Tactical Data Links: Decades old, but still talking with the Big Boys - Interview with Marty McDonough, Founder, President, and CEO of Tactical Communications Group

3Editor's note: Tactical Data Links such as Link 11, Link 16, CDL, and others might date back some 30 years, but their utility and battlefield reach continues to this day. Here's an expose of Link 16, in use by America's allies and bolted into some 41 countries' mission profiles. The modern capabilities of this digital pipe might surprise you.

MIL EMBEDDED: I’m most interested in the status of COTS communications, in regard to communications links, protocols, and so on.

McDONOUGH: There’s a little confusion in the industry as to the definition of Commercial Off-the-Shelf or COTS. I’m coming from the position of the defense industry developing Tactical Data Links [TDLs] for military applications that are off-the-shelf, such that they are no longer “developmental.”

MIL EMBEDDED: So what is the most prolific tactical ?

McDONOUGH: Link 16 is probably the most prolific involvement, considering all the U.S. allies. The marketplace and the demand are significant and continuing to grow. Right now, there are 41 countries – including the United States – that I refer to as the “Link 16 club” with agreements and memorandums of agreements with the U.S. government to receive this technology.

MIL EMBEDDED: Tell me about Link 16.

McDONOUGH: These TDLs are made up of several components: the radio itself, the RF generator, and the intelligence being moved across that radio over the waveform in a network-centric format. They are governed by MIL standards and have been around for a while. Link 16 is constantly being enhanced. An example of Link 16’s latest and greatest is the ability to push imagery over advanced digital data links into the cockpit of an F-15 Strike Eagle or an F-18 [Hornet]. Also new is the ability to develop what they call a Weapons Data Link (WDL), which enables Link 16 usage over the airwaves to actually guide smart weapons after they’ve been released from the delivery platform.

Our role at TCG is to develop the operational applications software that would be on platforms and in command centers and the like, but we also develop test equipment to be used by integrators and developers in the certification agencies to certify that these tactical data links are functioning as they should.

MIL EMBEDDED: How old is Link 16, and how did you come to build it as opposed to a Raytheon or somebody else?

McDONOUGH: The Link 16 system is really a Cold War “relic.” I hate to use that word, but Link 16 is 35-year-old technology. It’s a very complex, tiny, secure system. But the system has been plagued by costs – about $1 million apiece in the early days. The cost has come down drastically, but there are only three sources of those radios at this time: ViaSat in California, a consortium of BAE and Rockwell Collins, and a European consortium called EuroMIDS.

Regarding how we got into this and why not Raytheon or somebody else: We are the only small business in the business. We’ve been focused on Link 16, and it’s extremely complex. We started developing the software somewhere around 1997. It’s probably cost us easily $25 to $30 million in investments. We were a part of a large company but spun off back in 2001 to become an independently owned small business. We now have 60 people in the company and are supporting product in 18 different countries. The reason we survive is we’re very process oriented.

MIL EMBEDDED: What are Link 16’s technical specifications?

McDONOUGH: The waveform is time division multiple access. The frequency range is about 900-1,200 MHz, and it has a notch filter in the middle because of potential interference there. Regarding data rates, by today’s standards, it doesn’t really have too much wideband throughput, about 128 messages per second in normal operations.

MIL EMBEDDED: Was Link 16 originally an audio channel or a data channel?

McDONOUGH: The original system was conceptualized as a CNI, a Communications Navigation Identification system, pre-GPS. So the navigation aspect of it enables users to measure time-of-arrival of pulses from different radios, thus establishing the relative location of the transmitter. It’s all digital, and also has what they call J voice, digital voice capability in the radios; however, not all platforms care to implement that.

MIL EMBEDDED: Can you theorize where military communications are going? Link 16 is 35 years old, yet people are using Ethernet in comparison.

McDONOUGH: We are in the middle of the JTRS WNW wide band network and waveform development, and interoperability is the name of the game right now in the mil comms industry. The Navy’s, Marines’, and Air Force’s air components and surface components are very much involved in Link 16. The Army is just starting to get into it. Link 16 is more of an air operations capability than a ground forces kind of network. However, the only true mission for air forces out there today is close-air support for the combat soldier on the ground. It’s common communications, primarily digital communications, that enable all the battlefield components to work as one to get a mission done.

