The international test and training event known as Bold Quest is leveraging the Network Integration Evaluation to test new systems, and changing the game for NIE participants.
Bold Quest is a US Joint Staff sponsored event designed to allow coalition partners to come together and conduct training and testing. One such test is a system called Joint Operational Long Term Evolution Deployable Tactical Cellular System, or JOLTED TACTICS for short. The system, despite its long name, is functionally very easy to understand. Unlike other military communications systems that rely on specialized radio and satellite networks to function, JOLTED TACTICS uses a highly secured version of the now common 4G LTE cellular network to provide data, voice, and full motion video service to Soldiers in the field. “This is employing that Smartphone technology but over our own cellular network. So we bring that network to the battlefield. We’re not riding a commercial network infrastructure,” said Lt. Col. Scott Brooks, JOLTED TACTICS Technical Manager from the Joint Staff’s Command, Control, Communications, and Computers Assessments (C4AD) Division.
Just like a commercial cellular phone network, JOLTED TACTICS allows Soldiers using android-based handheld devices to talk, text, and share photos and video. Additionally the system can be used to run special tactical apps including those under the Army’s Nett Warrior program, allowing the devices to run navigation and mapping software, connect to friendly force trackers, and giving the ability for Soldiers to create visuals like a shared whiteboard, or generating virtual “chemlight” waypoints that can be placed on a shared digital map.
Other assets can also be tied into this system as well, giving Soldiers capabilities like live streaming video and data from a UAV. While NIE networks have similar capabilities, the nature of that network makes high bandwidth functions more challenging. JOLTED TACTICS by comparison leverages readily available technology purposely built to provide the end user with the fastest network possible.
As anyone with a cellular phone knows, there isn’t always a signal everywhere. To make the JOLTED TACTICS network work, the network is built on a highly mobile infrastructure. JOLTED TACTICS cell towers are mounted on trucks allowing the towers to be moved and keep up with the force, and positioned in the best location possible. For situations where a truck mounted system is still not enough, JOLTED TACTICS can mount it’s systems onto other platforms like UAVs to extend the range of the network further or reach over rough terrain like mountains and canyons. “As long as we’re inside of that bubble, I can talk to my forces… using either voice, jabber chat, send a free text, or message to them,” said Capt. Brandon Bettis, Bravo Company commander with the 1st Battalion, 35th Armor Regiment.
To test this communications network, Soldiers participating in the NIE as the opposing force, a catch-all term used to identify the bad guys in a military exercise, were issued android based devices that connected using the JOLTED TACTICS secure cellular network. “We’re actually testing the side of the system that is the network capability, so we’ve had a (communications) truck following us, and they can set up a boom tower which basically acts as a cell phone tower,” said Bettis. This allowed the network to undergo an early proof of concept evaluation without the expense of conducting a special test event. “It provides user feedback, whether positive or negative to enable us to continue to improve on the technology for operational usage,” Brooks said.
While the US Army tests similar systems as part of the Network Integration Evaluation held twice a year at WSMR and Fort Bliss, Bold Quest decided to save some money while making NIE 14.2 a little more interesting. Previous NIEs pitted members of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, equipped with new systems being tested and evaluated, up against an opposing force operating outfitted with very conventional systems and typically representing an enemy similar to those encountered in Iraq or Afghanistan. Thanks to the JOLTED TACTICS Joint Capability Technology Demonstration Integrated Management Team’s (JCTD IMT) efforts to demonstrate the operational utility of JOLTED TACTICS while utilizing the Bold Quest venue, conventional elements of the opposing force were equipped with a network similar to the NIE forces.
Attaching these test systems to the opposing force had an interesting effect on the kind of enemy they represented. While the US and its allies are developing highly capable networks, they aren’t the only ones, so by using a JOLTED TACTICS equipped opposing force, the enemy was a much more modernized force that’s more comparable to a modern conventional army than an insurgency. “Many of our enemies have advanced technology, so it increases the unpredictability of the forces that the US and its allies will go up against in the future,” Brooks said.
While based on commercial communications systems, JOLTED TACTICS does have various features to ensure the systems remain secure. “When you’re talking about security requirements as well as interoperability and integration with existing battle command systems, it’s critical that we protect our information. Whether that be voice, data transmissions or video,” Brooks said. While the network itself has various safeguards to prevent intrusion, each individual handset is also secured and can be deactivated remotely or tracked, ensuring that even a captured system will provide little information to an enemy, and may in turn be used to provide the enemy’s location back to friendly forces.
JOLTED TACTICS is a mature technology, but still in the early stages of the two-year JCTD process, with transition to Services (Program of Record fielding) decisions yet to be made. Future Bold Quest and Network Integration Evaluation venues may present opportunities to demonstrate and assess this “game-changing” capability.