Friday, June 29, 2012

I bet you heard of it, but do you know what Falcon is?

The NAO introduces the Falcon’s history as:

Increment A of the Falcon programme gained Initial Gate approval in July 2002, following an extended Concept Phase that considered two key options: buy off the shelf technology (Bowman and Cormorant) or buy new capability. It was concluded that a new capability was required.
Marconi Selenia (now Selex) and BAE Systems Insyte were selected for the 15 month Assessment Phase contract and to compete for the Demonstration and Manufacture Phase prime contract for Increment A. The Assessment Phase contracts concentrated on reducing the risk in the proposals for the Demonstration and Manufacture phase, including demonstration of components and subsystems to achieve an acceptable, affordable, low risk solution. In addition, Whole Life Cost estimates were refined. Bidders’ proposals for the Demonstration and Manufacture phase were submitted on 31 March 2004.

The procurement strategy endorsed at Initial Gate comprised four increments: Increment A provided for High Readiness Force (Land) and the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps; Increment B for UK divisions and brigades under armour; Increment C for Royal Air Force deployed operational bases; and Increment D for littoral warfare and deep support, including higher mobility. Increment D was then an unfunded aspiration.

During the later stages of the Assessment Phase in 2004/2005, a savings option removed funding from the first two years of the Demonstration and Manufacture phase, resulting in a review of the incremental procurement strategy. Two options were considered. The first was for a single programme that effectively would have combined all three funded increments. This would have necessitated the project returning to pre-Initial Gate status and delayed the ISD by up to four years.
This option was adopted as the planning assumption and reflected in MPR 2005. The second option was for the delivery of “early capability” that would provide for one medium scale deployment by 2010.
It would utilise the savings option funding profile and exploit the existing contractor bids for Increment A. This option was explored and found to be viable.

In July 2005, approval was given to the further in-depth exploration of the second option and the selection of BAE Systems Insyte as the preferred bidder for Falcon Increment A. A programme was developed in conjunction with the preferred bidder that was affordable within the available funding.
Falcon Increment C achieved Main Gate approval in July 2007 and was added as a Falcon Increment A contract amendment in September 2007.

Following Main Gate approval for Increment A in March 2006, the Demonstration and Manufacture contract was awarded to BAE Systems Insyte. The majority of the system has been developed to a high degree of maturity and the system validation and verification process started, but there have been delays to the voice telephony sub-system and the cryptographic sub-system, which have had a consequential delay to the whole contract. The Equipment Acceptance Trial, a key milestone in the system’s development, was completed successfully and reported as a pass with caveats in November 2009

Under the Director Information Systems and Services, Falcon is being considered as a potential candidate to satisfy an element of the technical architecture of current operations. This initiative has resulted in a joint MOD/BAE Systems Insyte study as to the feasibility of Falcon to satisfy this requirement.

Falcon Increment A and Increment C will deliver secure one-to-one voice and wideband data networks to deployed forces, including Headquarters Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, Divisional and Brigade Headquarters and unit level command posts and Deployed Operating Bases. Without this capability Land and Air Forces will be unable to execute effective command and control. In addition, Falcon Increment A and Increment C will also provide wideband data coverage for vital intelligence gathering platforms such as Airborne Stand Off Radar, Land Environment Air Picture Provision and Watchkeeper. Without the wideband data network delivered under Falcon this intelligence information will not be delivered to the key decision makers in a  timely fashion. Falcon Increment C will also support the increased data requirements of new aircraft such as Typhoon and will allow them to operate from Deployed Operating Bases.

Let's take a closer look at what Falcon is and at what it does. 

The UK’s Falcon programme is designed to replace the legacy Ptarmigan system now in service. BAE Systems is the prime contractor for the new system. Like many programmes it is designed to be fielded in four increments. Increment A was due to be fielded by 2010 with NATO’s Allied Rapid Reaction Corps with Increment C due to follow it in 2011 which will provide the Royal Air Force with updated HCLOS links at deployed bases. Times ended up being longer than planned, as often happened.
These two increments provide light, containerized and soft-skinned equipment which is easily air transportable and is mounted on MAN HX60 4x4 trucks for mobility, with 107 trucks having been acquired for FALCON role. In its early days, in 2005, there was talk of putting Falcon on Supacat platforms, but the plan was abandoned and it is indeed hard to see how a 6 tons Falcon module could have been squezeed on the little Supacat platform. 
The majority of Falcon systems go, of course, to the Royal Signals, but the Royal Air Force 90 Tactical Communications Wing in RAF Leeming gets its share under Increment C.

