ANALYSIS: How telcos serve military communications

10 March 2016 | Gareth Willmer


The demand for data-centric military communications is driving opportunities for carriers to serve the defence sector. Gareth Willmer investigates.

Telcos military - 29
The defence sector is aiming to leverage cloud and big data
Throughout history, good, clear communication has always been at the heart of successful military operations. This has never been truer than in the modern-day world, when instant connection to other people and data from all over the globe is often available at the touch of a button.

The flip side to these big technology advances for defence organisations is that they also provide more tools for adversaries to use to their own advantage. This means there is a critical and ever-increasing need for access to the latest ICT networks and equipment to stay ahead of the game.

The surge in data and capacity demands in the military sector in recent decades is plain to see. At a security conference in Berlin last November, Karim Michel Sabbagh, president and CEO of global satellite provider SES, outlined how the amount of commercial bandwidth used by the US military has risen by up to 15,000% since the Desert Storm operation in the Gulf in 1991, from 100Mbps to 10-15Gbps.

Such needs are certainly not on the wane, despite budgetary constraints in the defence arena. Overall military spending is under pressure, but spending on ICT, capacity and cyber services is going up, says Bill Holford, VP for global defence at BT Global Services.

“The customer is absolutely identifying the importance of connectivity and capability from an ICT perspective.”

For communications providers that work with the military, the segment can constitute a significant part of their overall enterprise business, and contracts for services can be huge – so an ability to keep abreast of the sector’s changing requirements and anticipate future ones could be key.

Carriers cite the growing need for the defence sector to be more agile and obtain greater access to intelligence in an increasingly complex and uncertain conflict environment. This makes access to big data, as well as hyper-reliable and secure connectivity for multiple military demands, all the more critical. Holford uses the recent conflict in Afghanistan to illustrate how capacity needs have accelerated. “From a UK perspective, the Afghan campaign was a massive wake-up call. Whereas at the beginning of the campaign, people were operating on very low levels of capacity, as we have exited Afghanistan, there are fully fledged operational, fully connected, deployed environments,” he says.

He explains how the changing shape of military operations in the 21st century is having a major impact on how communications providers serve the segment, with the need to coordinate multiple different assets and work with a wide variety of forces from different countries.

“We’ve moved from a world where you had a small number of large conflicts going on to a world where you have a very large number of small conflicts going on,” says Holford. “You can’t necessarily predict where those conflicts are going to be taking place and how quickly they’re going to move.” This leads to a need to deploy at short notice and pre-provision capacity, as well as have more control over operations abroad from the home base.

And Holford points out that adversaries are becoming “massively better organised” in terms of using cyberspace, organising their own activities and launching cyberattacks. “To be able to predict what the enemy’s going to be doing, you’ve got to be able to interrogate that kind of environment as much as possible,” he says.

Complex demands

BT has worked with the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) for many years, a key part of which was an agreement in 1997 to create a multi-service platform known as the Defence Fixed Telecommunications Service (DFTS). This now connects 2,000 sites and carries about 750,000 calls per day for 225,000 users across the UK, Germany and Cyprus.

One way in which BT is helping the defence sector become more agile and cost-effective is by transitioning from the traditional bespoke nature of DFTS services to more affordable commercial off-the-shelf products adapted to serve military needs. Holford gives the example of devices that work as regular iPhones or Samsung phones, but have also been modified to carry military-level security settings with access to the MOD’s secure portal and its email and IM capabilities.

Meeting uncertain defence needs also means having a large amount of capacity to many different places in the world, with the aid of innovative technologies to reach areas that may lack coverage, says Holford. He describes how BT has seen success using Wifi capabilities mounted on ships or aircraft to flood the battlefield with connectivity.

He also talks of the potential for technologies such as the type of wireless-mesh infrastructure that the company is using in the oil and gas sector in collaboration with US-based company Rajant.

These new ways of thinking go hand in hand with a recently announced MOD initiative known as “Defence-as-a-Platform” that moves away from the old DFTS contract and is aimed at boosting the ministry’s ICT agility through an overhaul of its systems. The idea is to provide a unified common architecture for capacity, connectivity and applications, and then enable innovation through individualised services that run on top, including the use of more off-the-shelf products.

In line with this, the way that procurement operates is changing from single large ring-fenced contracts in the past to smaller contracts with more suppliers that can together provide requirements for particular services. “We’re looking at smaller contracts, shorter terms and more agile and faster procurement, to enable more innovation and more competition,” says Holford. From BT’s perspective, he says, this opens up the ability to provide services for projects that it would have been excluded from before.

Across the pond

BT also collaborates with the US Department of Defense (DoD) through its BT Federal division, which Holford says has been revitalised in the last couple of years with more skilled resources and access to adapted off-the-shelf portfolios like in the UK.

BT Federal is among eight companies that have just been awarded 10-year contracts worth up to a combined $4.3 billion to support the global protected telecoms infrastructure of the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), a combat-support unit for the DoD. The main focus is outside the continental US on a unified network that combines fibre, wireless and satellite technologies to enable the secure exchange of mission-critical communications at speeds of up to 100Gbps.

