Combat Electronics
May 15, 2012

A decade of combat transformed the electronics in armoured vehicles. In addition to voice radios and intercoms, tanks and tactical vehicles now carry a wide and growing range of specialized electronics, including Battle Management Systems, jamming devices to defeat Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), precise navigation systems, sniper detection ­systems, video systems, among many others.

On today’s battlefield, an armoured vehicle is at the centre of a cloud of communications – voice, video and data signals stream to and from other vehicles, dismounted soldiers, unmanned and airborne sensors, while onboard systems constantly monitor and report vehicle diagnostics and ­performance. The next generation of Canadian Army armoured vehicles will carry new and upgraded C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) equipment to cope with that flow of information and convert it into actionable intelligence.

The Canadian Army’s Land Command Support System (LCSS) integrates Command, Control, Communications and Computing (C4) and Intelligence Surveillance Target Acquisition Reconnaissance (ISTAR) capabilities. The Land Command Support System Life Extension (LCSS LE) project is moving this ‘system of systems’ into the future. That means making the most of the past, in the form of existing equipment. Iris Digital Communication System and the Tactical Command and Control Communication System (TCCCS) form the land force communications backbone. In continuous development for 15 years, TCCCS/IRIS has generated proven technology that other countries have adopted.

2002 – Two Medium Logistics Vehicles carrying fuel, food and water make their daily supply round of the observation posts on the defensive perimeter of Kandahar International Airport.

Now the production lines that built TCCCS / IRIS tactical vehicle network equipment are closed down. Existing TCCCS/IRIS equipment cannot reach the data speeds needed to move information between radios, data terminals and sensors in the vehicle platform. LCSS LE will be acquiring new equipment for the future fleets as they come into service, but interim fixes will add to the TCCCS/IRIS capabilities already fielded, to improve the links between vehicle crews, static headquarters and commands, and sensor and intelligence services. The networks on existing vehicles use proprietary standard that work with TCCCS/IRIS equipment, but open standards are needed to interconnect with newer devices. A new Tactical Vehicle Network will be built around newly designed Communications Selector Boxes to bridge old equipment built on proprietary standards so that it works with and new equipment using open standards.

Moving into the future, the LCSS LE project will buy Satcom-On-The-Move terminals to support Battle Command On-the-Move, providing mobile LCCS services to commanders now restricted to fixed headquarters. Beginning in 2014, these terminals are scheduled for installation on 100 combat vehicles. Under Project Mercury, Canada is now a participant in the US-managed Wideband Global Satellite Communications System, replacing commercial satellites. Nations using the system have access to fast, secure communications in a growing ‘constellation’ but satellite communications is not a silver bullet. As with any non-wired network, there will probably be some limitations on bandwidth and hardware and software is fine-tuned to use it most effectively. At the vehicle end, it will take some work to ensure good recovery for communications that are interrupted by terrain or other obstructions. There will probably be some issues around fitting new equipment into spaces that are already crowded, because as systems were identified as Urgent Operational Requirements for Afghanistan, they were procured and installed quickly. One result was controlled chaos, as technicians scrambled to find the space and power for new equipment and soldiers modified it on the spot.

New systems grafted onto existing networks not only demanded more electricity, sometimes at the expense of existing systems, they gave off unexpected heat. Digital electronics have followed Moore’s Law, by doubling the number of transistors on a computer chip every two years, so equipment can decrease in size and still deliver equivalent capability, but the number of capabilities designers want to build into armoured vehicles has been increasing as well. Designers are now focusing on reducing heat, eliminating redundancy and saving space by cutting duplication. Instead of having dedicated keyboards and monitors for every function, for example, operators can select and switch to the capabilities built into each piece of equipment and shared across the network.

Along with the HUMS (Health and Usage Monitoring System) that manage the vehicles themselves, on-board networks will be integrating more complex navigation and weapons systems, monitoring more sensor feeds and carrying traffic from more radio channels. The DND document, Future Security Environment 2008-2030 anticipates “prolific and unattended sensing, robotics, autonomous combat vehicles, ‘constellations’ of mini-satellites, autonomous networks, smart weapons, real-time language translators, bio-identification and facial recognition, and seamless command and control.”

Integrating these new capabilities into the Land Command Support System may not be a simple matter of 'plug and play' inside the vehicles. They could require a higher degree of engineering earlier in the vehicle design process, and beyond that, greater guidance about plans for future C4ISR capabilities. Armoured vehicles already give soldiers secure transportation to and from their missions, and firepower and presence while they carry them out. Tomorrow’s armoured vehicles will be communications hubs for dismounted soldiers, providing storage, processing and analysis for the data they collect, and supporting uninterrupted communication in chaotic environments.

Richard Bray is FrontLine’s Senior Writer
© FrontLine Defence 2012