Implementing net-centric tactical warfare systems

1Net-centric battlefield systems abstract data away from individual devices and provide a common infrastructure for disparate systems to exchange data across the tactical environment. Net-centric principles – making use of data-driven approaches such as those used in the Object Management Group’s (OMG’s) Data Distribution Service (DDS) standard – are being implemented in a variety of both new and existing tactical weapons systems. Better data exchange standards are also essential in driving the vision of the net-centric battlefield.

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The tactical battlefield has long been characterized by the use of many different data collection and analysis systems that present information on small and discrete areas of the conflict to separate command and control stations. The operators of these stations attempt to use that data to estimate enemy intentions and actions, and counter with manual direction of the equipment and personnel in a simulacrum of coordinated response.

However, these individual systems are typically focused on their individual missions, rather than on strategic coordination to achieve a larger objective. When these disparate systems are integrated, it is often with a particular mix and mission in mind. Each system, whether tank or aircraft, for example, is extremely capable and can win their individual battles, so to speak, yet lose the war due to a lack of coordinated activity.

One way to dramatically improve the speed-of-command on the battlefield is to create a data-centered net-centric battlefield operation (Figure 1). Each individual element of a tactical system performs its narrow mission, but shares data as needed with others in a way that provides a more complete and accurate representation of the battlefield environment and the role of that system in the environment.

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Figure 1
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In the past, systems have been designed with point-to-point data communications that focus on delivering data from the sensor directly to an operator. In these cases, the endpoints are known to both producer and consumer, and the data format is agreed upon and unique.

Point-to-point connections between individual systems are fragile and certainly don't meet the requirement for dynamic data integration between multiple systems. The correct approach is to provide real-time connectivity to all systems within the battlefield framework, and to move the limited intelligence and data away from the individual system and onto the network as a whole. Once the data, such as position, radar signals, and ground intelligence, is abstracted from the individual system and made available across the network, numerous applications can be written to analyze and act on it, providing a significantly higher-level view and a faster response time.

The validity of this data-oriented architecture for net-centric system deployment has been proven by the OMG Data Distribution Service, built around an open-standards data-centric model. Commercial Off-The-Shelf products that have implemented the OMG DDS standard have been used in a growing number of both new and existing weapons systems projects with great success. These systems are particularly adept at coordinating, analyzing, and responding to data across large-scale networks where response time is critical and resilience to battlefield events is mandatory. If, for example, radar data indicated an incoming missile, targeting and fire control can receive that data and use it for countermeasures, even though the radar and fire control systems were not originally designed to work together. The only limitation to scalability of the DDS middleware is in the physical limitation of the network architecture.

A key enabler of the resilience in these systems is the rich set of DDS definitions of application-level Quality of Service (QoS). Every producer and consumer of data to the global data space defines their service capabilities or requirements through a QoS contract broker, and DDS ensures there is a match before the communication is established. Even if the data is available and the contract of service between producer and consumer is broken, by using one of the QoS features an alternative data supplier will be automatically sought by the DDS middleware.

Achieving net-centric goals in a battlefield environment

Net-centricity through the use of data-enabled battlefield systems and a comprehensive data-distribution system is not merely a theory or abstraction. Weapons systems have been putting it into practice with new development efforts as well as existing system modification projects.

An example of such a system enhancement is the Navy E2-C Hawkeye. The Hawkeye provides all-weather airborne early warning and command and control functions for the carrier battle group. Network and system upgrades for this venerable weapons system include the addition of middleware incorporating the tenets of data-centric design, performance optimization, portability across existing and future architectures, hardware and operating systems, as well as security best practices as defined by Common Criteria Information Assurance.

The goal of the development effort was to provide a platform by which data from the many radar systems and sensors onboard the Hawkeye platform can be aggregated for analysis of signals to determine the extent of a threat, and to suggest action for neutralizing that threat. (Figure 2 depicts the Hawkeye Software design after DDS had been used to implement a data-oriented communications model.) By abstracting the data and the data's QoS away from the application layer and into its global data space, current systems as well as future enhancements can leverage the data, not worrying about data source implementation details.