Two further Increments are planned. Increment B will extend Falcon to manoeuvre forces and it is expected that this will mean developing a Falcon suite to be mounted on a more mobile, more survivable armored vehicle, possibly FRES SV or UV. Increment D will use technologies that support remote users and maritime users. B and D increments have been folded under the voice “Future FALCON” in 2010 and are not yet ongoing, while increment A and C are entering service.
Increment A will enable the ARRC to deploy and sustain an high-intensity war effort, while Increment C is sized to support two medium-size RAF deployments at once, one of which enduring in nature.
It is now planned that Falcon will also replace Cormorant, a system which reportedly did not deliver what it promised, and which seems destined not to live a long and glorious career.

In 1970, when Ptarmigan entered service, voice telephonic communications were the norm, and made up 90% of the load on the network, but now things have changed, with the voice requirement overall stable, but with the requirement for the transmission of Data having increased immensely, and continuing to grow, so that now it is not exaggerating to say that 10% of the traffic is voice, and 90% is data, ISTAR imagery and other.

All these “Data” applications are Internet Protocol IP-based, so the Army decided that it made sense to roll out an IP trunk system which would use IP also for the transmission of voice, in Voice-Over-the-Internet protocol (VoIP). Not a trivial challenge, since just ten years ago the transmission of voice over the internet with IP was still just an idea and little more. 

Falcon is an all-IP complex system with Local Area System (LAS) and Wide Area System (WAS) with a communication subsystem. A variety of installations make up the Falcon system, which is completed by a Management element and, of course, the related maintenance and support component.
Exploiting the IP principle, Falcon breaks down traffic, be it voice or data, in packets which then find each their way through the Network up to their intended destination. The system actively reacts to the loss of nodes, with the packets finding an alternative route: this makes the communication system survivable, as the loss of a node (to Electronic Warfare, physical destruction or simply due to a Falcon station packing up and moving to follow forces on the move) does not impede the continuation of transmission.

Voice, Data and Video communication is secure and encrypted to four different levels, from UNCLASSIFIED to SECRET. Falcon connects with Bowman and Cormorant, and for satellite communications it relays on the Reacher ground stations of the Skynet 5 satellite constellation of the MOD.

At its lower level, Local Area System, Falcon works with Ethernet Switching Technology. The LAS provides the interface to the staff user’s terminal equipment. Save for telephones and fax, these are not directly provided by Falcon itself, but are normally part of the Defence Information Infrastructure (DII) and relay on Falcon for access to the Wide Area System network.
The LAS works in Command Post Support role, enabling an HQ to connect into the network its telephones, faxes and terminals. The CSP post can have its own Management Terminal or be managed over the network from a Remote Management Installation.

There are various CSP levels and related installations: CSP 1 is a small palletized installation supporting a single security domain using a WAN bearer of opportunity, so it is only used for small HQs. CSP 2 and 3 are for larger staff quarters and provide more LAS equipment and radios.  

The heart of Falcon is the WASP (Wide Area Service Provision), which uses IP technology to transmit packets of data over the net towards other WASP nodes, towards the CSPs or towards other networks: Falcon comes with its radios, but as said earlier it can put data on the Reacher/SKYNET 5 satellite network, or communicate with other NATO networks, or even make use of civilian radios and satellite services when these are provided.  

Falcon comes with its own Trunk Line of Sight (LOS) radio bearers for Wide Area Network connectivity between nodes: two kinds of radios are provided; the Ultras AN/GRC-245 typically operating at 8 Mbps and the Thales TRC-4000 at 34 Mbps, with COTS technology supplied by Cisco, additional telephony IP infrastructure by Selex and gateway servers from L-3.
Depending on the node installation type, up to six radio links can be anchored by one node: CSP 2 and 3 will have a few, while a WASP node can have up to 6. So the Falcon can offer 34 Mbps transmission over 10 to 40 km range, 8 Mbps on the 20 to 50 Km range and can achieve between 64 Kbps and 34 Mbps on an external bearer of opportunity.
All WASP mission modules are actually the same, but differ for the Complete Equipment Schedule: not all of them will be fitted to maximum capacity, so there is flexibility to re-role nodes as needed.

CSP and WASP modules all contain a Wide Area Router Assembly (WARA), with appropriate provision of link hardeners, encrypters and radios, meaning that installations, regardless of type, are switching nodes capable to transfer and re-direct IP packets, conferring to the system its inherent survivability.
The WASP has a secondary role as a Command Post Support unit, and can provide communications to co-located staff if necessary.

