June 01, 2012
Credit: Credit: IDF
Angus Batey•London and David Eshel•Tel Aviv
Military adoption of commercial Wi-Fi and 3G/4G network technology ought to be straightforward. Systems are highly capable, there is very little time lag between technology development and deployment, and the high volume of civilian sales reduces costs and risk. Throw in some encryption and a bit of ruggedization, and surely you can turn the iPhones and Android tablets of today into the battlefield communications platforms of tomorrow.
But it is more complicated than that. Greg Moore, business sector manager in the Special Military Products division at Roke Manor Research, the British sensor and communications specialist, says the key challenge is spectrum management.
Well-defined commercial standards and regulation have had the effect of pushing military systems out of civilian spectrum ranges, meaning commercial technology has to be modified to work in military frequency bands, which will often end up eliminating any benefits in terms of the time and money taken to field products. But if military systems move into commercial frequency ranges, an overloaded spectrum is subject to interference and communications become unreliable.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, the problem is, if anything, amplified when the military network is being established in a place like Afghanistan, where domestic network infrastructure is limited—and in a counter-insurgency conflict where the adversary seeks to blend in with the general population.
“The adversary is likely to use commercial systems for communications, or for applications they may wish to use for triggering devices,” suggests Moore. “So, naturally, you're going to want to prevent them from communicating on commercial frequencies. That causes you a problem if you want to deny them the use of the same commercial bands you're using to communicate as well.”
The other key issue Roke has identified is mobility. Wireless fidelity, or Wi-Fi, and cellular networks rely on base stations, which are generally fixed, because they draw power from large generators or electricity mains. Because each base station is linked to its neighbors directionally, network integrity depends on each station knowing where the others are located at all times.
“What we've looked at is whether you can deliver some of the functionality you get from a base station in a smaller form factor, that will allow you to move about the battlefield at reduced power consumption,” he says.