If you own a smartphone, you’re familiar with apps that allow you to remotely lock or unlock your home’s doors, turn on a garden irrigation system or perhaps monitor your home’s surveillance cameras. Underpinned by a robust wireless communications infrastructure, this network — part of the Internet of Things (IoT) — works because every device uses the same rules or Internet Protocols for how it connects to the network and how it packages, addresses and routes data.
Warfighters operating in austere environments using disparate sensors and communication systems are hungry for such advanced networking. That’s why the Department of Defense is focused on creating over the next five to 10 years an Internet of Warfighting Things (IoWT). Sometimes known as the Internet of Military Things, this separate and ultra-secure network would model the robustness and reliability of the IoT and allow every military asset to communicate, in theory, with every sensor, regardless of service affiliation.
“The current challenge for the military is that they have to bring their current infrastructure with them,” explained Colin Phan, director of strategy for Northrop Grumman’s Networked Information Solutions Division (NISD). “In the past, platforms have had trouble communicating with each other due to services acquiring technology in silos. Today, the DOD is moving to an interconnected network that will make IoWT a reality for our warfighters.”
Mobilizing a Well-Connected Future
To make IoWT a reality, the DoD is currently undertaking a number of key initiatives with an effort called Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) sitting at the center.
“JADC2 aims to connect platforms and sensors from all military services — Air Force, Army, Navy, Marines, and Space Force — into a single network, accessible by all services,” explained Bruce Swett, a Northrop Grumman Fellow in NISD. “The goal is to take the commercial model of the Internet — the network, the computing, the AI — and bring it to warfighters so that they can get better information more quickly and make better decisions with a more complete understanding of what’s going on around them.”
The IoWT could also be used in conjunction with data analytics to predict the maintenance requirements of a fleet of military vehicles, which would reduce costs, increase the availability of these platforms and keep troops safe, he added.
“The major services are contributing to JADC2 by developing their own complementary advanced networking initiatives to link sensors and weapon systems across the tactical battlefield,” explained Colin Phan, director of strategy for Northrop Grumman’s Networked Information Solutions Division (NISD). Phan noted. These efforts include the U.S. Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System, the U.S. Army’s Project Convergence and the U.S. Navy’s Project Overmatch.
“If the services can connect their assets together — satellites, ships, planes, ground vehicles, etc. — and make them work together, that’s a force multiplier and helps the DoD maintain a strategic advantage in an age of data-driven conflict,” he suggested. “The goal is to overmatch adversaries’ capabilities by connecting all sensors, shooters and nodes together, doing things more intelligently to create a force that’s collectively more effective than individual platforms.”
Integrating Military AI
According to Swett, military AI will be a ubiquitous part of the IoWT.
“I think of the IoWT as comprising two main sides: an intelligence side and a decision-making or battle management side,” he explained. “If the warfighter wants to know what’s happening across a lot of manned and unmanned platforms equipped with sensors, we’ll want them to be talking to each other, and we’ll also want to put military AI at the edge so that those platforms can aggregate and process information locally, then send appropriate alerts to the warfighter.”
Swett believes that these military AI algorithms will be analogous to algorithms used by top commercial AI providers to suggest additional content based on a consumer’s purchasing or viewing habits. However, these IoWT algorithms will be geared toward making “recommendations” to help warfighters understand and make better decisions in complex battlefield environments.
Bridging Reality With Gateways
According to Phan, one of the key challenges of developing the IoWT will be integrating dissimilar platforms and sensors into a transparent, interconnected network architecture.
“In the same way that smart homes are now using wireless technologies such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and smart hubs to allow these technologies to communicate with each other, the military has systems called gateways that translate tactical data from disparate systems and share it securely among warfighters operating in different domains.”
“A gateway can either be a separate platform or it can be incorporated on an existing platform to make it interoperable with systems it was not originally designed to communicate with,” he said. “It can provide a very effective interface between older and newer systems.”
Phan points to the Northrop Grumman-developed Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) as an example of a separate gateway platform that supports the DoD’s move to JADC2. BACN has been in service with the Air Force since 2008; it’s a high-altitude, long-endurance airborne communications gateway that delivers interoperable voice communications and data translation between pilots and ground units—regardless of military branch.
Shifting to Advanced Networking
Phan also expects the IoWT to reflect a DoD shift away from relying on conventional, standalone systems in favor of interconnecting platforms, nodes, sensors and other battle assets.
“In the past, the DoD might have opted to use a front-line fighter jet equipped with exquisite sensors to perform a mission,” he observed. “Under the evolving vision for IoWT, however, they’re now asking ‘What if we network this fighter with another fighter or even an unmanned platform? Can we achieve the same or better level of performance with a networked approach instead of that standalone asset?'”
The DoD’s priority in the near future, he believes, will be to connect those sensors that will enable U.S. and allied forces to maintain a strategic advantage in future conflicts.
Repurposing Proven Constructs
Swett expects the IoWT to take advantage of many proven constructs from the commercial IoT, even though it will be operating with far more stringent security standards. He points to the IoT’s now-common crowdsourced ride-sharing models, for example, as a way to pair up commanders with nearby battlefield assets.
“Let’s say I’m a commander who needs to create a video or still image of a local area to see what’s going on,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be cool if I could call up my local airborne asset dispatcher and identify platforms that plan to pass over my target location in the near future and that could shoot and send me the desired imagery?”
This crowdsourcing example illustrates another vital aspect of the IoWT that should not be overlooked: human-machine interactions.
“If we’re using military AI algorithms to do predictive maintenance on a bunch of military vehicles, we’re going to need some sort of web page to display the output of those algorithms for humans,” Swett proposed. “That’s where we’ll have to move from machine-to-machine communication to machine-to-human communication and start asking ourselves: Who should get the information? Is it timely? Is it correct? And is it easily understandable?”
Making the IoWT A Reality
Northrop Grumman is investing today in the future of the connected battlespace. We are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible to bring forward new and emerging capabilities, and expanding the functionality of existing technologies to enhance mission effectiveness to help bring the IoWT to life across the battlespace.
Northrop Grumman is pioneering innovation as we seek to solve the world’s most challenging problems. To ensure our warfighters have the confidence to make real-time decisions in complex environments, we are enhancing our capabilities with human-centered machine intelligence to take advantage of emerging digital system capabilities. Many of the company’s innovative technologies integrate leading-edge solutions into distributed, dynamic mission systems that are essential to our national security.
Northrop Grumman’s advanced networking offerings provide the foundation needed to implement the use of the advanced IoWT applications such as secure and ethical artificial intelligence, real-time situational awareness, machine learning, cloud computing and connected battlefield applications, among others.
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