4G at Sea

Tue, 06/12/2012

MIT 2012 Volume: 16 Issue: 3 (April)

Seeking to benefit from the explosive development of capabilities by the commercial smartphone industry, the Navy is launching a pilot project designed to test the effectiveness of the latest cellular technology while at sea.

Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) plans to undertake a 4G/Long Term Evolution (LTE) pilot aboard a three-ship task force slated for deployment early next year, according to John Cooper, program director, who outlined the project at a recent AFCEA event in Solomons, Md.

When it is configured on the USS Kearsarge Expeditionary Strike Group, the 4G/LTE system will use commercial cellular technology to provide intership and intraship communications for the three vessels. Each ship in effect will have its own cell network covering an area of 10-20 nautical miles in diameter. For air platforms, coverage could be available in an area up to 30 miles across.

One example of a use case could involve a helicopter transmitting sensor data through the system to boat crews preparing to board a vessel in search of suspected terrorists.

The Android-based devices in the test will offer typical smartphone capabilities, including video, voice and data and a basic whiteboarding application. The pilot project reflects a conscious effort by the Navy to shift the paradigm by which they and the other services develop networks, Larry E. Hollingsworth, national director of AIR-4.5 Avionics Department at NAVAIR, explained in a recent interview.

“Typically, we set up programs of record that go through the DoD 5000.2 process, with milestones A through C, cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take eight to nine years,” Hollingsworth noted. “By the time we get through that process to field something, it is usually obsolete with respect to what is on the commercial side.

“We took a look at the commercial market and what they’re doing—the five companies that are providing 4G capability—and they along with the major telecommunications companies are spending about $30 billion a year in development. That’s more than all of what the Department of Defense spends on developing networks. There is no way we can keep up.”

Hollingsworth pointed to projections frequently highlighted by Lieutenant General Susan Lawrence, the Army CIO/G-6, that show a growing gap between the capabilities of consumer technology and those of military systems. The goal, he said, is not to close the gap with the commercial sector, but to eliminate that gap.

“The only way to eliminate the gap is to get on the bandwagon with the commercial market and what they’re doing with 4G. Today, you have a cellular device that is probably about 8 megabits capable. In two years, that same device will be able to handle a gigabit, without purchasing another device,” Hollingsworth continued. “If I were trying to do that as a government development program, it could take hundreds of millions of dollars and a lot of time, because I’m not spending the $30 billion a year to accelerate the schedule and technology to market. We’re trying to leverage that investment, and all of the good things it provides in terms of speed and backwards compatibility.”

ISR Capabilities

As for the uses to which the devices could be put on the ships, Hollingsworth and Cooper seem open to the possibilities.

To begin with, the 4G system could provide cellular phone service between members of the expeditionary strike group, provided they were within sight of each other. Another basic service could be video teleconferencing between ships.

But it is the ISR uses of the smartphones, with their video and other data-capture capabilities, that may offer the greatest rewards.

“One of the biggest needs in the battlespace is ISR and movement of relevant information in a timely fashion. In this case, you can have forces on a mission, with an ISR platform overhead, and at best one person in the group may get some information on a Rover device, if the unit is so equipped. But we’re talking about giving every warfighter a device by which they have a common operational picture of their mission. Whatever information is being collected by an overhead asset can be given in real time to everyone in the unit,” Hollingsworth said.

The pilot program, however, is not expected to provide a device to all enlisted personnel, using instead a combination of individual units and larger video displays on ship.

“When we put this capability in the hands of Marines and sailors, I’m sure they’re going to think of many different ways of using this capability that we haven’t thought of,” Hollingsworth said.

Meanwhile, Cooper reported that work was underway to install the needed equipment on the three ships, which also include the USS San Antonio and USS Carter Hall. Currently, engineers and developers are studying where to put the antennas on the vessels, whose decks are already crowded with electronic equipment.

Oceus Networks announced in late March that the Navy had selected the company’s Xiphos mobile communications networking solution for the pilot. The Xiphos tactical cellular solution will provide high capacity secure wireless broadband for real time access to ISR data for intra-ship communications over the horizon, and inter-ship communications via commercial hand-held devices. ♦