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Link 16 modernisation – sustainment, replacement, or something more fundamental?

Posted on: 
December 5, 2018

Arguably the evolution of Link 16 over the last 40 years has provided commanders with their greatest force multiplier in the tactical communications domain. To many, it is mission essential equipment that enables battle winning situational awareness and decision making at the platform, C2 node and HQ levels. However, to most, the complexities of the system design, the interfaces and the networking requirements are largely masked by the user-friendly terminals that provide the front-end capability.

3SDL has been at the heart of Network Management and TDL development and sustainment for over a decade. Underestimation of the complexities of an integrated Link 16 system by capability sponsors and acquisition organisations has always been a concern to us. Those concerns are magnified by the approaching Link 16 modernisation ‘cliff-edge’ and the resultant forced migration to new terminals.

Our view is that Link 16 modernisation must be approached as something much more than a terminal sustainment or replacement programme.

Wholesale change will be required by all Link 16 users to address frequency allocations, data volumes and, most importantly, crypto modernisation. We’ve previously provided assessments of the technical challenges associated with each and those remain available as useful reminders – particularly for those responsible for system and network design, data preparation and processing and mission planning. The good news is that there is still time; the modernisation cliff-edge seems to be further away than originally thought.

To refresh your understanding please see our papers at this link.

That being said, any breathing space must not be wasted if users are to minimise the risks to operational capability and take full advantage of the opportunities that modernisation will bring. We urge the Link 16 community to start the work now. The hidden cost of not doing so could be a loss of mission critical capability. This requires integrated change programmes that consider everything from concepts to procurement strategies and system design to test and evaluation. And, of course, we must not overlook the impact that the incremental transition will have on ‘mixed-fleet’ operational and safety risk management – where the integrity and interoperability of Link 16 may be compromised by operating both legacy and modernised systems in the same battlespace.

Seizing the opportunities will require a coherent change programme approach, and this should include future-proofing.

At 3SDL, we also believe that changes to the operating environment of 2025 will impact on the way we think about and use TDLs – so we should perhaps add future proofing to the challenges of ‘modernisation’?

The implications and implementation of an upgraded Link 16 architecture do present an opportunity to examine the more fundamental factors and constraints that will influence future requirements.

Some of the questions that we feel will need to be addressed are:

  • Symmetrical Digital Warfare 2.0 Have we become too focused on making TDLs that were born into a symmetrical age work in an asymmetrical world? As symmetrical warfare returns to our consciousness, are there forgotten or ignored symmetrical warfare issues we need to revisit such as raid tracking?
  • Artificial Intelligence/ Machine Learning. How can TDLs benefit from Artificial Intelligence (AI)/ machine learning (ML)? Will AI speed up the demise of fixed format RF-based networks or simply re-direct it, or something else? Do we as a community have a common understanding of AI/ML and the opportunities? Could prescribed, pre-mission ‘filtering’ be replaced by AI running dynamic information distribution.
  • Digital co-ordination of international of emergency/ disaster relief. Globally there is an increasing need to contribute to disaster relief where timely coalition/ multinational information exchange can save lives. Do our TDL message standards need to change accordingly?
  • Radio Frequency Spectrum congestion. What happens if the UK builds and deploys another satellite-based navigation system tocompliment GPS and Galileo? Will that require more frequency remapping in the Air Navigation band? Are there any other likely issues with the spectrum, such as taxation?
  • Information Assurance. Will our current and future TDLs (networks, data, functionality, capacity) continue to be assured for confidentiality, integrity and availability? Given the increasing diversity of cyber threats how, where and when must cyber defences be applied?
  • Space Domain. Do we understand where airspace stops and space starts and the requirements of TDLs across the boundary? How will Space Situational Awareness be integrated with the Common Operating Picture? Experience shows it can take a decade to change a display system…
  • Fixed format versus variable length. Are 144 character texts appropriate in a Netflix world? Should we primarily focus on new TDL solutions now and forget short, fixed format messaging?

As TDLs evolve, now is the time to review the fundamental operating tenets.

The industrial politics of TDLs has always surprised the newcomers in its ability to drive investment and delay capability. For example, the UK’s implementation of a joint, integrated Link 16 solution could be seen as being 30 years late, and still counting? At 3SDL, we feel the moment is fast-approaching where the requirements of Link 16 modernisation force us to think more deeply - beyond a terminal replacement programme and also across the fundamental tenets of the future operating and acquisition environments that TDLs will need to evolve in. It’s been a good news story for Link 16 so far. But how will we ensure that the success of TDLs is sustained?

We could, whilst we have the time, review Link 16 modernisation requirements through a wider lens. One that captures the rapidly increasing influences of economics, congestion, hyper-connectivity and autonomy in space, cyber and the entire electro-magnetic spectrum. True force multiplication will only come if we design our new TDLs with these factors in mind.

If you’ve found this article interesting and want to share your thoughts with the 3SDL tactical data links team, we’d like to hear your views on our LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook pages - or direct to us at: marketing@3SDL.com.

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