We may be entering the era of Big Data, but data is only as valuable as the network it is on. And in a network-centric concept of operations where actionable information is vital, the system must be able to move, process and store data effectively.
“The platforms are important but if you don’t have the right networks in the middle, you will have less efficient platforms,” LGen André Deschamps, former commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force, once acknowledged in an interview regarding his new and legacy aircraft. “We need the capacity to process, push and display information in a way that we need it.”
Major midlife modernization programs to older aircraft such as the CP-140 Aurora and CF-188 Hornet, upgrades to the CH-146 Griffon helicopter, and the introduction of C-17 and C-130J transport fleets have greatly enhanced the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) collection capability of the RCAF. Until recently, however, there was limited capacity to exploit that information in the way Deschamps envisioned.
“The aircraft were outfitted with tremendous sensing systems as well as the ability to send the data to the ground. However, those projects did not include within their scope the ability to collect, manage, move or exploit the data once it reached the ground,” acknowledged Major Jim Dunfield of the Directorate Aerospace Equipment Program Management.
“Up until now, every time we had an exercise or operation we had to jury-rig a ground-based collection and data distribution system. Along the way we’ve purchased various pieces of equipment because we didn’t have a formal holistic program to address the need. It is always a temporary solution. We would build it at the last minute. Sometimes it worked but often it did not because it had not been formally designed and tested and the technical and operational staff had not received training.”
Dunfield is the deputy project manager for an RCAF project known as Tactical Integrated Command, Control & Comms–Air (TIC3 Air for short). Drawing on a directive from the Chief of the Defence Staff to ensure connectivity in operations, he is spearheading activities to address the critical missing pieces of that communications puzzle.
“TIC3 Air gives the RCAF the proper capability on the ground and equally important it gives us the formal program of record to collect, share, distribute, and for the most part manage that information,” he said in a recent interview. “It allows us to pave the highway to pass the data.”
The highway is an apt metaphor. Think of Canada’s current network as a series of paved and unpaved roads that have yet to be properly linked together. The new highway will feature the equivalent of on and off ramps and toll booths to foster the smooth flow of data across a federated network to specified users.
TIC3 Air was created two years ago, combining a replacement program for aging UHF/VHF radios used for air traffic control with the Joint Tactical Data Links project to install Link 16 receivers across the country. Neither project had progressed, and when a growing requirement for ISR capability was identified, all three were brought under one banner.
Over the next several years, the TIC3 Air project will provide existing RCAF units with a common set of deployable ISR and Tactical Data Link (TDL) systems, establish a terrestrial network of ISR and TDL communication sites, replace the fleet of air traffic management and air defence radios with modern Internet Protocol-capable radios, and integrate these systems into a single holistic network.
“To enable ISR data distribution you need three things: a network, an efficient video and image distribution capability on the network and a set of tools to store and access this media. The Coalition Shared Database (CSD) is the heart of the system,” Dunfield said. “The problem was, the domestic DND networks didn’t have these capabilities.”
Last spring, three events occurred to create the environment to change that, he explained. “First, the deputy commander from 1 Canadian Air Division said, ‘I want this multicast capability on the backbone of the Consolidated Secret Network Infrastructure (CSNI).’ Second, the senior leadership of the organizations responsible for CSNI and the Army’s deployable network agreed to converge many of their services. One of the most significant services to be added to CSNI was the ISR capability. Finally, a research aircraft outfitted with advanced ISR capabilities was preparing to demonstrate sharing of High Definition ISR imagery directly from the aircraft. This airborne capability is the product of the RIFL2E (Radar and Imaging for the Land/Littoral Environments) project. The RIFL2E aircraft stores imagery in its on-board imagery database (CSD) while also making the data continuously available to any CSNI user while in flight via high bandwidth satellite communications.”
A critical catalyst was Operation Nanook, an annual exercise across Canada’s North that requires, and often tests, the CF’s networking ability. With new found impetus and with Op Nanook as a milestone, many organizations could devote the required time and resources to focus on the CSNI limitations that had existed for so long. As a result, a multi-agency working group (WG) was formed in May 2012 which was led mostly by ADM Information Management and air force organizations. With oversight from the WG, they designed and implemented the required services on the CSNI network in stages, the first being in time for Op Nanook.
