Military Embedded Systems

Data connectivity comes into focus alongside increasingly distributed operational models

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August 09, 2021

Data connectivity comes into focus alongside increasingly distributed operational models

By Matt Medley, IFS

Demand for a more distributed operational model has reached an all-time high; the pressure is now on military organizations to transform the requirement into a successful working model. While disconnected operations aim to reduce exposure, making organizations less susceptible to a single physical attack, they definitely carry some major logistical and connectivity issues. The right software architecture, tools, and processes can connect military personnel and commanders with their needed data during planned or unplanned disconnected operations.

Connectivity is constantly evolving and military activities have become more connected than ever before. A robust digital backbone lies beneath these operations, offering the vital network needed to achieve a state of total asset readiness, a process that can bind thousands of data steps and methods together to keep military organizations well-informed on the whereabouts, status and availability of their equipment and personnel 24/7.

Disruption to this connectivity can put immediate strain on the digital backbone and threaten mission success, particularly during a crucial moment of service when a commander makes a decision to deploy an asset for a specific mission. An accurate picture of readily available equipment is therefore imperative for the deployment of key assets – without it, the success of the mission and even the safety of military personnel can be jeopardized. These moments of nonconnectivity truly demonstrate the importance of uninterrupted and near-real-time information exchange during military operations.

Planned or unplanned disconnected operations – connectivity of the highest strength

“Anywhere operations” as listed by Gartner is an emerging strategic technology trend for 2021, defined as “an IT operating model designed to support customers everywhere, enable employees everywhere and manage the deployment of business services across distributed infrastructures.” The trend indicates that such operations are becoming widely adopted across many industries – more so than they ever have been before.

From a military perspective, a recent study from RAND Corporation – an American nonprofit global policy think tank created by the Douglas Aircraft Company to offer research and analysis to the United States Armed Forces – illustrates this perfectly in the context of the Air Force. The study focuses on a set of emerging concepts for “distributed operations” that call for a larger number of air bases to complicate enemy targeting and use a more decentralized command-and-control approach.

In direct response to increased air and missile threats posed to larger main bases, the study notes that the U.S. Air Force is shifting toward concentrating on conducting missions from smaller forward operating locations or bases (FOBs). In order to maximize ­visibility, there needs to be consistent connectivity between a main operating base/center (MOB) and these distributed FOBs. RAND then rightly highlights that any disruption to this connectivity by enemy attack on long-distance communications systems, including satellites and long-distance fiber, can seriously compromise mission success.

Among these unexpectedly disconnected scenarios there are some planned instances where units will conduct operations in “dark mode.” A small percentage of top-secret military operations will, by their sensitive nature, take place in a disconnected environment, without outside-world connectivity and with a purposely minimized electronic signature. For some military units, planned instances of disconnected operations is part of the normal day-to-day business. Think a navy frigate sailing in the South Pacific where it operates in a disconnected, intermittent, and limited bandwidth mode for much of its detachment unless using satellite.

The key requirement for both unplanned and planned disconnected operations scenarios is the ability to aggregate, update, and resync data back to a MOB as soon as connectivity is reestablished – mitigating the impact of any outage.

It could mean mission failure if data irregularities persist

When units are deployed in limited forward operating environments, it can become challenging to bring full software systems such as those designed for asset maintenance onto the frontline – thankfully most military organizations are able to do that when network connectivity is robust. But any break in connectivity can hinder communications among units (think requests for resupply) and possibly compromise the integrity of databases, maintenance software and decision support systems.

But supporting software is often interrupted when a network goes down. Militaries need the ability to continue operating a network at a moment’s notice, even when all outside connectivity is lost, and then incrementally re-sync information such as engineering and maintenance data, technical records, and more. Although this may sound simple, this is a very complex undertaking from a data architecture perspective.

Storing physical and digital asset data – consistency is key

Let’s take an aircraft as an example: When transferring an aircraft from a MOB to a new forward operating node, the aircraft is not only the physical asset being sent. Its logistics support material needs to move with it, from up-to-date technical records to physical spare parts.

During operations, the aircraft’s systems will probably be connected via internet, radio, satellite internet, or voice over IP 99% of the time – but it’s that 1% of time that it may spend disconnected that opens potential problems in data consistency. Without consistent information on what has taken place in the field, such as maintenance, the MOB or home station cannot gain a single version of the truth on the aircraft’s status and availability. This small drop in connection may limit a commander’s ability to make decisions, particularly if they’re making decisions about a mission from the other side of the world.

