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Diving deeper into Link 16 platforms - Are you considering the true through-life costs?

Posted on: 
September 9, 2019

The United States military has announced that all Link 16 systems worldwide are mandated to be modernised by 1st January 2022.  This will mean that every existing Link 16 radio (terminal) will require updating or replacing to operate in the network.  This ‘modernisation’ will bring a number of significant enhancements including changes to Link 16 cryptography and the introduction of Link 16 Enhanced Throughput (LET), Concurrent Contention Receive (CCR) and Concurrent Multi Net 4 (CMN-4); all collectively known as Link 16 Modernisation.

What choices are there for Link 16 platforms and their users?

In essence, every Link 16 platform now needs to upgrade or replace their Link 16 terminals, update their terminal integration software, network design software, Initialisation Data Preparation Facilities (IDPF) and, in some cases, even host Combat Management Systems (CMS), in addition to retraining their users and managers by the beginning of 2022.

There are three options within the Link 16 Modernisation programme, each of which must carefully consider the requirements and environments of the operating platform:

Keep existing MIDS Low Volume Terminals (LVT) and buy Block Upgrade 2 (BU2) kits. This is the cheapest option on face value. It will not offer the range of enhancements of those available with MIDS-JTRS and is less future-proof, but presents less challenge for integration with legacy and soon-to-be-delivered platform systems.

Purchase new MIDS LVT BU2 terminals. This option offers the same capability benefits as the previous option, but offers a greater likelihood of meeting the Link 16 operational deadline for the introduction of crypto modernisation.

Replace the terminal with MIDS-JTRS. This option delivers core Link 16 capability, with the full range of Link 16 Modernisation enhancements as well as a built-in growth path to future Tactical Data Links (TDL). It is aimed at next-generation architecture and is, to a large extent, a physical, fit-form-function replacement for in-service MIDS-LVT’s. This option does, however, pose significant technical integration and information exploitation challenges for many Link 16 platforms, across domestic and international networks. A key challenge here is the physical interface between the host platform and the MIDS-JTRS platform itself.

The Multi Domain Operational context makes it harder

QEC - Image from BAE
Ajax Vehicle - Image from Defence Imagery
F-35A Lightning II- Image from Wikimedia Commons

The complexity and, often, misunderstanding associated with Link 16 modernisation is not dissimilar to the replacement of Class 1 and Class 2 terminals with MIDS in the 1990’s. Some of the challenges presented by Link 16 Modernisation remain the same, but many are new – networks are now faster, bigger, more complex and more congested than ever before; new manned and unmanned Link 16 platforms are arriving quicker than ever before.

Platform interoperability has never been more critical and the interoperability requirement has never been harder to define.  Multi-domain operations across land, sea, air, space and cyber demand effective C2 at varying levels of classification, but with higher degrees of mission assurance than ever before.  The emergence of evolving technologies including space-based Link 16 Networks, and the introduction of highly capable Link 16 platforms such as the F-35, Apache AH-64E helicopter, the Ajax land vehicle, the Type 26 Frigate and the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft increase the desire to move greater volumes of data more freely around the battlespace; decisions on information exchange protocols and methodologies that are taken now must be future-proofed to prevent constraints and risks to likely operations.  These are UK projects of course and the interoperability challenge quickly becomes exponential, when each Link 16 nation adds its new and legacy capabilities into the mix.  Consequently, platform decision makers are looking to have evidence-based options available to them that allow programmes and projects to continue rather than delay or stall – this exposes the criticality of undertaking Link 16 Modernisation with partners who have been exposed to the risks and opportunities associated with each possible solution.

The questions we should be asking

With over 12,000 platforms across 30 nations operating Link 16, there is clearly a considerable technical and financial challenge. Although many nations have planned and budgeted for terminal upgrade/replacement, most have not considered the true through-life cost of each of the above options from a platform specific point of view. This raises a number of pertinent questions: Have we budgeted for the integration of these new terminals/enhancements on each platform type? Have we budgeted for the testing of integration, implementation and interoperability? Is operator/maintainer training factored into our budget?  

Act now to be fit and ready

The path to modernisation is filled with risk, challenge, and complexity - all too great to ignore and requiring careful assessment at the concept, operational, technical, and testing levels. A successful transition will greatly improve operational capability and interoperability, and will ensure your systems and platforms remain serviceable and competitive in a congested battlespace.

None of this should be a surprise; the challenges have been discussed and debated for a number of years. But there is considerably less time now before the modernisation deadline and the pressure created by the interoperability requirement and the full costs of integrating modernised systems will continue to grow. We urge the Link 16 Platform owners and integrators to start the work now – the good news is that there is still time but this must not be squandered.  Swift action is required if users are to minimise risk to operational capability and take full advantage of new opportunities.

3SDL has considerable expertise in the enhanced system design, integration and interoperability testing and operator/maintainer training that is required for the Link 16 modernisation program. We will be introducing our new services and the thinking that can get us all fit and ready for the change at IDLS 2019.

See how 3SDL are getting Fit and Ready for Link 16 Modernisation.

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