Each Wasp mission module comes in a container with all equipment, generators, and full environmental conditioning unit allowing operations in hot and cold climates. The 3-man crew is provided with supplies for 72 hours of operation.
The mission module comes with up to 6 mast-antennas from 12 to 18 meters tall, with one being a quick-into-action mast mounted vertically on the first bulkhead, allowing the module to start being operational in 20 minutes once the truck stops. The HX60 truck provides seating for the whole crew, so there is no support vehicle. A Bowman HF radio is provided for tactical control and situational awareness during deployment. The Mission Module containers can all be demounted from the trucks for air transport, and the WASP can be airlifted in theatre by a Chinook: however, its weight approached the 6 tons, so it presents challenges, and it is not expected to be that common to see a Falcon module underslung from a CH47. 

A WASP module deployed and ready.
Falcon modules have a local management assembly, so that the crew can manage independently their own detachment, while overall control comes from container-mounted (or palletized) Falcon Management Installations (FMI). A number of FMIs, cleared to different levels of control, will be able to re-direct traffic between WASPs, perform remote monitoring and fault detection, and even override actions taken at the lower levels.

A number of Communication Support Vehicles are provided: these are, again, HX60 trucks mounting special containers with test equipment and remote monitoring and diagnosing. The support teams working from these modules will be able to monitor the network nodes and detect most faults remotely, sending the Forward Repair Teams ahead already informed on the intervention needed and already provided with the spares potentially necessary.
Defective equipment will be returned to BAE system and repaired/replaced under the terms of the long term support contract. Exchange Points (XP) Army/BAE are to be set up at Blandford, Stafford, RAF Leeming and Elmpt, in Germany.  

Falcon comes with its own telephones and fax systems. Users can pick up any Falcon telephone and put in their ID and pass code, so that each user will know to who is talking, and the system will warn users in conversation of the lowest level of security clearance mandated for that call. Warning tones are provided to make sure that no breaches can happen. The Management Installation can in any moment override an action done on a Falcon network telephone. 

Falcon also has a Legacy Terminal Adapter to dialogue with older systems which do not work in the suitable IP frame.   

Falcon rushed to Afghanistan

With the Army in difficulty with establishing proper communications in Afghanistan, putting up, largely with UOR material old and new, two separate networks in order to sustain a “RED” domain for UK SECRET information and a “Black” domain for RESTRICTED communications, an anticipated deployment of Falcon, with its ability to provide 4 domains at once, was immediately deemed absolutely attractive. Investigations in the possibility of using Falcon on Herrick was started in 2008, and by early 2009 it was clear that getting it in theatre would represent a huge leap forward.
In March 2010, a 55 million UOR for a Falcon Theatre Entry Standard introducing a number of modifications and improvements was rolled out, so that the Falcon delivery programme was modified to include delivery of an operational and a training fleet for the support of Afghanistan operations.

The medications include an expansion of the Falcon’s capability to use “bearer of opportunity”, enabling it to provide more Encrypted IP Wide Area Network output, and at increased speed of up to 100 Mb per second. This is for making the best possible use of the extensive UOR-procured civilian satellite bandwidth and commercial high-speed IP radios that are available in Afghanistan.

A modification in Ethernet fibre interfaces makes it possible to have single-mode connections over distances much greater than the 2 km of the standard Falcon multimode fibre connection.

Commercial standard Ethernet switchers have been fielded, as it is kind of a waste to use valuable ruggerized equipment in bases where, instead of hastily set up tents, people can work into Tier 2 or 3 permanent accommodation.
Gigabit Ethernet switches have also been procured for use, and the Falcon management infrastructure has been adapted to be able to control the new features.
Falcon is used in fixed bases and installations, with Bowman and portable satellite terminals staying with the troops on the move, out on patrol.   

The validity of Falcon

Falcon represents a dramatic improvement for the British Army, a true generational leap. However, it risks being obsolete already now, when it is not entirely in service yet.  

An Australian Army study provides a comparative table showing the British notional plan for the provision of communications services to a Brigade HQ with Falcon and Reacher.
Unfortunately, the availability of traffic for battalions and brigades is low: the communications trunk is currently inadequate to support a constantly growing need for file transfers, and it is, moreover, severely limited in its ability to support forces on the move.

Future Falcon is indispensable for the true modernization of the Army. Provvision of high volumes of traffic to a brigade HQ on the move, and provision of data communications down to lower echelons, at the very least down to battalion level, is absolutely crucial for the future effectiveness of the Army. Currently, Falcon provides good support for a Brigade HQ, but British Army communications on the move and down to battalion and company level are absolutely inadequate.