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In a similar manner, the Navy Open Architecture program is a foundation for the modernization of the Navy's cruisers and destroyers, including the Aegis upgrade, the Total Ship Computing Environment (TSCE), and the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). The Open Architecture program incorporates Data Distribution Services that enable the on-time delivery of data across the network to the subscribing components, even if they change during the course of system upgrades and enhancements.

The Open Architecture program has been commonly implemented through network middleware that uses a publish-subscribe model for data. Such a model separates the data from its source and makes it accessible to any application running on the network; this enables the Open Architecture program to provide a data-centric environment that's amenable to expansion with new systems and applications.

Standards drive net-centricity

Standards play a key role in enabling data-driven net-centricity across all systems on a battlefield. Ultimately, the network infrastructure has to provide support for a net-centric approach to battlefield operations. Currently, incompatibilities exist between individual weapons systems with regard to characteristics such as protocols used, bandwidth, frequencies, and media. Without a common network infrastructure, systems will be unable to interoperate effectively.

A driving force behind the development of a common network infrastructure for the U.S. Navy and Air Force is the Net-Centric Enterprise Solutions for Interoperability (NESI). NESI provides guidance, best practices, and practical examples for developing net-centric software that influences the design, implementation, maintenance, evolution, and use of the portion of net-centric solutions for military application. NESI provides – for all phases of the development of net-centric solutions – guidance that meets DoD Network-Centric Warfare goals.

From a practical standpoint, NESI drives the abstraction of individual systems data to a common data-driven environment. It marks a step toward the use of a comprehensive data bus, similar to the Enterprise Service Bus (ESB) used in the non-real-time SOA environment, that manages the flow of data between multiple weapons systems in a hard real-time networked environment.

An integrated network infrastructure

All of this leads to the infrastructure required for a fully net-centric battlefield. In such an environment, applications and application components such as Web services can be hosted on processing nodes and be able to access and use any data on the network. This requires the combination of media, protocols, and middleware to support full connectivity and data access anywhere on the network in real time.

Several efforts are underway to establish the infrastructure that meets these requirements for a battlefield network. One project that addresses this is the Common Link Integration Processing (CLIP) program. The CLIP program was implemented to develop common software and common-link processing for a joint Army-Navy-Air Force program. It allows existing platforms without a tactical , as well as platforms with different tactical data links, to communicate with each other.

Fully leveraging this capability is the Boeing B-1B effort. By using CLIP with a data-centric DDS interface, they can simply subscribe to "Tracks" and receive all track updates from numerous tactical data links without worry of data format, data state, failure semantics, or data source; the middleware and QoS based data-centric infrastructure manages these details.

Moving toward a comprehensive battlefield network

Despite these and other efforts, much work remains on the creation of a net-centric approach to battlefield operations. A big step in building out a data-driven network is the infrastructure for communication across the hundreds of different types of devices in a dirty and noisy environment. The infrastructure incorporates media, protocols, and middleware that enable performance and service characteristics across multiple connected systems and devices.

Beyond the network infrastructure and data communications among the multiple devices, applications using data-driven architectures must be built in order to take advantage of real-time data availability from multiple network nodes. These applications must have seamless access to data from multiple devices, reach a determination on a course of action for a single system or a set of battlefield systems, and cause the execution of that course of action through a coordinated response of weapons systems or other battlefield devices, such as GPS devices or soldier-carried computers.

It will take years for the vision of a true net-centric battlefield to emerge to reality. But the benefits will appear gradually, as the network and its components' systems are built out and deployed in the field. Data-driven applications can be written today to give battlefield commanders greater insight into operations and force deployment.

Gordon Hunt is chief applications engineer at Real-Time Innovations, Inc., where he has worked since 1999. He is recognized as RTI's Navy Open Architecture expert and principal consultant for distributed combat system architectures. He is also a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Naval Reserves and a qualified engineering duty officer. His Navy involvement has included working for both NAVSEA and SPAWAR commands in a wide variety of hardware and software integration efforts. Currently, Gordon is leading an effort to provide robotic-system training and maintenance capabilities to the DoD. He obtained his MS from Stanford University and a BS from Purdue University in Aerospace Engineering. He is completing his PhD at Stanford University in the field of control systems and robotics. He can be reached at Gordon@rti.com.

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