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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Program Insider: Boeing’s Tactical Network

By Richard Whittle

Information is power, especially on the battlefield and Thomas A. DuBois said he and a team of other Boeing Company experts have come up with an information technology network that offers warfighters far more bang for the byte. Now Boeing is looking for military customers, foreign or domestic, willing to start producing the system.

DuBois is chief systems architect for Boeing’s Network Enabling Architectures project at the Rotorcraft Division in Ridley Park, Pa. During the past two-and-a-half years, his team has designed a unique, radio-based network to allow troops on the ground and those in helicopters to connect with each other and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as they execute missions. Boeing calls it the Advanced Tactical Network.

The system, which Boeing demonstrated to the Australian military in Brisbane this past March, links radios, avionics computers and handheld Internet Protocol (IP) tablets with "middleware" that connects the devices in a network. The U.S. and other militaries have long used data links to share information point-to-point, but DuBois said the beauty of Boeing’s network is that information can flow through any node to all the others.

"It’s a true network, it’s not just a bunch of point-to-point connections," more akin to the Internet than existing data links the military uses, DuBois said.

Using Boeing’s network, aircrews, troops flying with them, troops on the ground, and commanders in operations centers can share a smorgasbord of vital information from UAVs or other sources in real time and various forms, whether digital, imagery or voice.

The network will let them "chat" about what they see by voice or instant messaging. It will let them highlight geographic features on digital maps or photos by "whiteboarding" the way sports commentators on TV draw electronic diagrams. It will let them see the same video imagery from UAVs. Pilots can get weather updates, even if their aircraft lack weather radar, simply by calling it up from another part of the network.

In an air assault on a terrorist hideout in Afghanistan, for example, a team of special operations troops flying in an MH-47 Chinook and escorted by AH-64 Apache gunships could keep a watch on their target area by viewing video from a Scan Eagle UAV. Once on the ground, a soldier with an IP tablet could continue to monitor the UAV’s video and communicate with the helicopters over the network. The whole team could stay in touch constantly throughout the mission.

Empowered by all that, DuBois said, military teams would have a better chance of avoiding mistakes caused by miscommunication or lack of information. Commanders, like football quarterbacks calling audible plays at the line, could change mission assignments literally on the fly, he added.

The Australian military is writing requirements for such a system. Other potential foreign customers also have expressed interest, DuBois said. So far, the U.S. Army is holding off, perhaps because it is still developing its Joint Tactical Radio System series of radios.

"I have a feeling that’s going to change," DuBois said. Boeing used a Harris Corp. tactical radio, the RT-1944(U) SeaLancet, to demonstrate the system in Australia. DuBois said the network can use other radios already in service as well. "Once they see this system is real and the warfighter value, they’ll find a way to get it," he predicted.

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