Falcon Increment B, and the adoption of a new, software-definined personal role radio for the soldiers on the ground are both indispensable, and must be accorded the highest possible priority in the Army modernization plans, a situation acknowledged by the Army itself in documents such as the Agile Warrior 2011 exercise report and the Future Land Operating Concept, which underline the need for better communications and C2 on the move.

It is not a case that one of the very few elements of the US Future Combat Systems to have survived the 2009 cancellation is the Network and communications trunk. The US are expending a huge amount of money on Army communications and Command and Control, and this includes On-the-Move capability.
For this, they are heavily investing in Software Defined Radios, systems that can, thanks to their software, select automatically the channel on which they should work to transmit their message, between VHF, UHF, HF, Satellite or one of the new VoIP channels that the US Army is adopting, using frequencies above the 2 GHz. This way, the radio can switch from a channel to another if it loses contact during transmission: for example, a vehicle crew speaking in Line of Sight will be able to continue speaking as the radio, once lost the LOS contact, automatically switches to another mean of contact, for example the satellite.

The US Army is adopting a series of Software Defined Radios (SDR) that will enable On-the-Move communication from at least Company level upwards. The soldier’s personal SDR radio will be able to connect to more powerful vehicle-mounted node radio systems, which enable the message to move forwards and up the echelons as needed.
Part of this system is, of course, the effort to make available to the army a huge bandwidth, using satellites, but also Beyond Line of Sight Radios (BLOS) and TROPO (Tropospheric Scatter Radio), which can transmit some 19 Mb per second over a 100 miles distance and have been obtained with modem upgrades on already existing radios (AN/TRC-170).
Another node is constituted by the installation of an Highband Networking Waveform payload on the Gray Eagle UAV of the Army, providing a line-of-sight communications relay system flying above the battlefield and allowing radios to easily overcome hills and obstacles.

The British Army cannot, clearly, match the level of ambition and expenditure of the US, but arguably it does not need to, either, as it is much smaller, and its needs different. However, the Army needs significant bandwidth, reliable and secure communications, capable to work also on the move, and a data transfer capability that allows the troops to make best use of info such as Watchkeeper imagery and other data.
Interesting thinking has gone into this field at times: the small, ultra-light, world-beating Qinetiq Zephyr solar-powered drone, which holds the world record for in-flight endurance, was for example test-flown with a MOD Communications Relay pod, and this high-flying, long-endurance drone represents a cost effective alternative to more satellites.
The launch of an additional SKYNET satellite, the participation in theUS AHEF satellite effort, the low-cost acquisition of an ex-NATO communications satellite (taken over for free in 2011 when NATO considered dumping it on a dead orbit, this UHF satellite has added two more channels to those available to troops in Helmand already), are also very good moves, but more will have to be done in the future.  

Future Falcon is a name I hope to hear a lot more frequently in the near future: the modernization of the Army’s communications is a fundamental, if unglamorous, component of Army 2020. Information is, today more than ever, the key to battlefield superiority. The communications network is what enables the army to build, maintain and share an updated picture of the situation on the ground.

Additional info, with even more detailed overwiew of the Network workings, available here:


  1. Gabriele

    Interesting article and I shall read it again more slowly. However, I am essentially more interested in vehicles than communication systems. I am just wondering about the future of the DURO vehicle in British Army service. You say:

    "It is now planned that Falcon will also replace Cormorant, a system which reportedly did not deliver what it promised, and which seems destined not to live a long and glorious career."

    I believe that the DURO also transports/supports the Reacher satellite systems. Has it proved a good, reliable vehicle or will it eventually be phased out when Cormorant goes? It is in service with quite a lot of other armies, so must be rather useful.

    1. The Army might want to replace the Duro with a variant of the Multi Role Vehicle (Protected) in the future, but considering budget issues making it hard to buy all vehicles needed, what works at least well enough is likely to stay.
      I think the Duro might well live on for quite a lot of time more. Never heard any particular praise for it, but never heard complains either.

      As to this article, it is... a bit particular and complex. Communications are quite a difficult field, and it is not like there's much info published about operations in this field.

      You might like to know that, digging into Royal Signals publications for documenting this article, i stumbled on a summer 2011 message from the head of the Royal Signals announcing the force that as part of the restructuring, the Divisional Signals regiments and apparently the 21 Regiment Air Support (that supports AAC and Joint Helicopter Command) would be sacrificed to form 5 multipurpose "theatre support regiments" which would... do it all: support brigade and division HQs and the Air elements as well.

      Left me a bit worried and unconvinced, but anyway, it is likely not to be valid anymore, as the Carter review has thrown all the earlier planning in the toilet and this message of the RS head is likely to now be just "historically interesting" at most.

