What Is The Best Network Architecture For Today's Modern Military?

18 June 2014

Navy-SEAL-WallpaperQuiz: What communications/network architecture is the best for today's modern military? (answer at the bottom of this post)

Recently, I watched a movie on the plane on my way home from California. I usually don't do this, but it was a brand-new American Airlines jet with a tablet-based in-seat entertainment system and I had to try it out. The movie was Lone Survivor. I had read the book, and the movie was basically an abridged version with surprisingly little to no Hollywood additions to jazz up the story. If you haven't seen the movie, the story goes something like this:

(Spoiler alert! If you plan to watch the movie, you may want to skip this post.)

A small team of Navy SEALs is sent deep into enemy territory in Afghanistan to take out a particularly unpleasant al Qaeda leader hanging out with the local Taliban. The mission goes awry when a group of goat herders spots them and sends an army of Taliban fighters crawling down the mountains to attack. The SEALs do an impressive job holding them off (read the book to get a sense of how much these guys can endure), but there are just too many Taliban fighters. Only one SEAL survives.

This is a pretty common mission for Navy SEALs and special operations forces in general. How often have you heard the phrase, "We are striving for a smaller, more nimble and more lethal fighting force"? Sending small teams of highly trained, highly lethal fighting forces deep into enemy territory is the future of modern warfare. You will hear this often if you attend the various military communications and networking conferences. Speakers propose that a high-speed, robust and secure network is critical to the success of the more nimble future fighting force. Lone Survivor highlights exactly why this is the case.

The main reason the SEALs' mission went so horribly wrong was the fact that they lost communications with their base. They were four men disconnected from the rest of the world. Their communications equipment did not work, and there was no way to reliably communicate with their command structure. Commanders also had no way to precisely locate the men. Given a secure and highly reliable communications infrastructure, things would have been much different.

The irony of all of this is that I watched the movie while traveling back from the San Jose headquarters of the world's largest networking company. Cisco's Internet of Things group had hosted a meeting for the partners who were helping them build the next-generation Internet—a highly connected world in which people and intelligent machines communicate over a high-speed, highly mobile and secure network. For two days, we discussed some of the exciting new technologies that enable the connected mine, connected factory, connected public safety infrastructure, connected city and, yes, the connected battlefield.

It appears that Cisco is betting the farm on the Internet of Things, or what they refer to as “The Internet of Everything”—a broader concept that goes beyond machines to include people and policies. They believe that the build-out of the Internet of Things will generate $14.4 trillion for the worldwide economy, which—given what I have been exposed to with GE's Industrial Internet—sounds quite realistic.

Think about how Internet innovation has changed your life over the years. The way we shop has completely changed. The way we consume media and entertain ourselves is fundamentally different. New ideas, education and knowledge are freely available to anyone who seeks them. We now take worldwide communications—via chat, voice and video—for granted. We expect much more from the product and services companies we deal with. The impact of all of this has been broad and far-reaching.

But the reality is that there are still many industries, people and companies that have not benefitted from this Internet innovation, and these are the companies that will generate that $14.4 trillion. While we have all been riding this fast-moving, dynamic wave of innovation, companies operating in the manufacturing, mining, energy, agriculture, municipality services and law enforcement  industries (among others) have, in many cases, been plodding along with little change.

Part of the reason that these industries have been slow to adopt Internet innovation is because it is not easy. Lone Survivor is a great example of the challenges involved in enabling the connected battlefield. Why did the SEALs have such a tough time communicating? First and foremost, they cannot use just any communications technology—it must be highly secure, not allowing enemy forces to detect the presence of the troops using them. The SEALs are mobile, and therefore they cannot tap into a reliable static communications infrastructure. They also operate in some of the harshest terrain in the world; wireless communications signals don't work very well in the wooded/mountainous terrain of Afghanistan … unsurprisingly. Finally, a small and nimble force is limited in the amount of equipment it can carry, and that equipment must be able to take a beating. If you see the movie, you will get a sense of the type of beating this equipment needs to withstand.

When building the Industrial Internet and the Internet of Things, we aim to get the right data to the right people at the right time. This may be vital data predicting the failure of a piece of factory equipment, or software used to optimize crops and livestock to feed the world's growing population, or tools to accurately pinpoint four Navy SEALs sent into the mountains of Afghanistan.

To achieve this, we collect and transmit large amounts of data to the cloud, where tools and services can crunch it into meaningful information. How much is "large amounts of data"? Well, a single gas turbine generates about 500 petabytes of data per day, and two terabytes of data is generated per drill head in an offshore oil rig per day. Not only are we talking about a lot of data, but these Industrial Internet applications may not have the luxury of high-speed, reliable and secure communication paths to shuffle all that data around.

There are a number of ways to address that last problem: new high-speed wired and wireless communications technologies, mobile-ad-hoc networking, new protocols, network management tools and more advanced encryption methodologies, just to name a few. However, the reality is that network connectivity can never be relied upon in the areas that the Industrial Internet will be deployed—particularly in the connected battlefield. So we will need to push both network and compute to the very edge of the battlefield. Little pieces of the cloud data center will need to sit on the factory floor, out on the oil rig, in the back of a military vehicle or in the backpack of a soldier.

Cisco refers to this as "fog computing"—bringing the cloud closer to the ground, or closer to the network edge. Along with automation and analytics, this is an area particularly suited to the products and technologies GE Intelligent Platforms has to offer, such as rugged computers, sensor processors and networking gear. Actually, I don't think there is any other company besides GE with the ability to cross-pollinate technology, products and services throughout the Industrial Internet, from factory floor to oil rig to copper mine to water treatment plant ... to battlefield.

So, the answer to the quiz: What is the best network/communications architecture for today's modern military?

The answer is simple, really—whichever one works.

Rubin Dhillon

Rubin has spent over 20 years in the embedded computing world, in roles ranging from support to sales to product management and even garbage collector. He experienced the huge growth (and crash) of the telecom industry, and he's spent time dabbling in medical, industrial, transportation and military applications. Rubin figured he has so many stories to tell, he should get into marketing and so he is now our VP of Marketing. Connect with Rubin on LinkedIn and he'll explain the "garbage collector" story…