuild.
Parvus takes the Cisco technology, removes the enclosure it came in, and then uses the electronics inside, hardening the board-level technology against vibration, coating the boards to handle higher humidity, and changing the electrical connectors so they won’t jar loose. It also eliminates the traditional cabling found in Cisco systems to a board-to-board interface and not wires that can bend or break.
That’s all then put into an enclosure that supports conduction cooling rather than uses fans, and which uses military standard connectors on the outside that are screwed on, rather than traditional RJ45 Ethernet connectors. Once it’s finished with that, the company validates its design to mil testing standards, at least for both Mil-Std 810 G for environmental ruggedness and Mil-Std 461 for hardening against electromagnetic interference.
In addition to the need to provide more capability for the dismounted soldier, this is also being driven by a general move away in the military particularly from the “bolt-on” practice for adding new systems to warfighter vehicles to one where the electronics and various computers and communications systems are designed into the vehicle itself.
For the Army, that goal is illustrated by programs such as the Vehicular Integration for Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance/Electronic Warfare Interoperability architecture. This approach will do away with that bolt-on process, which has led to a mishmash of unique displays, computers, input devices and other systems in vehicles to one that is more open and plug-and-play, and where those systems will work with each other across a range of vehicles.
That should, the Army said, eliminate redundant components in vehicles, reduce the complexity of managing them, and reduce the size, weight and power characteristics of the embedded systems at a significantly lower cost.
That kind of architecture will also enable the military to stay current with technology trends, something it’s traditionally struggled with under the old practice of systems integration.
“One of the things that we find is there is a lot of difficulty in working with proprietary types of hardware in terms of ability to share, interfaces, the integration costs tend to be huge,” Kay Griffith-Boyle, chief of the Futures Office at the Army’s Program Executive Office for Command, Control and Communications-Tactical and the lead for the VICTORY initiative, recently told Defense Systems magazine.
But she said she feels industry is embracing the change to the new architectural approach because it’s the only way future procurements will be affordable.
For embedded rugged systems developers such as Parvus, the new approach only adds to potential business, even beyond the demand for ruggedized Cisco products. Since it uses the embedded system PC104 design standard and stacks boards in an enclosure the size of old 3 1/2 inch floppy drives, it can add functionality as needed in a modular fashion.
“That makes it especially appropriate for something like the VICTORY program,” Southworth said. “We can combine computing, communications and other special vehicle interfaces in various mechanical designs, but in a modular way that leaves room for expansion in the future.”