DOD pushes wireless to the edge

JFCOM prepares tactical mobile networks for homeland security and battlefield missions

The Joint Task Force-Civil Support and Joint Forces Command are testing wireless technology needed to assist first responders and civilian agencies during a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attack.

As part of U.S. Northern Command, JTF-CS is designated to be the first military team on the ground in such a crisis. The unit must integrate its efforts with first responders and civilian agencies. Lives depend on its ability to deploy and set up operations quickly. But JTF-CS members are weighed down by the thousands of feet of wires and cables that they need to set up their command post. The loading, unloading, installation and maintenance of this web of wires are complicated and time-consuming tasks.

JTF-CS officials say wireless networks are the solution. Today only fixed military sites at the staff level can install wireless local-area networks. Tactical units on the front lines cannot set up wireless LANs quickly and securely. But now JTF-CS and Joint Forces Command say they hope to fill that need with a program called Wireless for the Warfighter (W4W). That program provides a wireless extension for computer and phone lines that can be set up in a crisis within minutes rather than hours.

It can supply initial capability for a joint operations center of 65 to 100 employees. Adding extra components can expand the capability to 400 people.

JTF-CS is testing W4W, but the technology is meant for all warfighters who need to establish networks on the fly. “It was a good fit.… We had a need to cut down the time needed to set up our forward command post,” said Patty Critzer, deputy director of computer systems at JTF-CS.

In addition to cutting the time needed to set up a network, W4W pushes network access to individual warfighters and reduces the command’s footprint on the ground by eliminating cabling and related equipment, Critzer said.

“We’re providing a near-term capability gap-filler,” said James Bohling, JFCOM’s project leader for W4W. In the future, units could also integrate tactical radios into the system, using middleware that converts radio signals to IP packets, he said.

W4W is the second phase of a three-phase program. The current phase delivers a secure wireless LAN meeting the 802.11 standard. It enables communications over a line-of-sight, point-to-point connection.

In the third phase, which will begin next year, JFCOM will upgrade to WiMax 802.16d and 802.16e standards. The 802.16d standard incorporates classified technology for secure communications. The 802.16e standard gives the system mobility, eliminating the need to have a line of sight to connect.

“The future of the technology is moving toward higher throughput links where you can do hand-offs and hop between towers,” Bohling said. One base station could potentially support a five- to 10-mile bubble using this method, he said.

Units throughout the military are requesting wireless capability, but security certification and accreditation are the main stumbling blocks, Bohling said.

Pushing connectivity further into the battlefieldAt the recent Milcom Conference in Washington, D.C., Lt. Gen. Steven Boutelle, the Army’s chief information officer, emphasized the need for and difficulty of pushing connectivity down to the tactical level.

Boutelle said everything is being converted to IP, “but pushing that out to the tactical edge has been problematic.”

The Army is treating the network as a commodity, searching the commercial market for the most fluent solutions. But commercial technology takes the military only part of the way. As platforms and soldiers become less tethered to the network, the problem gets more complicated, he said.

“You can’t buy something at Circuit City and operate it at the bleeding edge,” Boutelle said. “But what you can do is move this edge, and in the last year, that edge has moved farther and farther out in the battlefield.”

The Joint Network Node provided connectivity down to the company level in Afghanistan. Then another version pushed the network down to the battalion level. New concepts such as Command Post of the Future and Battle Command on the Move will push the network to the individual level, he added.

“You’re moving that edge every few months out lower and lower and lower on the battlefield,” Boutelle said.

— Josh Rogin

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