Disconnected operations: monitoring military assets when ‘going dark’ 

As military organisations move to a more distributed operational model, connectivity and logistical issues need to be solved. Matt Medley, senior product manager at IFS, explains the processes, tools and software architecture required to keep military equipment, personnel and commanders in sync during disconnected operations.

Military operations, in line with the connectivity developments in the outside world, have become increasingly connected. Operations are underpinned by a robust digital backbone that provides the connectivity that allows military organisations to take a huge step towards total asset readiness, tying together the thousands of data steps and processes to provide information for operators to keep updated on the status, whereabouts and availability of equipment and personnel, uninterrupted and in real time.

But many such operations are, from a tactical and strategic planning point of view, becoming more widely distributed than ever before. We can see this in business. Gartner listed ‘anywhere operations’ as one of its top strategic technology trends for 2021, defined as “an IT operating model designed to support customers everywhere, enable employees everywhere and manage the deployment of business services across distributed infrastructures”.

For a military organisation, any connectivity interruption puts immediate pressure on its backbone, stretching it to near breaking point. At the critical moment of service, when a commander is planning a mission to deploy key assets, that person needs to have a totally accurate representation of the equipment at their disposal. Failure at this crucial moment could compromise mission success and potentially endanger personnel. It’s these periods of non-connectivity that the spotlight is now on.

// Matt Medley is a senior product manager at IFS

Maintaining a visibility/connectivity balance

A recent study from RAND Corporation, an American non-profit global policy think tank created by the Douglas Aircraft Company to offer research and analysis to the US Armed Forces, illustrates this perfectly in the context of the air force. The study focuses on a set of emerging concepts for ‘distributed operations’ that call for a larger number of airbases to complicate enemy targeting and use a more decentralised command and control approach.

In direct response to increased air and missile threats posed to larger main bases, the study notes that the US Air Force is shifting toward concentrating on conducting missions from smaller forward operating locations or bases (FOBs). In order to maximise visibility, there needs to be consistent connectivity between a main operating centre or base (MOB) and these distributed FOBs. RAND then rightly highlights that any disruption to this connectivity by enemy attack on long-distance communications systems

The key requirement in both unplanned and planned disconnected operations scenarios is the ability to aggregate, update and re-sync data back to a MOB as soon as connectivity is re-established.

There are also planned instances where units will be conducting operations in ‘dark mode’. A small percentage of top-secret military operations will, by their sensitive nature, take place in a disconnected environment, without outside-world connectivity and with a purposely minimised electronic signature.

For some military units, planned instances of disconnected operations are part of the normal day-to-day business. Think of a navy frigate sailing in the South Pacific where it operates in a disconnected, intermittent, and limited bandwidth mode for much of its detachment unless using satellite.

The key requirement in both unplanned and planned disconnected operations scenarios is the ability to aggregate, update and re-sync data back to a MOB as soon as connectivity is re-established, mitigating the impact of any outage.

The data consistency challenge

When units are deployed in limited forward operating environments, it can become challenging to bring full software systems such as those designed for asset maintenance onto the frontline, although most military organisations are able to do that when network connectivity is robust.

However, any break in connectivity can hinder communications among units (think requests for resupply) and possibly compromise the integrity of databases, maintenance software and decision support systems.

Supporting software is often interrupted when a network goes down. Forces need the ability to continue operating a network at a moment’s notice, even when all outside connectivity is lost, and then incrementally re-sync information such as engineering and maintenance data and technical records.

Although this may sound simple, this is a very complex undertaking from a data architecture perspective.

Storing asset readiness information at bases

Let’s take an aircraft as an example. When transferring an aircraft from a MOB to a new forward operating node it is not only the physical asset that is being sent. Its logistics support material needs to move with it, from up-to-date technical records to physical spare parts.

During operations, the aircraft’s systems will probably be connected via internet, radio, satellite internet, VoIP and so on for 99% of the time, but it’s the 1% of the time it may spend disconnected which causes potential problems in data consistency.

