SA should leverage advantage from military datalink

Johannesburg, 28 Nov 2006

Saab Grintek is mulling ways to extract value from Link ZA, a proprietary military standard (MIL-STD) datalink it developed for the SA National Defence Force.

MIL-STD datalinks are to the military what commercial Internet protocols (IPs) are to business - a means of carrying masses of data, says Saab Grintek Communications CEO Vincent Scholtz. But commercial IPs are "enormously inefficient", Scholtz says. MIL-STD datalinks, by comparison, have to be robust, cope with drop-outs and be incredibly efficient as they are transferring data over military radio frequencies. Whereas a standard Ethernet can carry about 100 million bits per second (bps), radios can only carry about 1 000bps - yet the need is the same, namely the speedy delivery of voice, documents, attachments, images and the like.

SA is one of a select few military second-tier nations with its own datalink, and questions are now being asked about its future. These including whether it should be exported as embedded technology in radio communications equipment and whether the technology, or a derivative, should be provided to SA's key allies and partners for inclusion in their communications systems.

Link ZA, which cost "tens of millions of rand" to develop, is owned by the SA National Defence Force (SANDF). "It allows SA a fair degree of independence. We are not tied into foreign vendors and protocols we have no control over. Link ZA is something a lot of other countries wish they had," Scholtz says.

Local development

Peter Handley, a developer, says Link ZA, as a subject is "incredibly dry, but like an Internet standard, it makes an awful lot of stuff work."

SA set out to develop Link ZA after all efforts to obtain the technology failed. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) has been using MIL-STD datalinks, called Links 16, for some decades but have, to date, refused to provide the technology. "We asked and were told we would never be allowed access" to it, Handley says.

Local development started 15 years ago. "We set out to develop a Tactical Radio Data Communications Standard," says Handley. "This only addressed part of the problem, so we developed the Combat Net Interoperability Standard (CNIS), of which Link ZA is part. It is now mandatory for all SANDF communications equipment to be Link ZA compliant."

Although the standard is proprietary, it is not parochial, Handley adds. "Link ZA allows the SANDF to easily and seamlessly exchange information, which enhances command and control, it shortens the sensor to shooter time loop, thereby enhancing weapon control. It also boosts situational awareness by helping answer the critical battlefield questions of 'where am I?', 'where are my buddies?', 'where is the enemy?', and 'what next?'"

For the artillery, it has brought down the time from when an observer spots a target to when the first round is fired from 10 minutes to just 90 seconds. "You can just about hit a moving truck," says Handley.