Contracts were also granted to divisions of AT&T, Verizon, Level 3 and CenturyLink, among others. Holford says it is too early to predict what will happen next under the framework, other than that BT expects it to lead to “good business”.

AT&T, for its part, says it is “proud” to have a position on the contract, but would not elaborate further. Like BT and other carriers, AT&T refers to how the huge acceleration in military data demands is significantly boosting the need for innovative commercial services to aid agility under constrained budgets.

Chris Smith, vice president of technology, AT&T Global Business – Public Sector Solutions, describes how the military sector is intertwined with many other business verticals that AT&T looks at in areas such as the internet of things (IoT). “A military base is very much like a small city. It has its own energy and water supplies, roads and transportation, lighting systems, communications systems, broadband and connected devices,” says Smith.

In this vein, AT&T is considering the possibility of bringing smart-city-type interconnected features into military bases, having just introduced a new framework at the start of this year to help cities better serve their citizens through IoT. “We think there’s great applicability from our smarter-city initiative onto the base so those can be more effectively and efficiently managed and maintained,” says Smith.

Given the huge number of military vehicles, he adds that IoT has significant scope in fleet management for the sector, while sensors can also be key for tracking containers and critical supplies in missions that involve multinational coalitions and humanitarian aid in often chaotic conditions.

And he talks of the need to address the challenge of quickly delivering communications to armies that are frequently on the move. Smith believes that technologies such as software-defined networking (SDN) can help provide such capabilities, with its ability to offer rapid and flexible bandwidth provisioning and application deployment.

Robust networks and clouds

Verizon is another carrier that believes in SDN as a way forward. “It takes us to a whole new level in enabling our customers to understand how they use their network and how dynamic their capacity is,” says Sonya Cork, vice president, defence and national security, in the public-sector markets segment at Verizon Enterprise Solutions.

“As we move to cloud, it really enables the whole concept of leveraging all of your assets to work for you in that environment,” she adds. Cork believes the new DISA contract will enable broader scope for new dynamic and resilient technologies.

But she stresses the critical importance of also having a robust and flexible backbone network that underlies these new innovations, with Verizon having a huge global infrastructure of 800,000 terrestrial network miles, investments in 80 submarine cables, and satellite offerings that allow it to provide widespread services through multiple technologies depending on the DoD’s particular needs.

Verizon was also among the industry’s first adopters of global mesh technology, with networks now across the Pacific and Atlantic that allow routing via alternative paths in the event of disaster – enabling it, for example, to continue operating after cables were severed in the giant earthquake off the coast of Japan in 2011.

Having reliable, strong networks is clearly a priority in the military sector, as is the need to meet the challenge of providing robust cybersecurity to ward off the threat of breaches. Again, Verizon sees its extensive global infrastructure as a central asset in identifying and preventing threats, giving it significant visibility because of the large percentage of worldwide traffic crossing its IP network every day. In cloud services as well, Verizon has been establishing systems to help it run secure government assets. In November 2014, the company received so-called FedRAMP authorisation, paving the way for the migration of mission-critical government workloads to the cloud in line with agencies’ security requirements. This ties in with Verizon’s highly secure purpose-built federal data centres in Virginia and Miami.

Cork says that “the DoD is still really dipping its toe in the water” in terms of moving services into the cloud and looking at how best to do this in a secure way, but there is “definitely an intent to go there” to ensure an optimal architecture for defence.

Solutions from space

From a network perspective, a clear challenge with providing military services is extending reach and enabling sufficient capacity where terrestrial networks are limited or unavailable. Satellites provide one potential option, through the new wave of high-throughput and low-Earth-orbit technologies.

Satellite provider ViaSat believes there is significant potential, for example, for the DoD to reduce its costs of space architecture and meet growing bandwidth demands by investing in new state-of-the-art satellite technologies.

The company refers to its high-capacity satellites, saying that one it launched in 2012 provides more capacity than all DoD satellites combined for a fraction of the cost – and has announced that work has begun on new satellites set for delivery in 2019 that will offer an enormous amount of extra capacity.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the US, which invests in breakthrough technologies for national security, says however that although satellite services can provide some capacity to remote areas, they cannot offer enough to support the volume of data generated by emerging intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems.

DARPA is therefore exploring how alternative aerial platforms could be used to deliver 100Gbps services. But Ric VanderMeulen, vice president for space and satellite broadband in the government systems division at ViaSat, believes that the massive advances in satellites makes them “more than capable of meeting the requirements of today” for the military. He points out that just one of the company’s new satellites will deliver more capacity than all 400 commercial satellites currently in space combined.

Meanwhile, last year SES announced plans with the Luxembourg government for the launch of a satellite in 2017 to provide government and military communications, under a new joint venture called LuxGovSat.

Sabbagh said that such public-private partnerships could provide “the answer in meeting the defence and security needs of the future” and be central to driving technological innovations.

But whatever the future holds for military communications, it seems clear that it will take a mix of technologies and continuous innovation to enable hyper-agile services and defend against security threats in an uncertain conflict environment.