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BAE demos DSL-esque military radio protocol

New pipe using existing gear

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Noted arms firm BAE Systems has announced lab success for its effort to use jet fighter data radios as Wi-Fi IP networking kit.

The current NATO standard for military data exchange is Link 16, a protocol set up originally to let military ships and aircraft exchange their tactical battle plots in near-real-time. Thus, for instance, patrolling fighters could see all the aircraft in a given stretch of sky as viewed by an AWACS radar plane - without ever needing to turn on their own radars, perhaps giving their position away.

The setup of the Link 16 protocol means that it's difficult to send ordinary IP traffic. But IP dominance in the internet and other popular applications means that this capability would be useful. What's more, Link 16 UHF radios are quite capable of 1 Mbit/sec throughput; but just 115 kbit/sec of this - or even less - is normally used.

The situation isn't unlike that of most homes before the broadband revolution. We all had a nice copper wire, which we used to carry a fairly limited voice or dial-up-data channel to and from the exchange. But much of the wire's potential capacity was unused.

Then came DSL, and the unused portion of the pipe was suddenly able to carry broadband; and here we all are. A bit of tweaking at each end, and everyone gets a nice new capability for not much investment.

Last year, BAE had a flight test of their new Flexible Access Secure Transfer (FAST)* software modification for the MIDS LVT-3 radio box mounted in the F-15 fighter. They showed that F-15s could use their existing Link-16 boxes to send IP data alongside the Link-16 channels.

That was nice; but Link-16 ships, aircraft and HQs across NATO use a variety of different radios. It was necessary to widen the compatibility. BAE and partners SRA now reckon they've done that, announcing successful lab hookups between a variety of Link-16 boxes modified with FAST-compatible software.

According to BAE, "the demonstration included Internet Protocol (IP) connectivity, Voice over IP, mobile ad-hoc networking, streaming video, and imagery."

Flight International reports that the radios used in the test indicate that F-15s, F-16s and F-18s could all be set up for IP data, using the full 1 Mbit/sec potential of their existing radios - at least during bursts. This means that a majority of the current US fighter fleet could use FAST; and suggests that in time, most US and NATO ships and planes could all tie into ad-hoc FAST IP nets, without needing much in the way of new hardware. In comparing FAST with home WiFi, theoretically able to do 54 Mbit/sec or more, one should remember that Link 16 is secure, jam-resistant and has much more range.

It's not a patch on the blistering data speeds achievable using the snazzy new AESA radars to do data networking, nor on various new military satellite plans: but Link 16 radios are out there already.

DSL on existing copper wires has been a huge success, unlike snazzy new gear such as 3G, WiMax et al. It seems at least possible that the military operator of the future will get his or her data via cheap ubiquitous FAST relays rather than expensive new gear built around AESA, worldwide satellite nets or whatever.®

*We'd have gone for Speedy Pipe Lavishly Upgraded Radio Throughput (SPLURT)

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