    2. Gabriele

      Thanks very much for your, as always, detailed and informative reply.

      I know that in this case you were unconvinced by the planning but when you say: "as the Carter review has thrown all the earlier planning in the toilet" I am still seething over the destruction of the 5 Multi-Role Brigades idea.

      Sure, we shall need Main Battle tanks in the future, as sure as eggs, we shall, as they say in my part of the country, but couldn't we have kept just ONE specialist heavy armour formation and structured the remaining forces into more coherent, homogeneous, ready-to-go formations? Well, I shall be very interested to see how the Australians go with their MRBs.

      Incidentally, I know that you will probably say that it is impossible to predict what the vehicle/equipment inventory will look like by the time Force 2020 is formed but what about a spot of crystal-ball gazing? i.e What will be left and what will be new? Here, for what it is worth, is mine:

      ARMOUR: Challenger2, FRES SV, CVR(T)updated,
      Warrior 40mm, Bulldog, Mastiff, Ridgback

      PPVs: Foxhound, Jackal,

      ARTILLERY: AS90, Light Gun, GMLRS, Fire Shadow

      AIR DEFENCE: Stormer HVM, Rapier (then CAMM)

      UAVs Watchkeeper (with Viking support)

      ENGINEER EQUIPT: Titan, Trojan, Terrier, BR90
      Bridging, M3, REBS, Talisman
      (Buffalo etc.)

      LOGISTICS: Coyote, Husky, Wolfhound, MAN SVs,
      EPLS, CST, HET

      REME: CRARRV, MAN Recovery Vehicle

      AIRCRAFT: Apache, Wildcat, Lynx AH9, Defender

      SURVEILLANCE and COMMUNICATION: Bowman, Reacher,

      Sharpshooter, Light Machine
      Gun, GPMG, HMG, 60mm Mortar,
      81mm Mortar, GMG, Javelin,
      MBT LAW, ASM

      BOATS: Combat Support Boat

      And that's about it, really. I doubt whether we shall get anything new to any extent. Rather sad really.

    3. The sad thing is that the list you make is pretty much the Best Case scenario. It might be even worse, with some other platform effectively shelved in the next few years.

      We shall see.
      And hope that, just to name one, the Multi Role Vehicle (Protected) actually goes ahead and delivers, this time around.

  2. Just to correct a couple of misrepresentations - Falcon is being built to replace Ptarmigan. Ptarmigan was the tactical trunk system based around 70's switching technology with a little x.25 in place for limited packet switching. Cormorant was designed not as a replacement for Ptarmigan rather as a new implementation for JTFHQ, as up until Cormorant went live JTFHQ relied upon the Signal Regiment accompanying them for any network they came up with (new equipment each time) therefore as a cost saving measure Cormorant was envisaged to stop this waste of cash, yes it took some time to overcome some issues (some signficant) however the system is now up and running fine, albeit it it has taken the RAF to bring out it's full potential. Falcon is not here to replace Cormorant it is here to replace Ptarmigan as a tactical trunk sysetm.

    1. But BAE and the MOD, for what i know, say that Cormorant will also be replaced by FALCON, not just Ptarmigan. If there has not been a change in the plan recently that i've not heard about yet, the plan is that Cormorant will bow out when FALCON is up and running.

      In BAE's words:

      Cormorant was bought as a rapidly deployable communications system for use at the Joint Task Force Headquarters (JTFHQ). It is based on off-the-shelf equipment using Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) technology. Although tactically deployable has been designed primarily for a relatively safe environment (both electronically and environmentally).
      Cormorant will eventually be de-commisioned when FALCON enters service.

  3. not a great article missed out lots of points about Falcons backend malfunctions.

  4. I'll fill in some of the detail regarding the 'Falcon on Supacat' mention. A demonstrator on a 6 wheeler Supacat was indeed built and a comprehensive proof-of-concept was put together. The payload mass was not 6 tonne at the time but it was well documented and allowed for the G1098 etc. It did all fit, including the generator.

    While this was happening, the Supacat platform was separately going through a programme intended to demonstrate 'fitness for purpose' in a green role (at the time the 4 wheeler had recently entered 'specialist' use). Falcon was keeping close tabs on progress as the project clearly had a vested interest and there was an associated risk.

    During these trials a major structural issue arose and ultimately resulted in a significant reduction in projected payload/cargo capacity - and this meant that the within-weight budget concept was now over by a few hundred kilos. So it ended up on HX60 - and naturally grew a few more arms & legs given the larger platform and greater space available. I still have the pictures of an eventful week at Blandford with the Supacat concept being exercised.


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