The case for the software-defined battlefield
After more than 15 years of near-permanent deployment, balancing the U.S. military between modernization and readiness is reaching a turning point.
Heads of service have repeatedly described in detail the effects of the budget crisis on preparedness and modernization, and military associations have begun to add their voice to attention as the problem persists. Unfortunately, there is no solution to a silver bullet that cures all the modernization problems facing the military – only time and consistent funding will provide long-term relief. However, in tactical communications and electronic warfare, there are some immediate solutions that the military can implement to overcome short-term threats.
The future modernization of both tactical communication and e-war command and control systems depends on two critical changes: the adoption of an open systems architecture and the use of software-defined capabilities. In particular, software-defined capabilities are the fruit of the military. Implementing an open architecture is just as important, but it takes time and coordination. On the other hand, software-defined capabilities allow for faster upgrades, are more accessible, and provide greater operational flexibility in contentious environments.
Software-defined systems are increasingly the answer to a rapidly changing and extremely complex battlefield, encompassing on-board and ground-based radios, electronic warfare and space systems. The ability to upgrade and update existing software to meet and defeat new and emerging threats gives fighters an advantage in battle.
The most significant “core” technology that makes these new features possible is software-defined radio (SDR). Instead of using different hardware components to process the radio signal, SDRs are much more like computers – giving current and next-generation systems the flexibility to switch from analog and receive and transmit a wide variety of waveforms.
Contributing to this SDR revolution is the need for fighters to pack more modern communication capabilities, such as providing broadband access to the battlefield via broadband and satellite networks, and e-war capabilities such as SIGINT, jamming and signal tracking in lightweight and compact devices. .
Such flexibility supports a wider range of capabilities, including allowing operators to direct, mute, and defeat enemy jamming, as well as collect and share intelligence with friendly sources over longer distances. In fact, SDR is the core technology for dynamic spectrum access systems with cognitive or “smart radio” functionality, such as the progress pursued in DARPA initiatives.
On a practical level, SDR has enabled users to make quick upgrades, relieving the logistical burden of having to physically change each component to keep up with changing requirements. Basic weapons and communication platforms are expensive to continuously upgrade; however, many programs have found that the inclusion of software-defined technologies allows the platform to keep pace with technological developments. As a recent article in C4ISRNET noted, the Army Reprogramming Analysis Team (ARAT) has succeeded in using software-defined capabilities to keep old radars up and running.
In particular, for EW, staying at risk is a critical necessity. The worldwide proliferation of advanced digital radar and communication systems has led to a change in the way traditional EW is implemented. As communication and radar systems become more digital, with the adoption of software-defined capabilities, their behavior and characteristics can change at a much faster rate than ever, hence the need for EW systems to become software-defined so that their real-time response can be adapted. This software-defined capability in EW is known as adaptive EW.
Traditional EW systems rely on pre-programmed databases with signal characteristics that describe the intended radars and / or communication systems that they must identify and respond to. Adaptive EW systems, in contrast, can use both pre-programmed information about signal characteristics and what they observe in real time from radars and communication systems to accomplish their intended mission.
Adaptive EW provides various advantages on the battlefield and operations, mainly in the fact that EW systems remain up to date, regardless of the rival threat. A potential long-term benefit of adaptive EW is faster programming, testing, and validation of EW systems before a new capability can be deployed on the fighter. The military no longer has the luxury of time to defeat today’s threats.
The advantages of software-defined systems apply to all domains – underwater, ground, air and space. There are challenges in each of them when it comes to changing or replacing pieces of equipment. With satellite, for example, the ability to remotely update and upgrade software is a huge advantage, allowing each “bird” to perform more and different tasks for a longer life.
Looking ahead, the battlefield will only become more crowded and overloaded with greater demand for an already limited range, especially when working in an anti-access / air denial environment. The ability to quickly upgrade and upgrade systems, many of which are extremely complex, did not exist, which put the fighters at a disadvantage and put operations at risk of failure. Implementing new systems can take more than a decade, which ultimately leads to technology that may lag behind by a generation or more. Software-defined technology will allow users to continually upgrade their technologies without the need for large-scale recapitalization – critical in an era of budget constraints.