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Wirelessly Into Battle

If you want to read a cool story about night-camouflaged marines wading ashore along Iraq's tiny stretch of Persian Gulf coast, silently ICQing each other with their PDAs over a portable Wi-Fi network, it's not going to happen. Not yet anyway.

The Office of Naval Research, through something called the Littoral Combat (LC) Future Naval Capability (FNC) Program Office, is examining the potential of Wi-Fi with assistance from Washington-based company Consulting and Engineering Next Generation Networks (CenGen) Inc.

According to CenGen's press release, they're "evaluating and working closely with several programs of record to introduce secure wireless connectivity into the Navy and Marine Corp." One of the most promising of the technologies being investigated is Harris Corp.'s SecNet secure Wi-Fi system.

However, according to Ruth Shearer, command and control enabling capabilities manager with the LC-FNC, the Navy and Marines are a year or more away from deploying Wi-Fi in the field of battle. "Our transition strategy is to [deploy it] in the 2004 to 2006 time frame," she says.

The project, while clearly not as shrouded in secrecy as one might expect, is nonetheless protected by the natural camouflaging effect of military English. Couple the army's love of acronyms and novel syntax with the high-tech industry's equally passionate regard for obfuscating jargon and you have a lethal combination.

To clarify, littoral means basically "of the shore." The Littoral Combat program investigates new ways the Navy and Marines can operate on shore. It's one of 12 such programs under the Future Naval Capability program. Within it, Shearer explains, there are several "product lines" -- technological capabilities under investigation -- and within them, many "products," of which secure wireless data is one.

Shearer's group is investigating three main applications. One is to provide wireless networking inside ships. The big benefit here is that it will save ripping frigates and destroyers apart to wire them for Ethernet -- a difficult business, she says.

On the other hand, how well is Wi-Fi likely to work inside the steel hull of a ship? That's one of the things Shearer's program is hoping to scope out and document.

On board Wi-Fi WLANs would allow maintenance technicians equipped with wirelessly enabled "wearable PDAs" to roam about the ship and stay in contact at all times. "They really can't be tethered," Shearer notes. Now they can't keep in data contact when working remotely. The wearable PDAs could improve technicians' productivity just as wirelessly connecting mobile technicians in industry does.

The LC-FNC group is also experimenting with using wireless for ship-to-shore and ship-to-vehicle data communications, but its main focus is the simpler problem of equipping Navy and Marine "tactical command posts" on shore. These could be tents with portable furniture and men and women with laptop computers, or a military vehicle such as a Humvee, Shearer says. Workstations in these command posts are currently linked using Ethernet cabling and routing.

Mobility is definitely one big advantage of wireless. Officers working at a command post would not be tethered. They could walk around, including outside, while staying in constant data contact -- which as Shearer says, "increases their situational awareness," so they can look around and better see what's going on.

The big advantage though is that wireless gear is lighter, takes up less room and is easier and faster to set up. The "reduced footprint" is an important benefit both on board ship and on shore in forward command posts, Shearer says.

So what's so difficult about this? Why can't the Navy move faster on deploying the technology?

"The implementation of wireless technology has not been characterized yet," Shearer says. "Performance hasn't been documented, the effects on other [Navy] applications has not been documented. What is the technology appropriate for, what is it not appropriate for? What are the impacts of high-level packet loss, for example? What else needs to be considered -- such as power amplification?"

This is more than just bureaucratic meticulousness. Failure of a wireless data communications system in the battle field -- or worse, the failure of its data security systems -- could be catastrophic. Shearer's program, she says, is about "risk reduction." Her group is doing work that will eventually be applied in a number of other Navy and Marine Corp initiatives around wireless data communications.

The work involves both lab and field testing. Much of it is happening at the Marine Corp Tactical Support Activity (MCTSA) center at Camp Pendleton in California. Shearer isn't giving away much about progress on the testing but she does say it will involve installing a Wi-Fi LAN on board a ship with clients equipped with the Harris SecNet WLAN cards.

She hints meanwhile that the near-term objectives of her program may be just the tip of the iceberg for Wi-Fi -- or at least broadband wireless -- use by Navy and Marines. While our scenario of platoon sergeants instant messaging each other as they move into battle is well beyond the scope of current testing, it's not beyond the realms of possibility.

"The architecture for the Marine Corp right now is not that each platoon would have a [wirelessly enabled] PDA," Shearer says. "But there is no technological reason why that could not happen."