An example illustrating the Link 16 system’s potential is if warriors from Mountain Home AFB bring in an F-15E (see Figure 1) from a squadron to Bagrum Air Force Base in Afghanistan and want to put Link 16 imagery into the backseat of that F-15E. Link 16 is developed with all the tactics, techniques, and procedures that needed to be done so that a troop in contact can take an image of his location, and using PowerPoint on a laptop, then annotate it as to the streets and buildings and so forth. And then it moves through our system up to the cockpit of the Strike Eagle, at which time the weapon systems operator in the backseat looks at that annotated picture and can contact the soldiers in combat and discuss where he will deliver ordnance, by looking at the picture and literally looking out of his cockpit saying, “Yes I’ve got it. I see the building you’re on. I see the building they’re in. We’ve got it.” And that’s just one example. Streaming video can also be transmitted over Link 16 but eats up all available bandwidth.

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Figure 1: The F-15E Strike Eagle is one type of aircraft compatible with Link 16 tactical data link technology. U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Jason Passmore
(Click graphic to zoom by 1.6x)

MIL EMBEDDED: What are the evolving battlefield requirements for TDLs?

McDONOUGH: Enhancements pertain to the type of information being demanded by the commanders on the ground. It’s very quick, for example: Where’s the bad guy? Where’s the truck? Where’s the individual planting an IED? The interconnection of new defense systems is what’s driving all the communication systems. Now you have RPVs [Remotely Piloted Vehicles] with electro optical and IR sensors – a variety of things loitering over the battlespace with the ability to pour voluminous amounts of data in real time coming off of the battlefield. What do you do with this data? How do you distribute it?

MIL EMBEDDED: What are the best ways to distribute this data, then?

McDONOUGH: There are many data links out there today such as Link 16, as we’ve discussed, plus Link 11 and Common Data Link (CDL). CDL is really more of a carrier of information of wide band or high-demand information and streaming video and so forth. But we’re not doing 24 words per minute teletypes anymore: We’re trying to plan and execute commands within 10 or 15 minutes. And so TDL must have the ability to support an eyeball of one sort or another on the battlespace as threats evolve, and troops must stay in contact. Getting that processed data disseminated into the proper hands of a Strike Force is very, very important.

Getting back to your question earlier about Ethernet, there are elements of Link 16 tied to Ethernet. One is the fixed formatted messages, which is quite a detailed library of information message standards. And the other part comprises the radio and the waveform moving around the battlespace and all the other things that a digital radio does. The J series messages, which is the lexicon, we’re now pushing those over Ethernet or other means of transmission and getting them out through satellite relay. The idea is to move information in a common format, and it’s displayed visually, graphically, on the warrior’s display in the cockpit or on the ground. So no matter what your native language is or where you come from, the information is all common, it’s all the same, and everybody works together. A good analogy is I have connectivity with a farmhouse in southern France by picking up my phone and dialing a phone number. But I’m not interoperable with the farmer because I do not speak French.

MIL EMBEDDED: What about consumer devices such as infrared TV remotes, UHF TV remotes, cell phones, phones, , and so on – any military applicability?

McDONOUGH: Yes. Your average warrior on the battlefield today is an 18-, 19-, or 20-year-old kid who has grown up with these technologies and is completely at ease with them. All of these things lead back to one problem on the battlefield though: security. My feeling is that the shelf life of the information is so short, who cares? I think the military should go with the most available thing. The soldier has to be able to get information that’s meaningful to him as quickly as possible. The BlackBerry and other devices that are out there right now, the whole thing is maybe 4 inches by 3 inches and it’s all a display. That’s exactly what a soldier needs when somebody shoots at him.

MIL EMBEDDED: To wrap up, what’s the future of the TDL community, and who will steer it?

McDONOUGH: The tactical data link community, formed about 10 to 12 years ago, has an International Data Links Society. Industries, military, and the government all participate, and 40-some countries have participating members. TCG recently started the U.S. chapter of the Society, so there are now about 130 U.S. members. The Society was formed by industry as a communications way to organize “everything data links” in industry and to make that information available to the militaries of the world in a coherent form.

Marty McDonough is President and CEO of Tactical Communications Group (TCG). He founded TCG in 1994 as an R&D division of Dynamics Research Corporation (DRC). Before joining DRC in 1985, he founded and ran MARTIN Systems Inc., a software development company focused on developing artificial intelligence applications for use by the national intelligence community. Marty has served in the U.S. Air Force as an Airborne Intelligence Analyst. He has also worked as an Intelligence Analyst for the NSA. He holds a B.S. degree in Government and Political Science from the University of Maryland. For more information, email info@g2tcg.com.

Tactical Communications Group, LLC 978-654-4800 www.g2tcg.com

For more information on the International Data Links Society, visit www.idlsoc.com.

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