Net-centricity takes wing

A Global Hawk sits in a hangar in San Diego.

David Gossett, Defense Department

Data gathered by unmanned aerial vehicles feeds the operational picture for services

As the sun sets over Baghdad, automatic-weapon fire erupts from a concrete building's third-story window.

Flying gentle circles above the new hot spot, an unmanned aerial vehicle shoots detailed video of the situation. Through the growing darkness, coalition forces on the ground view video of the sniper and another group of insurgents.

In seconds, it's determined that a Bradley fighting vehicle, with support from a Black Hawk helicopter, is needed to handle the situation. As the forces converge on the scene, they are aided by live video from the unmanned plane. So are commanders, miles away.

The scenario, described by Defense contractors, is just one of countless instances where technology is being used on the front lines. But for the Marines, it could also mark the realization of network-centric warfare.

'This is the beginning of it,' Capt. David Joseforsky, a Marine Corps Systems Command project officer in Iraq, said of an effort called the Video Storage Wide Area Network project, which collects and provides information on situational awareness. 'This system is all IP-based, it's very simple to set up.'

The system oversteps the limitations of terrain and lets 'us push it anywhere in the theater. We could realistically push back to [the continental United States]. I really think it is the starting point of net-centric warfare.'

Information gathering and sharing are the essence of network-centric warfare: getting data to the warfighters who need it, when they need it. And a key method for gathering that data is with unmanned aerial vehicles.

Global Hawk UAVs from Northrop Grumman Corp. performed about 5 percent of the surveillance missions during Operation Iraqi Freedom, but the vehicles were responsible for collecting about 55 percent of the information on time-sensitive targets, according to an Air Force report.

'That's how it's going to be from now on,' said Shai Shammai, consulting manager for aerospace and defense at market research firm Frost & Sullivan of New York. 'In Iraq and Afghanistan, UAVs already have proven themselves to deliver real-time intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance at a level of capability unheard of or unseen before.'

Joseforsky said rugged satellite/Earth terminals from DataPath Inc. of Duluth, Ga., are operating in Iraq with five systems deployed throughout the areas of operation. The systems have aided warfighters in improving their situational awareness, said Andy Mullins, DataPath's chief executive officer.

'Everybody in the world is talking about net-centric operations, and it's a great buzzword. But what this project really was about was for the Marines to apply directly all that net-centric infrastructure to solve real-time problems for soldiers on the front line,' Mullins said.

'It's about pushing the edge of that net-centric network, not only to the frontline soldier but also to the sensors deployed beyond that soldier, so he or she can understand with some specificity what obstacles are in front of them,' he added.

The system, which offers recording, editing and storage capabilities, uses Boeing Scan Eagle UAVs with 12-hour flight durations, as well as the Marine Corps' Pioneer UAVs.

'What we're doing is using them to stream live video and also to push large imagery files over a satellite communications network that basically parallels our tactical network, so we don't have to bog down our communications,' Joseforsky said.

The system takes the video feeds from UAVs and digitizes and compresses the images. It then sends them to LANs established on the ground and from which multiple users can access the video and data.

'We've really taken the best of the commercial technology and used it on the battlefield,' Joseforsky said. 'It's a huge leap for us at Marine Corps Systems Command to procure the equipment, have DataPath integrate it and get it ready for us in 60 days.'

Even using the compression algorithms, bandwidth becomes a major issue for UAVs and network-centric warfare, Joseforsky said. The independent satellite communication system the Marines use addresses the issue, but bandwidth will need new technology in the future.

'A lot of our communications and data links are from 128K up to about 4MB, which isn't a whole lot when you're servicing 20,000-plus people,' Joseforsky said. 'In the streaming video, we're pushing around a 400-Kbps stream, so once we start pushing multiple streams, it starts adding up pretty quickly and eats away at our connectivity.'

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.

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