How Mesh Networks Extend Military Comm
Until a few years ago, Marines operating on the front lines in Afghanistan still relied solely on line-of-sight radios and voice communications to receive critical orders and battlefield information from rear-positioned operations centers — much the same way their predecessors did during 20th century conflicts. The radios were newer, of course, and had more range, features and functionality, but they still didn’t work well when blocked by the Earth’s curvature, mountains, trees, buildings or other obstructions.
“Once on the move, Marine maneuver forces would outrun their communications pretty quickly,” explains Basil Moncrief, product manager of technology transition for the Marine Air-Ground Task Force Command and Control of the Marine Corps Systems Command. “Typically, they’d have to operate without full situational awareness.”
That’s no longer the case. Like a growing number of military operations, the Marine Corps Systems Command decided to invest in a wireless mesh network to solve its communications gap. Engineers developed a solution that relies on satellite communications, secure local area networks and a point-of-presence vehicle that serves as the designated network operations center in the field to give front-line warfighters the ability to send and receive digital command and control data and digital orders — no matter how rugged or remote the terrain they’re located in or how far they’ve traveled from their command centers.
The system, initially called Mobile Modular Command and Control, was first fielded in Afghanistan in 2009 and finally provided the beyond-line-of-sight reach that warfighters needed. The system was limited, however, in that it had to be hard-mounted onto a Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicle. The Marines have since built a newer version that provides more flexibility and additional capabilities.
Networking on the Move (NOTM), as the new system is known, modularizes the system’s core technology so it can be easily moved between vehicles, and also integrates full-motion video from unmanned aerial vehicles for greater situational awareness.
“Our Marines are used to operating independently, but this system does give them more information to act upon and also allows them to have better communications with subordinate commands and higher,” says Moncrief, noting that NOTM is geared toward infantry commanders and their staff but is also being fielded by the Marine Air Wing and the Marine Logistics Group. “Now, commanders in forward positions have access to the same information in terms of the common operational picture that other commanders are looking at, so they are able to operate farther forward and at greater distances without having to be tethered to their operations center.”
A mesh network known as the Combat Service Support Automated Information Systems Interface (CAISI) has allowed the Army to provide high-speed, high-capacity communications capabilities to its logistics and sustainment personnel providing support to combat operations and other forward-placed units.
In the past, logisticians had to put their parts and services orders and requisitions on paper or onto a floppy disk, get in a jeep and hand-deliver those orders to units positioned in the rear, a process that was both inefficient and dangerous. “The supply units had no real visibility into the status of that order,” explains Thomas Dunaway, assistant program manager for CAISI, who notes that the problem came to a head during Operation Desert Storm in the 1990s, when tons of equipment piled up in shipping yards because logisticians had no way to know if, when and where supplies would be delivered, so they simply kept ordering more.
The number of wireless devices that make up the Army’s CAISI network, the largest tactical wireless network in the Defense Department
SOURCE: Fortress Technologies
In response, the Army sought a better way to communicate. After some fits and starts, Army officials began developing the first CAISI system in 2002, using Cisco Systems radios that could function as independent network nodes and relay encrypted information across classified and unclassified networks. The system, however, was less than ideal; it required a separate, expensive controller for every small network, and all data had to go through encryption before it reached a radio.
The Army started on a technology refresh in 2008. CAISI 2.0, as the latest system is known, offers built-in encryption and doesn’t require a separate controller for each LAN.
At the heart of the system’s success, says Brad Amon, lead systems engineer for CAISI, is the fact that any CAISI radio can serve as the master radio in a network enclave. Soldiers need only to configure the master to suit their requirements. That radio automatically pushes the configuration out to all other radios on the network.
“That independent operation was key for us,” says Amon, noting that a single radio can also act as the uplink to the Army’s Combat Service Support’s satellite network communications.
“Our logisticians now have connectivity from their deployed support area all the way back into the Army’s network, where their servers are and where all their orders are completed,” Amon explains. “And they have up-to-date visibility into the status of orders.”
To the Rescue
The South Carolina National Guard is also using CAISI’s meshing capability as part of a multipronged disaster communication grid to provide real-time communications to National Guard response teams.
In the past, these teams were largely limited to voice and data communications set up in the state’s 71 armories, which act as forward operating bases during disasters. “Once away from the armories and out at the incident site, our personnel couldn’t communicate back to the joint operations center, so they had to go back to the armories, which slowed our response times down and really hampered our situational awareness,” explains Col. Ronnie Finley, deputy chief of staff for information management with the South Carolina National Guard J–6.
Now, however, the response teams can use satellite terminals and the CAISI network to connect back over satellite communications, giving them access to voice and data communications for the best and latest information available. The CAISI works in tandem with the National Guard’s Joint Incident Site Communications Capability package, which enables radio interoperability and extends both military and commercial networks into and around disaster sites.
The benefits of this meshing capability have been immediate, says Finley, who notes that the system was used last winter during hurricane exercises to provide commanders with rapidly deployable communications capability at forward command posts.
“At the end of the day, having this system in place really speeds up the decision cycle for the commanders who are making the decisions in the event, and it gives them the situational awareness that they need to more rapidly make the proper decisions,” he says. “And we’re much better able to collaborate with first responders and get that common operating picture so we can achieve better unity of effort and unity of command.”