Air defence networks (ADNs) are typically comprised of C2 systems, air surveillance radars and weapons coordination equipment, with a plethora of complete systems or more modular solutions currently available on a global market with a growing requirement.
Virginia-based contractor LGS Innovations concentrates its efforts on R&D for the US federal government, primarily in the defence and intelligence arena.
Speaking to Digital Battlespace, CEO Kevin Kelly said the company’s primary focus here was on SIGINT and C4ISR technologies and free- space photonics or laser communications, in addition to laser sensing technology, cyber security and cellular communications and cellular signal analysis.
‘Within the domain of air defence, we are really focused on a couple of areas. One is in what we call spectrum operations – we have a collection of solutions that in real time analyse the wireless spectrum on board aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles [UAVs], on ground systems, and it can even be used on naval systems,’ Kelly said.
‘Our technology can very quickly and accurately give the operators a clear view of what the wireless spectrum looks like, who’s transmitting, what protocols are they using, what’s the signal strength, what’s the location, what carriers are they using.’
He explained that in the autonomous case, the operator can feed this data directly into software-defined radio (SDR) systems, find the available spectrum to tune their radios and use antennas to shape their communications in order to operate in uncontested airspace.
‘Likewise, if someone is jamming certain frequencies or doing some type of broad spectrum broadcasting, they can use other techniques like MIMO [multiple input/multiple output], or spread-spectrum communications to operate inside the noise floor,’ Kelly added.
The second component in the company’s suite of ADN capabilities is a wireless communications system that can broadcast in military frequencies, commercial cellular frequencies, traditional RF frequencies in the lower bands and UHF, as well as millimetre wave and some of the higher-frequency bands that are typically used in microwave, approaching optical speeds.
‘For air defence networks as it involves LGS, it’s all about understanding the wireless spectrum and utilising novel techniques to operate in an uncontested part of the spectrum,’ Kelly continued.
‘The third component, which is kind of un-traditional, is free-space optical communications, utilising 1,500-nanometre lasers – as an example – to communicate between aircraft and the ground, and aircraft and spacecraft, where you have very little wireless spectrum available or you want to operate in a very stealthy mode.
‘We manufacture high-powered laser systems to do coherent communications point to point without having to use the RF spectrum at all. That’s an unconventional technology but one that’s becoming increasingly popular due, frankly, to the shortage of availability of wireless spectrum,’ said Kelly.
The key potential that optical communications bring to air defence networks, both in terms of communicating and sensing, is an ability to operate within a congested RF spectrum freely, Kelly explained.
‘These are typically eye-safe lasers… with very little scatter – they’re not broadcast technology, they’re point-to-point technologies, and the same laser that can be used for coherent communications between two devices can be re-tasked to be a LIDAR [light-based radar] system.
‘There’s an awful lot of interesting uses for those types of systems that don’t add additional RF energy – and therefore contention – in the airspace, and it allows for a much stealthier communications and sensing technology,’ he said.
‘It’s never going to completely replace RF energy-based comms systems, but it’s a technology where we are seeing a very rapid increase and interest from the defence industry to build solutions that utilise very-small-wavelength, high-powered optical lasers. If you’re looking over the horizon at what technologies are going to be relevant in the next ten years, this is definitely one of them.’
Looking at the requirements typically released to industry by governments seeking to upgrade the capabilities of their air defence networks, Kelly noted an increasing interest in what was available on the commercial market.
‘I think the US defence industry, as well as most of the allied nations, are looking to spend less on communications systems and make better use of commercial technology, so cellular technology, point-to-point microwave and millimetre-wave communications are typical solutions that they want to make good use of,’ he said.
A key factor to consider is that most governments – including the US – have sold, allocated or auctioned off most of the available frequencies to commercial carriers, Kelly continued.
‘So the challenge is to migrate to those commercial systems, make use of the allocated spectrum that the DoD have today, and then look [to] partner with a weather satellite operator or a digital broadcast TV download provider that has paid for and is utilising their spectrum, and work on shared agreements where at times they can utilise the same spectrum and not interfere with one another.’
Following the drawdown of US and allied forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, the demand for smaller, tactical air defence systems has waned in favour of strategic-level systems capable of being deployed by coalition forces tasked with securing larger territories and national borders.
‘I can tell you there is much more interest in us delivering integrated or integrable solutions,’ Kelly continued. ‘During periods of crisis, for instance in the early days of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, I think
our customers were more interested in anything that would solve a specific problem quickly, and they were less concerned about integration.