Without consistent information on what has taken place in the field, such as maintenance, the MOB cannot gain an accurate view of the aircraft’s status and availability, limiting a commander’s ability to make decisions, particularly if they’re making decisions about a mission from the other side of the world.

This scenario, of course, applies to many military assets. You only have to look at naval equipment, which commonly operates at a huge scale and in disconnected environments. This scale is only set to increase, as current US Navy plans highlight a force-level goal for an even more distributed fleet architecture, including 382 to 446 crewed ships and 143 to 242 large uncrewed ships by 2045.

Push and pull data exchange 

Flipping the scenario around, there are also be key equipment updates that will be communicated out from an MOB and need to be received by personnel in an FOB. Entire assets come with an allowable baseline configuration, which will be subject to change and updates on a regular basis.

In defence operations, the Central Engineering Authority (CEA) creates and maintains the maintenance and equipment baselines, and baselines at autonomous bases must remain as up-to-date as possible.

Continuing the aircraft example, any changes to its allowable configuration or critical technical bulletins must be ‘pushed’ outwards to all operational nodes. Depending on its current status, certain airworthiness updates may directly impact an individual aircraft’s safety and ability to carry out a mission, so they must be accessible for the personnel operating the aircraft on the front line.

Two-way data exchange ensures all parties are viewing timely and accurate information, and this data-driven approach directly translates into better strategic decision-making. The answer to total asset readiness in distributed operations doesn’t lie in the quantity – for example, more maintenance personnel to keep assets running – but in the quality of data: consistent, accurate and timely information to drive more efficient asset management.

Containerised architecture provides feedback loop 

To effectively manage disconnected operations, the underlying software infrastructure requires the capability to aggregate, consolidate and store data, while providing physical and software-based hardening against attack.

Incremental reconsolidation from supporting software is the most effective way to facilitate a two-way information exchange between an MOB and FOB.

Once an asset returns to connected status, supporting software must sync information both ways, establishing a feedback loop to ensure there is an accurate and up-to-date account down to the individual asset level. The other critical requirements to keep all parties updated when information is resynced are scale, security and user experience.

This is where containerised architecture is key. It involves bundling an application together with all of its related configuration files, libraries and dependencies required for it to run in an efficient and bug-free way across different computing environments. Containerisation meets the challenges of scale, rapid deployability and being self-contained as secure, standalone software.

Purpose-built software and the rule of three

Military operators require purpose-built software to address the unique challenges of operating from remote and austere environments in the following focus areas:

1. Asset compliance and baseline updates

Supporting software should be able to address the core requirement needed to transfer assets between nodes for military operations, including asset transfers (air vehicle and loose inventory), baseline transfers along with the asset, and technical records transfers along with the asset.

Workflow management functionality should prepare deployments and imports of assets from MOBs to FOBs and back. When assets are transferred, baseline updates and a portion of their technical records are automatically transferred. Conversely, bases can view the batch number their location is using and request an update from MOB or CEA.

2. Technical records repository

In situations where technical records for an asset are created in multiple internal or external systems, command or central maintenance management requires an aggregated view of an asset’s technical records.

A technical records repository (TRR) should enable planners, reliability departments and others to view the full set of historical records for maintenance performed and usage accrued on an aircraft or component. Bases that perform maintenance can keep the central TRR up to date by sending technical record updates through the built-in workflow manager feature.

3. Integration with core maintenance system

This disconnected operations functionality should be fully integrated into core maintenance management software, eliminating the need for data duplication. This integration delivers a complete spectrum of military equipment maintenance management in a single integrated business platform.

Only when these criteria are met can military organisations execute disconnected operations safe in the knowledge that commanders, maintenance centres and frontline personnel have a consistent picture of the status of the equipment at their disposal. When the critical moment of service arises to deploy a military asset in a disconnected setting, it’s the underlying software architecture that can be the difference between mission success and failure.