TEL AVIV, Israel – The Israeli army is planning initial prototype testing of a man-portable satellite communications system that allows front-line infantry to transmit and receive fully-encrypted voice, video and other bandwidth-intensive data.


Developed by locally based Gilat Satellite Networks Ltd., a global provider of Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) technology, and Elbit Systems, prime contractor for the Israeli army’s centerpiece digital modernization program, the GlobaLight two-way broadband satellite communications system is scheduled for testing by October, sources here said.


The tactical VSAT is a key element of the army’s future soldier program – which envisions each infantryman as a stand-alone sensor and shooting platform in a tightly interlinked command and control network. According to military and industry sources here, the GlobaLight project has the potential to transform troopers into a type of fighting ground station, with immediate access to maps and video imagery now available only to higher-level commanders.


“The ability to transmit and receive satellite data at any time, from any place, will have a tremendous force multiplying effect,” said Hanan Gefen, a former Israeli military intelligence officer and former Gilat executive who helped initiate the transition of commercial VSAT technology to tactical military use. “In the coming year or so, once this mobile system becomes fully mature, I’m quite sure it will serve as the backbone of military command and control.”


According to the Israeli army’s development plan, initial versions of the GlobaLight terminal will be carried by individual troops or installed on light tactical vehicles, but will require their host platform to halt and remain in a stationary position for about 15 minutes in order to link up with a satellite’s transponder. More advanced versions of a fully mobile system should be ready for prototype testing in 2008, army and industry sources say.


“Adapting the widely available VSAT technology for military use is a new trend,” said Amnon Katz, Elbit’s senior director for international C4I systems. “The main challenge is to integrate these capabilities for troops on the move in a lightweight package that can sustain the harsh tactical environment. We’re not there yet, but we will be in the very near future,” said Katz, a brigadier general in the Israeli army reserves.


According to industry executives here, Gilat and Elbit began cooperative work on the tactical VSAT in 2003, and secured an initial development contract from the Israeli army early last year. The militarized antenna allows soldiers to receive data directly from aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles and other systems deployed beyond the front and transmit it back to headquarters and other command echelons.


“In this way, the individual soldier becomes not only a shooting platform, but a sensor as well. He is not only an efficient combat node in the overall net, but a valuable source of intelligence for those making decisions at the higher levels,” Katz said.


In a Jan. 9 interview, an Israeli army program official said the service plans to deploy its first fully digitized infantry brigade by the end of the year. He noted that lessons from
‘s recent war in
underscored the need to extend secure broadband communications beyond the military’s terrestrial-based network to forward-deployed forces.


“The war demonstrated a huge gap between the [command and control] capabilities of the higher echelons and those at the battalion level. The technology we managed to bring from fixed command headquarters to temporary command posts must now be extended deep into the field,” said the army program official.


According to the officer, the army’s Infantry Advanced System – which includes the tactical VSAT as a critical component – will provide battalion commanders, platoon leaders and ultimately the individual soldier with the same live-stream video and other capabilities currently available only to higher echelons.


Military and industry sources here said deployment of the militarized, man-portable VSATs should help reinvigorate the warfighting ethos of Follow Me!, an age-old principle of take-charge frontline command that may have lost relevance in today’s high-tech era network-centric warfare.


In the recent
war, some Israeli commanders were criticized for not leading soldiers into battle, preferring instead to rely on the situational awareness provided by data from multiple sensors streaming into command centers. When asked last year if the Follow Me! principle was becoming less relevant in modern warfare,
‘s top military officer cited the benefits of virtual command and control.


“The effects of technology now allow commanders occasionally not to lead forces in the field,” Lt. Gen. Dan
Defense Forces chief of staff, told a Tel Aviv gathering in late October. “The notion of Follow Me! has not dissipated, and we need to preserve this as an ethos. But we can’t make it into a work plan in every situation,” said Halutz.


Warning that “nostalgia has its dangers,” Halutz added: “The question is, at what level is Follow Me! relevant? Does it mean the chief of staff? If so, that will return us to the days of Alexander the Great. At the level of platoon and company commander, there is no dilemma. In some cases, a battalion commander needs to be close, and in other cases, a brigade commander needs to be close.”


But army and industry sources associated with the future soldier program insist that once full situational awareness data from multiple sensors becomes available deep in the field, commanders at all levels will be less likely to remain behind in the comfort of computerized, air-conditioned, big-screen command centers.


“The tactical VSAT should encourage a different view of command and control, with a greater inclination toward leadership from the front,” said one retired general officer. “Once you have the capabilities that are flexible enough to provide the full situational picture, we should see a return to traditional tactics where the commander and the command post are located as close as possible to forward-deployed forces,” he added.


While reinforced, man-portable VSATs have been on industry drawing boards for at least a decade, it is only in recent years that military, government and international aid agencies have begun to eye the technology for forward-based operations. According to David Hartshorn, secretary-general of London-based Global VSAT Forum, technological advances in miniaturization and low unit costs are creating a potentially lucrative niche market for the VSAT industry.


“As with other consumer industrial products, the electronics used in VSAT systems have gotten smaller and more functional while increasing volumes have driven down price points. So from a technological and economical perspective – and given the growing demand for manpack capabilities – we’re seeing the emergence of new growth market,” Hartshorn said.


He added, “What you’re seeing occurring with the Israeli military is a good barometer of the demand for this kind of product…. Militaries are a very high-profile and obvious end-user for this technology, but at the end of the day, any organization with mission-critical communications requirements who must operate in a very communications-challenged environment is going to be very receptive to product like this.”