‘As you get into less tactical and more strategic thinking, you’re looking for more integrated and modular solutions that can interoperate with other systems out there. Within the United States we have the JTRS [Joint Tactical Radio System] that is for land, air and sea communications, and they have a very modular approach… where they want vendors to create interoperable modular solutions that can be utilised in a variety of environments and different platforms,’ he said.
With Russia conducting bombing campaigns in Syria and continuing to eye up Eastern Europe, and China embarking on an intentional sustained build-up of its air, space and sea-based defence forces, the requirement for ADNs is only going to increase.
‘I think [air defense networks] will be less tactical and more strategic in nature, and that means less concern about an individual point in a geographic region and more interest in understanding and defending large land masses and large areas of operations,’ said Kelly.
‘So understanding wireless communications inside an entire country or region becomes more important, in the strategic view, versus defending an air base or isolating communications between two aircraft inside a specific theatre. So we’re seeing an increased demand for broadly usable, long-range systems.’
In the face of Russian aggression, Ukraine is looking to bolster its air defence capabilities, and in particular enhance the interoperability of its C4I networks with NATO forces.
On 24 April 2015, Kyiv signed a memorandum of agreement with the NATO Communications and Information Agency (NCIA) to implement a ‘trust fund’ intended to help modernise the Ukrainian military forces’ C4I networks.
During the signing ceremony at alliance HQ in Brussels, Ihor Dolhov, head of Ukraine’s mission to NATO, said: ‘We appreciate all the nations who have contributed so far to the trust fund, but we expect more. Our expectations are very high for increasing the possibilities for cooperation between our two sides.’
The C4 trust fund was launched during NATO’s Wales summit in September 2014, and is aimed at supporting Ukraine’s military forces. Financed by contributions from allied forces, the fund is intended to cover the cost of equipment, expertise and training.
Once implemented, this move should significantly enhance Ukraine’s strategic ties with NATO, as uprated secure communications systems enable the exchanging of real-time data with other countries’ air defence networks.
Elsewhere, NATO’s air and missile defence command is undergoing a significant upgrade in capability, following the signing of a
€92.5 million contract amendment with ThalesRaytheonSystems (TRS) in May 2015, aimed at enhancing the organisation’s standard Air Command and Control System (ACCS).
The proposed improvements will give control sites in the European network double the processing power, requiring a fifth of the space, and streamline TRS’s efforts to run the entire ACCS alongside air and missile defence systems located across the various member countries.
Philippe Duhamel, CEO of TRS, told DB the emphasis with ADNs was now on interoperability and the capacity to effectively share secure data and communications within coalitions.
‘What we can see if we examine the last two to three years, is that while there is not so much that is new, there are trends which are becoming more prominent. First of all, most operations are in coalitions – this seems to be something benign, but it’s not,’ he explained.
‘Because it means that many countries have to work together, and it’s something which is probably pretty easy for NATO countries because they are trained and they are used to working together. But the coalitions extend beyond just NATO countries. This means
the adoption of standards for interoperability of compatible doctrines, [and this] is something which now is critical, and which now in fact impacts our systems.’
TRS manufactures air C2 systems, as well as 3D surveillance, weapon locating and coordination radars. The radars are manufactured by its parent companies – Thales and Raytheon – and it produces air C2 systems for both domestic and international markets, with NATO being one of the most prominent customers.
Duhamel noted that without exception, all TRS’s customers wanted the ability to operate effectively within coalitions, while at the same time retaining the ability to share restricted – or national-only – data and information internally.
‘Air operation systems are an element of national sovereignty, but at the same time those systems have to offer the capability to work in coalitions,’ he stated.
Another factor is ballistic missile defence – the number of bodies or countries that have the capability to launch such missiles is increasing. ‘We may say that most probably the ballistic missile threat is no longer theoretical, it is there,’ Duhamel continued.
‘That’s why the air command and control systems we provide have to have theatre ballistic missile capabilities. This is obviously something that we are completely involved with. We had a contract in 2013 with NATO, with a large amendment this year for new air and missile defence [C2] systems functionality to add onto the ACCS.’
At full capacity, ACCS will run across 15 locations, with four validation sites in Glons, Belgium, Uedem, Germany, the Lyon-Mont Verdun air base in France and Poggio Renatico, Italy, plus 11 replication sites spread around member nations across Europe, with the potential to add another ten sites in strategically relevant population centres, mainly on the eastern border of NATO.
The network will integrate NATO’s missile defence command, pairing with Allied Air Command in Ramstein, Germany. Configured this way, tactical information can be shared in real time over one central network to forces within the alliance, as opposed to separate air and missile defence programmes run by local militaries.
In addition to giving users on the NATO secure network the ability to view data on their web browsers, the system also offers real-time interaction between the top-level combined air operations centre (CAOC), the air control centre (ACC), the recognised air picture (RAP) production centre and sensor fusion posts (SFP).
