What next for Defence Video Telecommunications: Collaboration in a High-Risk World

Published On: April 29, 2024Categories: InsightsBy

Since the first use of Morse code during the Crimean War, armies have recognised the effective use of telecommunications in providing battlefield and strategic advantage. As the complexity of modern defence environments increase, what can we expect from next generation technology, how can we embrace the benefits of multi-domain communication whilst avoiding legacy technical debt, and how can we adopt richer user experiences whilst ensuring the message gets through?


Team of teams

US General Stanley McChrystal’s book Team of Teams describes his experiences with the Joint Special Operations Task Force in Iraq. Realizing that conventional military tactics were failing in the battle against the al-Qaeda insurgency (something that, on paper, should have been a walk over), he made an investment decision; he procured a secure video conferencing system.

As a seasoned commander, McChrystal understood the complexities of his battlefield – a surge of social media-fuelled violence, an agile enemy unhampered by traditional warfighting logistics, inefficient coalition intelligence processing – required new strategies. The first step was reliable, eyeball to eyeball communication. Every day, without fail, he now had “face time” with his extended team across the world. He cites this as the beginning of the turnaround in the war, and his point is clear; leadership, and success on the battlefield, comes down to an ability to collaborate effectively with your team of teams.


Interoperability: Bridging the Past with the Future

The global defence communication system market was around US$46bn in 2023, growing to US$120bn by 2033. Around one third of that is the US who, with the UK and allies, stand on the brink of a new era in defence collaboration, where interoperability with last-generation systems is essential for continuity and cost-effectiveness, while embracing next-gen capabilities becomes imperative for enhanced, collective security.

Interoperability remains a critical concern. The ability for different systems, platforms, and organisations to seamlessly communicate and share digital information – akin to Multi Domain Integration – is vital for effective collaboration in and amongst military forces. However, achieving interoperability poses significant challenges, particularly when integrating next-generation technologies with legacy systems.

Efforts are underway to bridge the gap. In my field, the focus is on enabling compatibility and integration between legacy video teleconferencing systems and next-gen capabilities, allowing for smooth transition and coexistence. What defence organisations really don’t want is another new technology ecosystem to manage, and this is recognised by suppliers focussing on interop and the co-management of old systems with new.

Cost efficiency (and, increasing, the green agenda) is a key consideration in the pursuit of interoperability. By leveraging existing infrastructure and integrating new technologies in a phased approach, defence agencies can minimize disruption and maximize the value of their investments; a 10-year-old SIP end point may be just as capable as a brand-new video codec, so if we can drive improvement gains in the system overall, why replace it? Moreover, interop ensures seamless communication between diverse stakeholders, including military branches, allies, and government agencies, fostering a more cohesive and coordinated approach to defence operations.


Seeing eye to eye (and why richness wins with users)

Real time video offers a different quality of conversation. Nonverbal communication – the subtle cues and expressions that don’t carry over voice – is hugely valuable in human understanding. With mission partners whose first language isn’t your own, this is even more

important. It will soon be possible to have accurate, automatic speech recognition give a real-time translation for foreign languages during a multiparty video call, via secure, on premises language engines (rather than high risk internet-connected databases). Pexip partners with Artificial Intelligence (AI) powerhouse NVIDIA, whose Riva platform promises high accuracy levels and will even lip sync a video participant in real-time. In an Ops room, being able to select any live video stream from a field-worn helmet camera and deliver it into a live conference suddenly affords a new clarity to the traditional range of data sources; imagine having all these sources integrated to the Common Operating Picture and available across domains, instantly and securely exploitable by anyone with a need to know. McChrystal would have seized this capability had it been available at the time.

The defence industrial market shows how aerospace companies are aiming to deliver complex, multiyear programmes with a shift towards flexible, collaborative working environments. CWEs are digital replicas of the traditional co-located professional paradigm where engineers from partnering firms share projects, whiteboards and designs alongside integrated chat, voice, and video applications, creating a collaboration workflow that suits problem solving at scale. The ambition is to deliver this as a service, seamlessly and securely with intellectual property rights controls built in, as with SecureCloud+’s Jupiter. The shared, private cloud model reduces costs and gives more opportunity for collaborative working.

This mirrors the challenge I hear from many defence customers, who are used to the rich features of hyperscale cloud-based unified communications services (such as Microsoft Teams) deployed to support OFFICIAL workloads during the pandemic; “we need that, but at SECRET!” Public cloud-based services don’t support defence’s security requirements, but this shouldn’t stop customers partnering with those suppliers who can support their long-term direction from on-premises, to secure-private to hyperscale cloud.


Next-Gen Capabilities: Securing the Future of Collaboration

While interoperability with legacy systems is an essential start point, the future of defence telecommunications lies in embracing next-generation capabilities. In an era of evolving threats and cyber vulnerabilities, safeguarding sensitive information and ensuring secure communication channels are paramount concerns for defence organizations worldwide.

Data-centric security (DCS) emerges as a likely cornerstone. Unlike traditional perimeter-based approaches, which focus on securing network boundaries, DCS shifts the focus to protecting the data itself, regardless of its location or transmission path. By encrypting data at rest and in transit, implementing access controls based on attributes, and adopting advanced authentication mechanisms, defence agencies can mitigate the risks of data breaches and unauthorized access whilst accelerating the collaboration paths between people, systems and data.

DCS for real-time services (e.g. a video meeting) is novel but the concept has been proven and the defence community is watching closely. Moreover, DCS-based telecommunications enable seamless collaboration across trust levels, allowing mission partners to share information and coordinate activities with confidence. By implementing granular access controls and policy-based management, defence organisations can tailor communication channels to meet the unique security requirements of each mission partner, ensuring that we stay ahead of emerging threats and maintain a competitive edge in an increasingly contested domain. Pexip is a leader in the application of DCS in real-time collaboration services.

DCS is interesting because it could allow highly secure, rich collaboration to be delivered rapidly to a complex coalition of stakeholders across a wider range of transport layers, including non-secure networks available in an area of operations. The ambition for such real-time data sharing and situational awareness is to empower military forces to operate more effectively and adaptively in complex and dynamic environments.

It’s also clear that AI brings risk to the field, not least in the increasing sophistication of cyberthreats such as biometric spoofing, where actors attempt to deceive a security system using AI to replicate biometric data such as forged fingerprints, facial ID or voice recordings. Advanced counter measures must be built into telecommunications systems where biometrics are used to speed up the authorisation process.


Perspectives from the USA, Five Eyes and Beyond: Collaborating for Success

Collaboration is key to unlocking the full potential of next-generation telecommunications in defence. The US places a strong emphasis on fostering international collaboration in defence telecommunications and often holds the keys to shared comms platforms. Global partnerships and alliances play a crucial role in enhancing interoperability and sharing best practices. Through initiatives such as the Five Eyes alliance and NATO Federated Mission Networking, allies aim to develop interoperable solutions and promote information sharing across borders. By collaborating with allies and partners around the world, defence agencies can leverage collective expertise and resources to address common challenges and achieve shared objectives.


Collaboration is the key to security; security must be the foundation for collaboration

As the global threat picture develops, close ties with allies – both enduring/ strategic and short-term/ tactical – remain necessary, alongside sustainable ways to manage information across parties or varying trust levels. Telecommunications is the lifeblood that runs through defence systems, and they must adapt to support the tempo, scale and threat posture of future operations.

By prioritizing data-centric security, enabling seamless interoperability, and fostering international collaboration on multichannel collaborative platforms, defence agencies can harness the full power of telecommunications technology to safeguard national interests, protect critical infrastructure, and preserve peace and stability in an increasingly complex and interconnected world.