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Ensuring Airborne Intelligence and Awareness

A U.S. fighter jet is scrambled to support operations in Iraq. During the mission briefing, the pilot speaks to the commanders on the ground for a situational update and plugs in coordinates of U.S. ground troops he has been tasked to support along with enemy targets in the immediate area. 

It will be the last time the pilot is able to directly communicate with the U.S. unit on the ground or receive real time situational data until reaching the target area. The information the pilot was given while in the long transit to the target was from a reporting chain made up of multiple communication waypoints.  When the aircraft arrives on target, the pilot relies on voice communications and information relayed to him by a host of different lines of communication, by way of multiple terminals.

While this is a standard method of communication between air crews and ground forces for the U.S. military, it is increasingly becoming a more dangerous way to operate as adversaries gain better technology to strike faster and more accurately, quickly changing what is happening on the battlefield.  When a pilot is unable to communicate in real-time with troops on the battlefield or receive updated operations information, confusion can set in and lives can be lost.  As the U.S. has pulled back from Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom,the forward operating locations are much farther from the actual fight, making this issue worse.

Meeting Current Needs

The current network of disparate radios and terminals used by the U.S. military are primarily line-of-sight, single-channel systems that are only capable of performing one function at a time. 

The result is a costly collection of equipment with limited simultaneous functionality that also adds weight, at the expense of ordinance and station time, and puts a high power burden on the aircraft.  These systems cannot transmit critical data at long distances when airborne forwarders are not available or when operations are in or around mountains. 

The needs in the air and on the ground during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan changed quickly, and many of these systems were rushed to the battlefield to meet requirements.  Many of the technologies are still in use today and remain proprietary, hindering interoperability, causing mixed messaging and potentially slowing communications.

For aircraft that have weight and power restrictions, this standard of business can present a multitude of problems.  Relying on too many radios along with the associated weight and power requirements can become a platform-level problem, meaning there is less capability to install on the aircraft.  Aircrews must decide which capability they can afford for any given mission.

Services trying to outfit their aircraft with the best gear are left with a predicament as the technology is limited, but also can cost between $100,000 to $300,000 per radio, with each plane requiring multiple radios. On top of that, all of these systems require modification, integration, test, logistics and sustainment support, and the price tag to integrate them and keep them updated and running significantly outweighs the acquisition costs.

DRS Technologies, a Leonardo-Finmeccanica company, has been focused on solving this problem over the past 15 years.  By significantly reducing size, weight and power while engineering systems that can take the place of multiple radios and replacing them with multi-function terminals, there is an answer for aircrew and ground troops to more easily communicate in real time.

In addition to solving these problems, DRS is able to offer the systems at a much lower price.  More capable terminals that can perform multiple functions with less size, weight and power means more bang for the customers’ buck.

“The DRS software-defined tactical terminals feature open architecture and interoperable designs to support backward and forward compatibility and modular upgrades to incorporate additional functionality as it becomes available, all at a fraction of the cost of legacy solutions,” said Aaron Hankins, vice president and general manager of DRS Advanced ISR.

Not Just For Aircraft

The same communication capabilities required for pilots are also needed for maritime and ground operations. One of the current DRS solutions, the Joint Tactical Terminal - Integrated Broadcast Service (JTT-IBS) has been a success with the U.S. Army, which has several hundred systems currently in service. The systems provide secure, two-way, beyond-line-of sight (BLOS) satellite communications for critical, real-time, multi-source threat, survivor and Blue Force Tracker data.  The JTT-IBS enables world-wide situational awareness capability by connecting tactical users and intelligence nodes.  This capability provides rapid and reliable communication between units anywhere on the planet.

DRS is also in the process of testing a system that will provide multiple, BLOS and line of sight capabilities simultaneously, replacing up to three radios. 

“Our tactical terminal solutions fulfill a critical need in the battlespace, providing actionable intelligence data via satellite communications that allow our U.S. military and allied forces to both identify targets with speed and accuracy, as well as stay out of harm’s way,” Aaron Hankins said.

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