Duhamel explained that the original contract for development and testing of ACCS core software has now been completed, with the system recently accepted by NATO.
‘The implementation of the NATO ACCS is progressing very well. The contract is completely on time – we’ve recently had the first version accepted. For us the key to a successful contract is obviously stable and well- understood specifications, and I think with NATO we’ve worked together very well in having an agreed detailed spec before we started development,’ he said.
Italy is the first nation using ACCS for its military air operations, using the system since April 2015. Germany, France and Belgium are also set to transition to ACCS as validation nations, followed thereafter by 17 other member states.
Pointing to key technology advances, Duhamel said the major breakthrough for ACCS was the integration of non-real-time and real-time functions, connected with integrated ISR systems and new and different kinds of sensors.
‘Until now, every country had their real-time system, and non-real-time system, which was there for tasking. With ACCS this is completely integrated, and this is a major breakthrough to ease current operations. You have planning, tasking, current ops control, in a situation where you need to accelerate the pace manually, when you have time-sensitive targets, when you need to be much more agile,’ he said.
‘The second thing now is data links. We’ve been talking about Link 16 for 20 years, maybe more than that. But with the complete integration of data links – which of course enables voiceless control, but also the exchange of data – this is something which really changes the operations.
‘It is a system which takes a long time to deploy, because you need to have the control sensors fitted for Link 16, you need to have the ground communications and you have also all the flying platforms progressively equipped with Link 16. This is a long-term deployment, and something which is a big, big change for the operational people. Voiceless aircraft control compared to voice control is completely different,’ Duhamel stated.
Addressing the ubiquitous issue of a densely congested and contested RF spectrum, Duhamel noted that the means of communications to be deployed in-theatre was dictated by the customer, and was therefore beyond TRS’s control.
‘In our operations we are using the communication means that are chosen by our customers, and for the moment it is Link 16 – this is something which is more used, and the boundaries of Link 16 are not touched at the moment. Of course, because we have overseas deployment, I think there is more and more SATCOM, because when you are in a country of operations very far from the homeland, you want to have a picture of the theatre, and there are instances where SATCOM is the only possible [option],’ said Duhamel.
‘Most of our customers have SATCOM capabilities. From our point of view, I know there is a struggle about the RF spectrum in terms of communications, but as an air operations system provider we are using what is provided by the customer, so it’s not really our call.’
The mass proliferation of weaponised UAS and smaller UAVs, in addition to the threat posed by conventional missiles, has driven the development of more capable sensors and detection systems to be integrated into ADNs.
‘This is absolutely something very important, where we integrate new sensors, and we have a hybrid data fusion with the new kind of radars from very short range to long-range optronics,’ Duhamel explained.
‘At the end of the day, the capability of the surveillance is assessed by the operations people through the screens of the controllers, and what you are doing is integrating more and different kinds of sensors, which enable you to have the picture which includes very slow and small targets, and also very fast and large targets.’
He continued: ‘This is also valid for ballistic missiles. Our system has a capability we have developed to track ballistic missiles, and integrate sensors of different kinds. That’s part of the major evolution of the C4I, which is the smart integration of hybrid data fusion.’
Looking to future trends, Duhamel identified information-sharing as a key requirement that would drive the development of secure C4ISR systems.
‘In the mid-term future, looking at the next 20 years, we will see a big move about how we manage information. And we will probably move from the information that you send one to the other, towards shared information. So the question is, how do you manage information sensitivity, and how do you manage this within a coalition – this is the very big move.’
He identified training as the next big issue, citing a lack of airspace and runaway costs as posing significant problems to an essential function.
‘Years ago, the pilots were training on their own, command and control were training
on their own, radar were training on their own, and from time to time they had training together. I think there will be more combined training, and less isolated training.
Because this will save costs, and also training in isolation makes less and less sense,’ Duhamel continued.
‘This means that… more realistic simulation tools for training [are required], and the capability to have simulation tools within
the system itself and not separately. ACCS already has some of these capabilities, enabling real scenario operators and
trainees to work on the same system.’ Finally, Duhamel predicted that large modular air defence networking infrastructure capable of being moved from site to site was likely to be developed, facilitating the deployment of fewer and more efficient systems.
‘Currently we have infrastructure systems, and systems in shelters that are meant to be deployed in-theatre. In future, there will be fewer systems to be deployed, and there may be less than before. There may be elements that we keep within infrastructure thanks to data links and data communication, so we don’t have to deploy the [usual] number of people, and we may have systems which are moveable, that would keep in infrastructure,’ he concluded.