by Ian Coutts
When Thales Canada’s Neil Marshall, director of strategy, explains the problems that bedevil the Army’s command and control (C2) communications in the field, you get the feeling he’d like to give the boot to that adage about generals forever preparing to fight the last war.
In the 1990s, the Army was looking to replace its obsolete analogue C2 systems. The Iron Curtain was gone, but its influence remained. So, he says, “We designed a digital system in the early 90’s that was designed around fighting a Cold War-type battle.
“Around the time we delivered that, Canada found itself deeply committed to Afghanistan, which was more counter-insurgency — large areas of operation, troops spread all over, intelligence-driven — and we found that the system we had developed for the Cold War wasn’t fit for purpose.”
The solution was to build a new C2 network, one that reflected these new realities. “By the time we fielded it,” said Marshall, a former signals officer, “we had more or less withdrawn large combat formations out of Afghanistan.”
Instead, the Army was now thinking about potential conflict featuring manoeuvre warfare against a near-peer enemy. As a result, “Canada is renewing its command and control once again,” he said.
We could do what we’ve done in the past — create something based on what we think we’re likely to face. But experience has shown us that when trouble starts, “we’re not going to have what we need,” Marshall said.
Thales believes it has a solution — the COBALT Mission Backbone C4ISR system. COBALT is what the company refers to as a “system of systems.” It’s an overused term, Marshall admits, but he means it in the sense where “Thales provides a core network onto which other systems can be deliberately bolted on, creating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Those systems “can be voice communications, data at the tactical edge, data at a higher headquarters,” he said. COBALT creates a spine — a mixture of hardware, software and networks working together — that can link them all.
That gives COBALT the flexibility to ensure that, when it comes to C2, the Army isn’t saddled with trying to fight the next war with the last war’s tools. In a counterinsurgency environment, it can be configured to work more as a tool for disseminating intelligence from a central source, while in a peer-to-peer battlefield environment, it might be used to share data to accelerate decision-making in a dynamic and fluid context.
To help COBALT do this, Thales is looking to a range of small- to medium-sized businesses to supply products that could be — and, in fact, some already are — plugged into the COBALT network. These companies are leaders in their respective niches, and Thales sees in them an infinite potential to innovate.
As an example of what they’re thinking, Marshall cites Tacteris. “They build a really cool planning software that has a way of synchronizing time and space that I have never seen before.” It’s self-contained, but Thales could provide the tools to make it interoperable with COBALT. “That would allow us to say to Canada, ‘Look, here’s a really good piece of software. If you like it, you don’t need to build a standalone system for it. it’s available on COBALT.’”
Drawing on the expertise of such firms — and the company’s researchers internationally — Thales could add on imaging technology, map software – whatever the mission requires. “In the aggregate, and as part of a coherent system of systems, the whole becomes far more viable, attractive, and valuable to soldiers than standalone systems,” Marshall said.
As open-ended as it seems, one element that COBALT will share with previous command and control systems is the primacy of voice communications. “In the chaos, uncertainty and danger of operations, hearing the voice of your commander, that calming voice, will always be important,” he noted.
What COBALT would do, however, is remove the chatter about situational awareness that fills up that limited pipeline in operations. “If you could take that and make it data, it would take a fraction of a second to send and leave that voice channel free for other things.”
Thales is also looking at products that could be plugged into COBALT to make that spoken communication more effective — for example, software capable of real-time transcription or, and this is actually on the horizon, translation software that could render English into French or any other language almost as it is spoken.
What could this mean in operations? “If I had to sum it up in two words,” said Marshall, “I’d say, collaborative combat.”
Consider the case of a troop of armoured vehicles moving into a town. “It starts with the planning. They have to understand the terrain. That’s where COBALT comes in. It would give the troop commander the ability to pull higher-level intelligence into their system. They could take their orders and overlay them on a map that gets shared to everyone. It enables both blue and red force tracking. It’ll help you build basic situational awareness. Where are the other callsigns, including the dismounted ones? Where is everything?”
As the troop moved through that town, COBALT would let them share that awareness. “[If] you have a micro UAS (uncrewed aerial system) up, you’re able to share that. If you’re in contact and under fire, if someone sees a target but can’t engage, that information can be transferred to others,” he explained.
If the armoured vehicles were working with a tank, “I can target with my laser finder and pass that info onto the tank.” The collaboration is vertical as well as horizontal. “At the same time, you can pull from higher level assets that are watching in real time.”
There are obvious limitations on the bandwidth usually available to those units at the tactical edge, but “if there’s one vehicle that, for whatever reason, requires massive bandwidth — say it’s going to be in control mode — that’s fine,” he said. “We can take increased connectivity and push it down.”
When Thales demonstrated COBALT last year at CANSEC, Canada’s largest annual defence trade show, “we had great feedback,” said Marshall. Is the Army likely to adopt it? “I can’t announce any specifics, but there is definitely interest out there.” At this point, he pointed out, “it’s less about winning bids than trying to solve problems. We’re continuing to build out COBALT based on that feedback.”