How Are Military Tactical Networks Getting More Complex?

I’ve spent most of my career working with customers tackling complex networking problems. From the start-up Internet service providers in the early days of the Internet, to the telecom service providers building today’s latest high-speed wireless LTE infrastructure, GE has been helping customers build some pretty advanced network architectures. The truth is, the most challenging networks I’ve encountered are in the military and aerospace industry. And our customers in this segment are demanding more and more from GE network devices. So what is it that makes mil/aero networks so challenging?

1. Autonomy

As I outlined in a previous blog post, the modern battlefield and the Industrial Internet have something in common — they’re both moving beyond human communications, facilitating machine-to-machine connectivity. Unmanned military vehicles are becoming more autonomous. Historically, such platforms were simply sensors capturing data and sending the information to a command station for dissemination. Now, these platforms communicate among themselves, sharing targeting data and synchronizing weapons systems in real time. Also, the number of “customers” for sensor data (various military forces, government agencies) have grown so that an autonomous vehicle is tasked with communicating to multiple end-nodes simultaneously.

The trend toward more autonomous platforms means sensor processing and network routing tasks, previously performed off-board, are now performed on the platform. This calls for the installation of more advanced networking equipment.

2. Security

Autonomous platforms capture a wide range of sensor data and, as mentioned above, transmit this data to various end-nodes. Some of this data is classified and must be kept separated from unclassified data. The separation of red/black networks adds a tremendous amount of complexity to a platform’s communications architecture. And the fact that all this information is increasingly transmitted over Internet Protocol (which is inherently insecure) means these platforms now require onboard firewall and intrusion detection/protection systems.

3. SWaP

Military demand for smaller autonomous platforms that can fly, drive or swim farther is growing at a rapid rate. This means there’s less room onboard for advanced electronic systems. Requirements call out for features often found in “big iron” network appliances that connect servers in data centers, but for platforms that have nowhere near the space to house such equipment. The drive toward longer mission times for autonomous platforms also means power budgets for electronics systems are declining — the less power used by computers and networking appliances, the longer a battery may last, and the longer an unmanned submarine can stay out of port performing its mission. So the challenge is to build more sophisticated network appliances, but in smaller packages that use less power.

4. Environment

The military now borrows most of its communications and networking technology from the commercial, telecom and enterprise markets. Cloud computing dominates those sectors, for example, and the military is looking to adopt similar computing architectures. However, the equipment connecting Google or Amazon’s data centers is very different from the equipment that must connect the computers housed in armored vehicles, ships, airplanes and forward-operating bases supporting a battlefield tactical cloud. Warfighters, for the most part, do not have the luxury of reliable high-speed optical networks in the desert, relying on wireless communications, often over relatively slow satellite connections for wide-area connectivity. Nor do they get to deploy the equivalent of an air-conditioned data center in the back of a Humvee.

5. The sheer number of IP-enabled devices

Capture (1)In the telecom industry, we used to brag about the number of acronyms we had, or the number of communications protocols, physical connectors and transmission types. Well, I’m here to say that the military space has the telecom industry beat. And where the telecom industry pretty much converted everything to IP and Ethernet some years ago, the military is only now getting into full swing. A single military vehicle such as an aircraft may have a vast array of disparate and specialized communications interfaces and protocols. There are separate networks designed to carry voice, video or control data. Weapons systems use another highly reliable, low-latency network. There are redundant networks designed to carry signals that control avionics systems and specialized protocols that enable fighter jets to share tactical information over wireless radio.

As many of these networks migrate to IP and Ethernet, the challenge is to maintain the special characteristics of those original protocols and interfaces, whether it’s reliability, performance, redundancy, security or latency. The migration to IP is also driving the demand for network devices such as routers and switches with much higher and higher port densities than we have traditionally seen in these application.

6. Lifecycle, Supply Chain and Cost

Many of today’s advanced networking devices are designed for the high-demand consumer and telecom markets — so the companies designing and building these devices are focused on, and structured to service, these markets. To many of these companies, the special requirements requested by military customers are just too onerous to fulfill. Take, for example, the long product lifecycle expectations or the secure supply-chain demands we’re seeing more and more of these days. Military business represents a relatively low volume for companies not structured to handle it. The military seeks to build very complex networks, utilizing the latest in technologies from the commercial world but deployed in products and services built specially for their requirements. Traditional network equipment providers are not organized to meet this demand.

The other challenge, of course, is cost. Just as military networks are growing in complexity, budgets are shrinking. The threats (particularly in cyber warfare) are not going away. So the theme (or really, necessity) is to do more with less, and it’s clear that the industry will need some new and disruptive products, technologies and services to meet this need.

We used to say that when it came to networking and communications, the mil/aero market lagged the enterprise/telecom market by five to 10 years. I’m not sure this is the case any longer. At the very least, the gap has narrowed. And based on the conversations I have with customers these days, I fully expect the mil/aero industry to generate some innovative communications and networking technologies, particularly when it comes to network security and high-speed wireless connectivity. Exciting times indeed.

What networking challenges do you face, and how are you tackling them?

Rubin Dhillon

Rubin has spent over 20 years in the embedded computing world, in roles ranging from support to sales to product management and even garbage collector. He experienced the huge growth (and crash) of the telecom industry, and he's spent time dabbling in medical, industrial, transportation and military applications. Rubin figured he has so many stories to tell, he should get into marketing and so he is now our Global Director of Marketing for all things embedded. Connect with Rubin on LinkedIn and he'll explain the "garbage collector" story…

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