During my visit to the DSEI conference in September in London, I noticed that Ultra Intelligence and Communications (Ultra I&C) was attending the conference. And one of the subjects that was on offer was to discuss with their executive team integrated tactical networking.
I contacted the company, and they kindly agreed to meet and discuss the topic which in my words is about the ecosystem for distributed operations. I met with Keith Blanchet, VP Business Development, based in Canada, and Clif Basnight, VP Strategic Technologies based near Washington DC.
The discussion focused less on specific products that Ultra I&C was offering than upon how they viewed the evolving challenge of providing for the evolving eco system for distributed operations. They provided the thinking behind Ultra I&C product development and the foci for solutions to their customers.
Blanchet is an experienced expert on artificial intelligence and decision-making and Basnight is an experienced U.S. Army network engineer and expert in tactical communications. What came clearly through in our discussion was that Ultra I&C was bringing together their two types of expertise into a common effort to deliver distributed decision-making across the battlefield from strategic command to the tactical edge.
It is about being able to work in conditions of data scarcity but finding ways to provide for maximum realistically available information for the distributed force to make decisions at the point of operations.
To enable effective distributed decision making requires advanced networking protocol and next gen communications waveforms working with little to no assistance from a uniformed network technician, powered by AI Tools that curate data into relevant information as rapidly as possible in conditions of data scarcity. Or put in other terms, communications waveform, networking protocol, and AI need to be orchestrated to work together to deliver actionable data to a distributed force operating at the point of interest.
Blanchet explained that often in defense the focus is upon having too much data and how AI could parse data to deliver solutions. But he felt that in a world of distributed decision making, the core problem is rather data scarcity.
He underscored that we make decisions intuitively based on our past experience. He argued that “AI in a dispersed or distributed environment is really about taking incomplete information and extrapolating suggestions or decision aids for a decision to be made in a timely and realistic manner. Ultra I&C is working right now on decision aids for dispersed or distributed decision making.”
Basnight focused on his past experience with the U.S. Army in which there were two separate networks in operations which he referred to as the upper and lower tactical network internet. There were bridges in between but often there was breakage between the two networks and the work arounds were time consuming and difficult. “It could take hours to days to reinsert a piece of the network into another piece of the network. Until 2019, the most common way to do command and control below the battalion level was SINCGARS.”
SINCGARS is a very high-frequency radio where the primary role is voice transmission between surface and airborne command and control assets. “But now using ubiquitous communications leveraging both commercial (5G/LTE, Wi-Fi 6, LORA) and defense specific waveforms (TRILOS, HCLOS), a warfighter can send and receive relevant, high definition voice and data from wherever they are in the fight.”
Technology has matured to a point where mission data can be transformed and transmitted in a timely manner to the tactical edge by leveraging every communication channel available and not just the comms link prescribed.
Basnight noted: “The desired end state is for data to be presented to the radio and then the radio makes the decision of how to deliver it. Through better sensing and understanding of the electromagnetic spectrum the radio can determine how noisy is my environment? What kind of jammers are being operated?
“What type of bearer (i.e., a logical entity that represents a specific network service) do I need to get this particular piece of data out?
“Then using AI-Defined Networking, the software-based radio can determine, in realtime, what waveform is best suited to reliable deliver this data.. We wanted to do this 20 years ago but the piece parts weren’t there, but now, for the first time in my career, I believe the technologies and the expertise needed are more readily available to implement without increasing the cognitive load of the warfighter.”
“Also, entailed is module mission capability whereby we can change the platform’s C5ISR mission set by swapping out the combination of Open System Architecture cards in the platform. This will allow you to transition to the right tools for the mission regardless of what phase of the fight you’re in from phase zero to five throughout a given engagement without leaving the field.”
Blanchet then highlighted the impact of autonomous ground vehicles into the discussion with regard to distributed operations.
“We are introducing ground unmanned vehicles at the tactical edge to do such missions as logistical support. Such capabilities will also have an impact on decision doctrine. These machines will be making decisions on their own. The human is simply tracking the decisions of the machines operating in the combat space. We will have to include these entities in the entire decision-making chain as they are sensors and units of actions in the battlespace.”
We then moved to a discussion of the training domain which is clearly a key part of working a way ahead for effective distributed decision making. AI tools can certainly help in shaping live virtual and constructive training, but we focused on the need through training to build trust in the TTPs being worked with the use C2 and AI and the inclusion of unmanned platforms into the ground maneuver space.
Blanchet argued that AI was a key part of being able to work with the complex networks being shaped to empower and enable distributed forces.
“AI makes it easier to use the complex networks being put in place and knowing what spectrum is out there and what’s available and what’s not available and what I can use, and being able to identify what’s new, what’s friendly is very key. AI is indispensable to such a decision-making process.”
In effect, they underscored that AI networking was a key part of shaping the way ahead for decision making for the distributed force.
Blanchet concluded: “a new generation of soldiers and decision makers are starting to shift their focus in this direction. With forces becoming more expeditionary, much more on the move, much more diverse across coalitions, such complexity requires a transition towards the value proposition from industry being more than software but really providing integration capability and simplifying the problems for decision making.”