During the northern exercise, the CF was able to pull data from an Aurora aircraft and the RIFL2E aircraft, provide access to this data to users located at an initial set of multicast nodes at 1 Can Air Div in Winnipeg, Joint Task Force North in Yellowknife, Canada Command in Ottawa, the Canadian Forces Warfare Centre in Shirley’s Bay where RIFL2E’s satellite earth station was located, and an intelligence unit in Ottawa that was tasked with performing data analysis.
After the successful implementation and demonstration at Op Nanook, the WG continued to expand the number of bases and wings serviced by the new ISR architecture. With each subsequent exercise, the RCAF added more multicast nodes. By the end of this year, it is expected that most wings will be fully connected to the ISR architecture allowing their operational command centres and intelligence staff to access airborne imagery in real time.
“The long-term goal is to roll out a permanent capability that can be turned on at a moment’s notice to support any short-notice exercise or operation – it’s a stand-up capability and it always works,” Dunfield explained. “It’s a complex configuration and right now if you shut it down, to get it back up and all the bugs work out can take weeks or months – to stand it up for Op Nanook took over four months.”
The key to building the information highway are new radio ground stations to receive and “condition” fixed and streaming imagery for the network, much of it from infrared, electro-optical cameras, as well as from radar systems. While the RCAF inventory of ground stations does include some short and long-range receivers, the TIC3 Air project will acquire mostly long range receivers and provide system level support for these. Most of the receivers use the NATO line-of-sight communications standard for ISR, Tactical Common Data Link. TCDL is a radio frequency (RF) link that passes network data on standard Internet Protocol (IP).
Variants of TCDL transmitters with omni-directional and directional antennas already exist on the Aurora patrol aircraft as well as the Griffon and Sea King helicopters.
“One of the advantages as we roll out this capability is that we can expand it very easily because it is based on IP networks,” Dunfield explained. “The radio frequency link allows IP traffic to go to and from an aircraft. Any aircraft with a TCDL link can connect any network on the ground to a network in the aircraft.”
Interoperability between services and allied forces is always an issue. For this reason, DND’s ISR community agreed a number of years ago to use only NATO standards for ISR data storage and distribution. As a result the army, navy and air force can acquire ISR air-, land- or sea-based sensor platforms and deployable surface receiver stations that best suit their needs and still interoperate. “The army tends to be the lead on the standards and interoperability testing, which is fabulous,” Dunfield said. “They invest a lot of expertise and effort into it which provides a high level of assurance – we’re all connected with the same standards.”
At the heart of the federated network is the Coalition Shared Database, a collection of both fixed and portable databases into which ISR imagery metadata is fed and stored. To “talk to and interrogate the CSD network, the RCAF is adopting a lightweight tool developed by the army known as Sensor Command and Control Planning Suite (SC2PS),” Dunfield said. “If a user performs a search looking for all imagery of some area that was collected over the last two hours, they will get a response similar to that of a Google search: a list with links and thumbnails. It is a smart implementation of an application that is bandwidth efficient.”
The powerful search tools allow users to view real-time aircraft locations as well as the terrain covered by an aircraft’s sensors. With a recent upgrade of the RIFL2E aircraft, a user located at a CSNI terminal can remotely steer the onboard camera to look at a point of interest.
“Rolling out this architecture will change the concept of operations,” Dunfield said. “It’s a completely new paradigm of doing the work that we do. I’m not sure that everyone in the intelligence community understands the significance of it yet. Normally, if they are tasked to support a mission, they have to pack up and go into the field to conduct operations. With this technology, they can stay at home – the data is fed to them and is fully flexible. With a full implementation of the architecture as demonstrated by the RIFL2E aircraft, you no longer have to stream that high bandwidth video; as the data comes into the aircraft, you record it at the highest quality and store it on the server. You have the option of distributing lower bandwidth video and if someone needs high bandwidth, they just pull the recorded video file. The Griffon records on four streams at about 20 megabits per second – you can’t pass it over any military network. You now have the ability to receive higher quality video than ever before at your desk. With JUSTAS (a project to acquire a medium altitude long endurance UAV capability for the air force) or other deployed systems in the future, the assets will fly over a designated area and we can do all the operations for situational awareness and intelligence analysis while located back in Canada.”
As the array of sensors continues to grow on aircraft – next-generation aircraft promise to deliver even more capability ¬– the demand to move and process the data they generate has never been greater. Until now, however, despite spending millions on aircraft systems, the RCAF has not fully captured the value of its ISR data. Through TIC3 Air, the RCAF will pave a new highway, connecting its airborne systems to new ground systems, and deliver its data in a way that few NATO allies other than the United States can match.