Improving intelligent tactical data link translation to simplify real-time warfighter communications

Military organizations around the world rely heavily on tactical data links (TDLs) to securely and reliably share mission-critical information among air, ground, and sea platforms. Because different devices use different TDL types for communications, a highly sophisticated TDL gateway is needed to translate information across the various link types. There’s a huge disconnect, however, between historical TDL gateway designs and modern military requirements. As a result, TDL gateways that were designed for the way the military operated years ago have not kept pace with present-day, technologically advanced battlefields. Developers who have Link 16 expertise will find that it is the most valuable when developing a TDL gateway for the modern military.

Legacy tactical data link (TDL) gateways are notoriously difficult and time-consuming to set up and configure. They’re also extremely complicated to operate. These legacy gateways were intended to be used at Air Operations Centers by teams of highly experienced experts working in a controlled environment; they were not designed to be used by warfighters who are actively engaged in mission activities at the tactical edge of the battlefield.

Today’s warfighters – digital natives who grew up surrounded by technology – expect ready access to easy-to-use technologies in all aspects of mission activities. If equipment is not fast and easy to set up and operate in the field, there’s a good chance that the warfighters will simply leave it behind when they head out into the field on missions.

Legacy TDL gateways can take several hours to connect and configure, with some systems requiring multiple days of effort. Any solution that requires this level of time and effort to become operational is unusable in the busy field environments. Warfighters need a TDL gateway so easy to start up that anyone with any level of training can simply push a start button and have the system become fully operational within a few seconds. The gateway must automatically set up connections to any and all data links, including management of radio configuration settings, with no additional effort or input by experts.

TDL gateways must be designed much like an appliance, hiding the complexity of TDLs and data translation to deliver information to the warfighter in a clear and easy-to-understand format. This is the only approach that will ensure TDL gateways can be easily used by warfighters who are not experts in TDLs, communications protocols, or communications equipment. The design must also include an intuitive graphic user interface (GUI) that presents the pertinent mission-specific information in a highly visible and simplified way, similar to the user-friendly apps that warfighters are so familiar with.

Once the TDL gateway is operational, it must provide complete, accurate, and up-to-date translations between multiple link types. With the complexity and variety of TDL types in use, this is not an easy requirement to meet.

Dealing with a complex TDL

While link types such as Variable Message Format (VMF) and Cursor on Target (CoT) are relatively straightforward and don’t require extensive understanding of military standards, Link 16 is the exact opposite. This extremely complex TDL is based on military standards that are thousands of pages long and include numerous rigid rules for implementation. Link 16 is the most prominently used TDL in the world and is extremely important to warfighters.

While it can be tempting to deal with Link 16 complexity by implementing only certain aspects of the communication standard, partial implementations severely limit interoperability with other link types. Full interoperability with as many TDL networks and devices as possible is necessary to avoid stovepipe, or point, solutions that only address a few TDL gateway challenges.

The way data translations are presented to warfighters is also extremely important. Warfighters don’t care that communications equipment is sending a VMF message that will be received on a device that communicates using Link 16. They care simply that the information exchange is successful, operates quickly, and gives them the information they need in an easy-to-understand format.

To ensure that translated information is easily understood, TDL gateways must translate the concepts being communicated rather than the individual words. These conceptual translations must be automated, supported across multiple TDL types, and provided in context. The TDL gateway must listen to incoming information on all TDLs, put the information into context with previously received information as well as information provided on the other TDL types, then send the appropriate information – in context – on outgoing TDLs.

Taking TDL translations to this level requires significant TDL expertise on the part of the TDL gateway developer because there is no standard that fully defines how this should be done.

While TDL gateway developers must have expertise in all of the commonly used TDL types, Link 16 expertise is the most valuable when developing a TDL gateway for the modern military. It’s also the most difficult to obtain and cannot be acquired in a short period of time. Link 16 experts with the knowledge level needed for TDL gateway development have studied and implemented the technology for years, often decades. The TDL gateway must implement all Link 16 messages, not just a subset of them, despite the difficulty of the task and the time required to do it properly.

Know, understand the details and standards

To fully implement Link 16 and ensure accurate and up-to-date data translation between Link 16 and other TDL types, the gateway developer must understand the details of Link 16 operation as well as the associated military standards. The military standard for Link 16 is more than 10,000 pages long. There is complicated interplay between Link 16 messages that must be understood and implemented, and very rigid rules that must be precisely followed.

An example of a TDL gateway that handles the relevant standards is Curtiss-Wright’s HUNTR TDL Hub and Network Translator, which includes (patent-pending) forwarding technology, and enables the warfighter to have simplified and automated access to relevant TDL data at the tactical edge of the battlefield. (Figure 1.) The hub/translator features single-button startup, including automated link connections; a GUI that clearly indicates connectivity information flow and filtering of traffic; up-to-date and accurate contextual translations of relevant link data that take bandwidth limitations into account, rather than awkward and cumbersome word-by-word translations that can consume high amounts of bandwidth and result in information overload; support for a variety of link types, including Link 16, VMF, CoT, Cooperative Electronic Support Measures Operations (CESMO), GPS, Situational Awareness Data Link (SADL), Joint Range Extension Applications Protocol (JREAP), Serial-J, and Socket-J; automatic radio configuration, initialization, control, and monitoring for MIDS LVT, MIDS JTRS, and Combat Net Radios; plus a complete Link 16 implementation.

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Figure 1 | The HUNTR TDL gateway enables data access at the tactical edge of the battlefield.

Easily used TDL gateways that can be suc­cessfully used at the tactical edge of the battlefield and other military environments with minimal personnel, minimal training, and almost no expertise required are the key to securely and reliably sharing mission-critical information.

Steven Horsburgh, Ph.D.,is Director of Product Management at the Tactical Communications Group of Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions. Steve holds a PhD. in physics. He has 30 years of research and development experience designing solutions to complex, data-driven applications for commercial and military use. He has 12 years of experience with Tactical Data Links software design and development in both engineering and management positions. Prior to joining Curtiss-Wright, Steve worked in satellite communications and data management for the Naval Research Lab, Mission Research Corporation, and ATK; he subsequently joined Tactical Communications Group, LLC (TCG) to architect, design, and manage agile research and development projects related to Tactical Data Links, including Link 16, VMF, CoT, and CESMO. TCG was acquired by Curtiss-Wright in March 2019 and Steve continues to manage R&D, marketing, and information technology projects.

Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions www.curtisswrightds.com