“Democratizing the Battlefield”: The Rover Experience


01/03/2012: The Second Line of Defense team in looking to the future of defense and key tools for the 21st century believes that the last decade is not prologue to the next.  Many important experiences and con-ops have emerged in the past decade, which provide key elements, which need to be harvested for the future.  The position of SLD is simply put: “Harvest the Best and Leave the Rest.”

The Rover experience is a core example of “harvesting.”  Rover has been a key element in the air ground revolution, in which ground elements led by JTACS, have been able to leverage various air-breathing assets to enhance mobility, security and targeted lethality.

In a wide-ranging discussion with Lt. Col. Charles Menza, who has been involved with Rover from the beginning, the evolution and contribution of Rover was discussed.  Secretary Wynne participated in the discussion from the SLD side and some of his overview comments have been published in a separate piece.

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Photo Credit: SLD 2011

From Menza’s perspective:

Rover has been a key element of democratizing the battlefield.  The General has the generally same picture as the guy in the field does.  And this rover essentially creates a horizontal command structure where any Special Forces Team or Captain or a Lieutenant on the ground or a Battalion Commander or a theater committee can call in the air strike commensurate with the Rules of Engagement (ROE). It’s really the story about the JTACS and how they into very effective fighting tools that we have used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Menza has provided a detailed briefing, which provides an effective presentation of the evolution of the program and its evolving capabilities.  This briefing can be found below, and readers are advised to go through the brief carefully to understand the program more clearly.Here we are going to focus upon the evolution of the program and the challenge for the next year.

The Rover System

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The program is not a program of record.  It started as a result of a demand from a Special Forces officer who saw an opportunity.  The officer saw the ability to feed video to the C-130 gunship and wondered why that capability could not inform ground operations, and to empower JTACs.

Menza: Almost 10 years ago Chief Warrant Officer Manuel saw the ability of push full-motion video initially to a AC-130 gunship which was taking a lot of fire when it was going over a target area because it had no Situational Awareness (SA). We then sent the Predator to provide that SA and then sent full motion video of the target area back to the AC-130 gunship.  He asked: Why can we not do this directly to the ground?

Then he meets the Major and now Lt Col Greg Harbins and he thinks it’s a great idea.  Then Harbs builds a connection whereby he can talk to the Predator.  Coming from a Panasonic hard book and a collection of gear from Radio Shack, Haves took the system to the field pinned all over him to try to make this connection work.  And it works.Harvs then goes with this idea to the Big Safari office to get the idea operational.  Big Safari is a prototype and innovation shop.  And over time, the Rover sets sold way beyond Big Safari’s wildest imaginations.

We have provided 7,000 sets so far with an additional 5,000 radios ordered by the Army recently. The initial Rover was a single downlink from the Predator to a single box.

SLD: And by pushing video down to a distributed ground element, you are changing the decision-making dynamic.  In effect, this disruptive technology is enhancing capabilities to have a distributed operational battlefield.

Menza: Right. It is disruptive technology because it is not in the Army’s or Air Force’s doctrine.  It’s not in any type of Army doctrine that you can get full-motion video down to the guys on the ground, they can make some decision, and they can fire.Commanders are feeling really uncomfortable with a lot of this.  But this is a technological revolution that can’t be stopped.

Much of the discussion then focused on the evolution of the program whereby the opportunity to develop two-way video links could re-shape how air platforms can be used and maneuver units can operate in determining targets as well as SA.  A key thrust of an interactive link is that the various air assets can function as airborne Wi-Fi hot spots.  The diversity of platforms also provides redundancy, which is part of a sensible approach to enhancing security.

The various waveforms currently require an airborne translator like BACN to provide an ability to manage the video and audio on the fly.  But over time, BACN can be eliminated and direct links possible.  Menza raised the possibility of the video link going directly to the helmet of the “grunt” on the ground.

Menza emphasized that the Rover revolution has gotten ahead of the platforms, which can embed Rover.

I can receive video and I can push video.  Here’s the problem:  since we are rapidly developing this, I could push video to what?  Nothing. This great product was way before its time. I’m still waiting for the airborne assets to be encrypted right now.  It’s coming slowly.  I’ve had this for three years waiting for type one encryption platform.  I’m logged and waiting for a platform I can push the information to and it’s not there yet.  We can do it very quickly. So the next phase is we are going to finally push video up.Another dynamic has been to leverage commercial technology to make the Rover system much smaller and portable.

Menza: I was getting feedbacks from the user, the users go, this is really great, it beats this, but you know what?  This thing breaks; I have to throw the whole thing away.  Make it smaller, make it lighter, and make it a better-rated system. The battery pack (seen) here, it’s made specifically for the Rover.  This battery, I pulled off a Harris radio and I can put this on there.  I could, this battery I can pull off a Tawas radio and I can put it on here.  So L3 makes this, doesn’t make batteries, it made it adaptable to put any battery you can possibly think of that the JTACS already carry, I can snap it on here.  And you know what?  If this breaks, I can throw this away.

And the Rover link has been used a key element of the airdrop revolution.

Menza: Because of Rover, we’re changing the logistics impacted.  The Commander on the ground can call for a pallet drop. And on his Rover, he gets the pallet drop and he can tell the pilot in the airplane, I’ll have the pallet drop here and he can get either a GPS pallet drop or he can follow the video all the way to the ground.  It’s amazing.An additional aspect of the outreach of the Rover revolution is the diversity of platforms, which can be part of the video network.

Menza: We are going to put this on ships now.  Because we can direct video from the aircraft down to the ship and we’re going to shoot this up to the U-2, U-2s going to go down to the Mach. And the XP47, which the USN believes, is the guardian at night and it will be Rover capable.

We are planning to push video from the Predator to the U-2 at 70,000 feet where it can function is a highflying Wi-Fi. The next phase of Rover is rolling out this next year.

Menza: We have been funded to network the airborne platforms and ROVERs and we have got to have this done in 12 months.  We are getting the staffing to designate this as a QRC (Quick Reaction Capability).