To improve command and control (C2) of naval forces within the new expeditionary and carrier strike groups, we must ensure that communications infrastructure and information management processes evolve to facilitate success. Efficiencies in speed of information transfer, shared situational awareness, battlespace management, and delivery of operational orders are achievable with enhancements to existing communications capabilities and changes to the collective mentality of afloat communications infrastructure design. These efforts will lead to more information being pushed to and pulled by group units. However, unless these changes are accompanied by processes to put information in its operational context, warfighters will be unable to efficiently gather and use information needed to achieve C2 superiority.
Much tactical C2 is currently done via radio frequency (RF) voice circuits. In an era where internet protocol (IP) chat and other IP-based tactical C2 tools begin to challenge and surpass legacy methods of operational control, we struggle to find the right mix of communications paths to provide all group units (including submarines) access to the high data rate connectivity necessary to support those systems. As demands for bandwidth increase, we need processes that use existing bandwidth more efficiently and in non-traditional ways. The Fleet requires afloat communications responsive to the changing C2 demands of the group commander.
A New Mindset
Changing the current design mindset of the afloat communications infrastructure is an important first step. The communications architecture is built around the concept of each unit individually reaching ashore for large data transfers. This concept, first implemented in the 1990s, provided critical C2 capability to transmit and receive larger amounts of information at the unit level. Every ship connected back to telecommunications stations ashore for the same information, even if they were only miles apart. This worked well as an initial capability. However, this model relies on an extensive, high-bandwidth, global coverage that is expensive and difficult to implement on space-constrained naval vessels. Information flow in this model runs counter to actual information distribution and consumption within group operations.
The legacy infrastructure requires a large, costly footprint of people, equipment, and bandwidth at telecommunications stations. Instead, the Navy could "hub and spoke" much of their communications to the carrier or large amphibious ship. With new communications links between the commander and his units, latency and bandwidth restrictions of "reach-back" to the beach are eliminated. The commander dramatically improves his ability to efficiently execute tactical operations. While units will always need a two-way satellite link for data during independent steaming or non-group operations, this should not be the predominant communications design model. Rather, it should be a hybrid of capabilities geared towards group, joint, and coalition operations with some means for non-group reach-back.
Technology and process changes are needed to improve command and control. Speed and agility requires a communications infrastructure directly controlled by and responsive to the commander. The carrier or large deck amphibious unit should be given an aggregate amount of bandwidth and equipped with modems to control the satellite bandwidth used within their group. Installing equipment to enable forced precedence routing by the group staff will ensure operational information is passed before data with less mission priority. Here are several other suggestions for improvement:
First, increase use of a standards-based broadcast for high data rate delivery of information afloat. Changes to the global broadcast satellite (GBS) architecture and broadcast protocols make an IP broadcast a reality. The Navy has not embraced GBS to its fullest extent, and Navy communications planners should think of new ways to leverage this older system.
Surface combatants and submarines consume significantly more data than they produce and much information passed on two-way satellite links could be sent to them via receive-only paths. All group units should have GBS equipment. Then a GBS spot beam, which covers a 500 nautical mile area and provides a nominal data rate of 24 megabits per transponder, could be allocated to that group. The spot beam would follow them, shifting to different satellites as they move into new theaters of operation, while maintaining their services.
The Web Enabled Navy (WEN) and Open Architecture could enable replication of large amounts of data (from databases, "scraped" web sites, email, message broadcasts, etc.) to afloat units, all received via GBS. Data replicated from ashore sources can be stored shipboard, allowing for access via the local network instead of reaching back ashore. Ensuring data are not corrupted during replication is a challenge, particularly with unreliable satellite links and work must be done to improve this.
Second, improve data compression between the telecommunications stations where data are processed for uplink to satellites and the serviced afloat units. More data can be transferred over the same bandwidth making satellite links more efficient. As commercial industry develops improved data compression algorithms, the Navy should be on the leading edge of experimenting and implementing those innovations. This should be a major focus area in FORCENET experimentation. Compression capabilities built to open standards are preferred so the Navy does not become limited by a vendor specific solution.
Third, increase use of organic assets acting as communications routers/repeaters to extend line of sight (LOS) high data rate communications. Traditional LOS communications enable units to exchange information to approximately 30 nautical miles, barring interference. Using group ships or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), this distance can be considerably improved, enabling high data rate transfer between the flagship and subordinate units. UAVs could be designed as multi-mission platforms with changeable payloads depending upon requirements (communications routing, surveillance and reconnaissance, etc.). Using a communications payload, the UAV could act as a router/repeater from the carrier or amphibious ship to another ship or broadcast to all units, using the same equipment for ship-to-ship relays.
Equipment on the UAV would have to provide a time division multiple access capability to manage communications from several units simultaneously, requiring power and on board signal processing-all factors important in solution engineering. Broadband airships (high altitude dirigibles) could be used similarly over areas of concentrated military activity such as the Arabian Gulf.
The Navy should pursue the use of free space optics (laser communications) between ships, either direct ship-to-ship or via a UAV or airship repeater. Free space optics offer the advantage of a higher data rate (gigabytes vice megabytes), low probability of intercept, are more difficult than radio frequency to jam, and are now "eye safe" so they will not pose safety problems. However, they are more susceptible to atmospherics, particularly fog, and additional engineering must be done to compensate for ship movement.
High data rate LOS radio frequency and free space optics capabilities should be installed on all ships in the group to enable extension of the C2 range of two-way communications. If all group ships had high data rate LOS radios, connections could be quickly established to "hub and spoke" communications paths with the carrier. The carrier would have robust two way reach back to the ashore telecommunications station and would act as the service provider of those feeds for the group.
Process and organizational changes must accompany technological advancements to improve Navy command and control. A mission-specific communications concept of operations (CONOPS) should be established for the group. While not a "one-size-fits-all" document, many of the themes will be consistent and can be reused among groups with similar missions. The concept of operations must account for all communications options and standardize primary and redundant paths for different services and conditions. The best use of all communications assets should be clearly defined. The CONOPS should align with the commander's intent and support his critical information requirements, yet be flexible and responsive to change as missions. Establishing the concept of operations early provides time for training prior to actual operations.
Allied/coalition interoperability within the group must be considered. With advancements in communications links between group units, thought must be given to providing a similar capability to coalition units operating with the group, either via a fly-away kit or temporary installation. The coalition unit must be trained in the tactics and procedures for use, and integrated with the communications CONOPS.
As data paths improve, more information will flow between ships, risking information overload to operators. Units face this today and the problem will be exacerbated with communications improvements causing increases in information. Web enablement of Navy data will help group commanders, as artificial intelligence tools can be applied to networked information stores, improving data mining and placing information in the appropriate operational context for decision making. Artificial intelligence agents can also recognize patterns and demonstrate alignments unrecognizable or incalculable by humans.
As the Navy develops the FORCENET architecture, every basic tenet of the existing C2 infrastructure must be critically evaluated, including the processes and training support pillars. If we continue to build our communications afloat and its accompanying infrastructure ashore with a legacy mindset, we will be unprepared to best support the dynamic C2 environment envisioned for today's highly flexible strike group operations. The communications infrastructure must provide the right information, to the right unit, at the right time.
Commander Barrett is in the Information Operations/Computer Network Operations department of Standing Joint Forces Headquarters U.S. Pacific Command. She is the communications officer for Carrier Strike Group Twelve.