This scenario of course applies to many military assets, for example naval equipment, which commonly operates at huge scale and in disconnected environments. This scale is only set to increase, as current U.S. Navy plans highlight a force-level goal for an even more distributed fleet architecture, including between 382 and 446 manned ships and between 143 and 242 large unmanned vessels by 2045. (Figure 1.)

[Figure 1 | Naval data-communications equipment operates at huge scale and in disconnected environments.]

Data exchange: It’s all give and take

Flipping the scenario around, there will also be key equipment updates that will be communicated out from an MOB and need to be received by personnel in an FOB. Entire assets come with an allowable baseline configuration, which will be subject to change and updates on a regular basis. In defense operations, the Central Engineering Authority (CEA) creates and maintains the maintenance and equipment baselines, and baselines at autonomous bases must remain as up-to-date as possible.

Continuing the aircraft example, any changes to its allowable configuration or critical technical bulletins must be pushed outwards to all operational nodes. Depending on its current status, certain airworthiness updates may directly impact an individual aircraft’s safety and ability to carry out a mission, so the updates must be accessible for the personnel operating the aircraft on the front line.

Two-way data exchange ensures all parties are viewing timely and accurate information, and this data-driven approach directly translates into better strategic decision-making. The answer to total asset readiness in distributed operations doesn’t lie in quantity – for example, more maintenance personnel to keep assets running – but rather in quality data – consistent, accurate, and timely information to drive more efficient asset management.

Containerization supports secure data exchange

To effectively manage disconnected operations, the underlying software infrastructure requires the capability to aggregate, consolidate, and store data while providing physical and software-based hardening against attack. Incremental reconsolidation from supporting software is the most effective way to facilitate a two-way information exchange between an MOB and FOB.

Once an asset returns to connected status, supporting software must sync information both ways, establishing a feedback loop to ensure an accurate and up-to-date single version of the truth down to the individual asset level. The other critical requirements to keep all parties updated when information is resynced are scale, security, and user experience.

This is where containerized architecture is key and involves bundling an application together with all of its related configuration files, libraries, and dependencies required for it to run in an efficient and bug-free way across different computing environments. Containerization meets the challenges of scale, rapid deployability, and being self-contained as secure, standalone software.

Three golden software rules to support data in disconnected operations

Military operators require purpose-built software to address the unique challenges of operating from remote and austere environments in the following focus areas:

  • Asset compliance and baseline updates: Supporting software should be able to address the core requirement needed to transfer assets between nodes for military operations, including asset transfers (air vehicle and loose inventory), baseline transfers along with the asset, and technical records transfers along with the asset. Workflow management functionality should prepare deployments and imports of assets from MOBs to FOBs and inversely from FOBs to MOBs. When assets are transferred, baseline updates and a portion of their technical records are automatically transferred. Conversely, bases can view the batch number their location is using and request an update from MOB or CEA.
  • Technical records repository: In situations where technical records for an asset are created in multiple internal or external systems, command or central maintenance management requires an aggregated view of an asset’s technical records. A technical records repository (TRR) should enable planners, reliability departments, and others to view the full set of historical records for maintenance performed and usage accrued on an aircraft or component. Bases that perform maintenance can keep the central TRR current by sending technical record updates through the built-in workflow manager feature.
  • Integration with core maintenance system: This disconnected operations functionality should be fully integrated into core maintenance-management software, eliminating the need for data duplication. This integration delivers a complete spectrum of military equipment maintenance management in a single integrated business platform.

Total asset readiness

Carrying out disconnected operations requires stringent software standards; only when these have all been accomplished can military organizations be confident that equipment transparency between commanders, frontline personnel, and maintenance centers is guaranteed. Mission success or failure relies on the underlying software architecture supporting the deployment of military equipment in these crucial moments of service, no matter the connectivity status.

 

Matt Medley is senior product manager at IFS, ensuring that solutions meet the demanding needs of defense service and support organizations, defense manufacturers, and defense operators and helps bring these solutions to market. He has served as a consultant, program manager, and project manager in aerospace and defense organizations. Matt – a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and a certified flight instructor – served for 12 years in the U.S. Air Force, achieving the rank of major and compiling 2,500 flight hours in the C-130 aircraft. He holds an MBA from Kennesaw State University and a master’s degree from Webster University and is a certified project management professional.

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