The Digital Revolution: Engineering the Future for C4ISR

The effective collection and dissemination of information is vital to the success of operations and safety in the field. As modern combat becomes increasingly complex, and the enemy increasingly sophisticated, battlefield telecommunication strategies need to rise to the challenge, as David Jimenez, Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center associate director for systems engineering, reports.


For the past ten years, the US has been faced with enemies that have proven to be adaptive, resourceful and innovative. To fight these enemies we've had to quickly adapt our army to deploy to battlefields we had not planned for in our tactics, and adapt out techniques and procedures, field revolutionary capabilities in telecommunications, armoured vehicles, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; and it isn't over yet – the army's revolution in digital affairs continues.

Modern enemies are decentralised, redundant in their command-and-control structure and cunning in their techniques; exploiting telecommunications, physics, computer science and other scientific phenomenology in many ways comparable to the counter approaches employed to defeat them. While we've been effective in providing capabilities to ensure that soldiers are protected, the adversary is highly adaptive, and continued success depends on staying ahead of them in all aspects of warfare, especially by leveraging the vast resources of the US's science and technology expertise for that purpose. There are many challenges within our C4ISR domains that can greatly enhance the army's capability to defeat this adaptive enemy.

On the battlefield

The movement of battlefield information has always been operationally challenging. The complexities of modern combat, coupled with the speed at which war situations change, has raised the emphasis on getting the right information to the right place at the right time.

We saw a revolution in military affairs with the advent of battlefield situational awareness systems in the mid-1990s. With the development of the network, and advances in situational awareness, army commanders had the ability to command and control their forces in ways previously unrealisable.

"Focus is quickly changing from providing all information to providing only the information needed by the warfighter."

Those infant steps, moving small bits of data around the battlefield, telling a commander where you are in near real time, created appetite for more and more battlefield data collection and distribution. This, in turn, drove the need for greater telecommunications bandwidth on the battlefield, faster computer systems, greater and more diverse sensors and, most importantly, military personnel trained to manage the network.

The army has progressed on all these fronts – investing and inventing ways to provide better bandwidth on the battlefield, new command-and-control systems giving commanders an ever-increasing amount of information, and new recruits have grown up digital-savvy and have helped define the data-driven army.

How do we enable our soldiers to exploit the benefits of networking and all the vast amounts of data it places at their fingertips? In some cases, data overload has become a serious concern as has the training and administrative burden of managing the army's tactical networks.

Our focus is quickly changing from providing all information to providing only the information needed by the warfighter when he needs it, and in a manner that is understandable and relevant to his situation. Our network research is engaged in solving these challenges. Drawing parallels from the commercial world, our future army networks will be "location aware". They will know where a soldier is, what his surrounding environment is, and provide information in a manner that is simple to digest and act upon.

Future users should be able to subscribe to information necessary for their immediate mission – weather, supplies, photo archives, translation services and intelligence will be easily accessible to anyone with the right credentials. We have an opportunity to not only connect to the edge of the fight, but we have at the edge a soldier who is already an expert in this manner of information sharing. In fact, he is writing and customising his own applications at home to suit his mission.

The army's systems engineering efforts are making progress towards integrating the sensors, transport, application and data fusion systems to make this future vision a reality. This has been an idea for a long time, but the realities of the operational environment mandate are that we are able to rapidly bring to bear operational resources to support our forces.

Seamless integration

We cannot continue to integrate army systems by daisy-chaining disparate systems without considerable forethought in the areas of interoperability, spectrum, security and power, cognitive capacity and other human factors – to name a few. We are building the foundations and interfaces that make clear the standards for the development of future capabilities.

For example, we are working to establish a common data bus that will enable seamless integration of communications and other technologies into vehicles. This will take away the guesswork for the interfaces and specifications, and enable development partners to strategically plan ahead and focus investment and expertise on innovation and increasing capability with a clearer understanding of the architecture. We are working to lessen the administrative burden of managing the network. In fact, we are looking for the network to manage itself, with minimal operator intervention. For example, when was the last time you had to select what frequency, cell tower and data rate you wanted to use on your cell phone or home internet connection? These are similar to tasks routinely performed at the lowest levels in our tactical networks. We're working to get rid of these unnecessary burdens.

The same can be said for cryptography. Although the availability and simplicity of using crypto devices is greatly improved, more can be done. A soldier should not have to think about cryptography any more as an explicit task. No more fumbling for the right keys, loading, couriers and troubleshooting mismatched crypto settings. The network should be able to provide a great deal more of support in this area than soldiers are currently receiving.

One of the things we get excited about is the 3G/4G technologies – commercial cell phone technology on the battlefield. There are a number of challenges here, from security to spectrum issues, but there is a whole generation of digitally intelligent soldiers that have grown up with this technology. We are working hard in this area to provide them with the same type of experience they're accustomed to in civilian life: smart phones, with all sorts of useful applications provided to them securely, right at the tactical edge.

"Smart phones have all sorts
of useful applications provided to them securely that are right at the tactical edge."

Lastly, sensors have proliferated over the past decade. Radar systems are working to become fully integrated into our future networks, such that their output is available to all commanders that need them, on demand. The same thoughts apply to all sorts of sensors: ground-based, airborne and others.

Consider the massive amount of data being collected actively and passively in all its forms, and the information being gathered and disseminated by our troops, to the warfighter's objective mission, and you have a lot of noise. Not only that, the sensor data is not as widely distributed as it could or should be. We have to put in place an architecture that better enables us to collect, characterise and define data so that users can more quickly and easily make sense of the information, and securely share that information with those who need it.

Once the army's sensors are efficiently network-enabled, their products will be available for consumption for anyone with the right credentials to subscribe to them. The network is enabling the fusing of all this data, and helping shorten the data to decision cycle time.

The speed at which we are able to produce and disseminate battlefield information has increased significantly over the past decade. The speed of innovation in the C4ISR realm demands that we put in place the infrastructure that enables us to rapidly and effectively inject emerging capability into our forces.

The implications of these lightning changes in capabilities are what shape the challenges and opportunities with which we are dealing. This must be done without compromising security yet also addressing the area of cross domain solutions as we examine how to enable the integration of planned and emergent information about friendly and enemy forces as appropriate. We've got to do a better job in making use of all this speed and bring all that data into context for our warfighters – a real revolution in army digital affairs.

This article was first published in our sister publication Defence and Security Systems International.