Data Transfer

What are military data links?

What are military data links?

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Military data links are special advanced communication systems that are used in weapon, reconnaissance, and command and control systems. They play a key role in modern military operations as they enable the armed forces’ different units and weapon systems to communicate with one another in real time and exchange essential information.

Wiring on a grey background.

ITInformationstechnik set-up for the TIMBER EXPRESS exercise at 51 Tactical Air Wing Immelmann "Immelmann" in Jagel

Bundeswehr/Falk Bärwald

This seamless networking enhances the situational awareness and responsiveness of all parties involved. Military data links thus make a decisive contribution to the effectiveness and efficiency of military missions.

How do data links work?

Military data links are based on modern transmission technologies such as satellite communications, radio transmission, and wireless data transfer. These systems allow the transmission of data and information – such as situation pictures, target coordinates, or orders – between different military platforms and command posts. 

Military data links, and those working via radio in particular, can basically be compared to Messenger groups used on smartphones. When individuals share messages, pictures, or files, these items automatically become available to all other members of the group. It is, however, also possible to directly contact individual persons in the group. The principle works in a similar manner with modern military data links: Every participant in the data link network has all and, even more importantly, the same information at his/her disposal. 

For what purposes are data links used?

The use of military data links offers many benefits: among other things, they provide accelerated decision-making and more precise coordination of missions. The improved interaction between land, air, and naval forces increases the overall effectiveness of military operations. Military data links are used for airspace surveillance, target coordination, intelligence, rescue and evacuation operations.

What are the differences?

In line with the specific cases of application, various types of military data links have been developed which are constantly adapted to the changing framework conditions. These links differ primarily in the type of transfer, the data transfer rate, the transfer speed, and the data encryption capability. The following list provides an overview of the data links used by the Bundeswehr:

Link 1X 600-2400 bpsExchange of air situation data between military airspace control centres
Link 11 X1090-1800 bpsExchange of tactical data of naval forces
Link 11BX 600-2400 bpsExchange of tactical air situation data of surface-to-air missile forces
Link 16 X26880 bpsExchange of air situation data
Link 22 X1422-12667 bpsExchange of tactical data of naval forces; further development of Link 11
CESMO X16000 bpsExchange of parameters and locations of electrical/electronic emitters
VMF X16000 bpsThe variable message format (VMF) is used to request air fire support.

Security in the data link network

The use of military data links entails technical challenges. One of the most important requirements is security in the data link network. The communication systems must be equipped with resilient encryption mechanisms to protect sensitive information against potential cyber attacks, interference, and unauthorised access. Moreover, the integration into different weapon and command post systems requires careful planning and standardisation: not all systems work with the same data link technologies.

Security illustrated by the example of Link 16

Link 16 is a widely used military data link that falls into the category of tactical data links. It allows a real-time exchange of information between different platforms such as aircraft, vessels, and ground stations. Link 16 uses a powerful encryption technique to ensure the security and confidentiality of the data transferred.

Strong cryptographic algorithms and keys encrypt the data before it is transmitted over the network. Encryption is carried out on different levels to ensure that only authorised recipients will be able to decrypt the information. The use of crypto keys enables only participants having the appropriate keys to read the information. Such crypto keys are secret codes that are shared by the platforms involved to encrypt and decrypt the data. The crypto keys are altered on a regular basis.

To protect the network against electronic countermeasures, Link 16 uses frequency hopping. This means that the network switches quickly and continuously between different radio frequencies so that it is difficult to jam or interrupt communications. This anti-jamming function makes the network more resistant to electronic attacks and ensures its security.

What is the road ahead?

The future of military data links looks promising: The continuous development of technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing introduces new options for even more powerful and more secure communications systems. The focus will remain on cooperation and interoperability between different users and platforms to ensure the effective use of data links in multinational operations.

Hence, military data links are and continue to be indispensable tools for modern armed forces in today’s complex security situation. The capability to transfer information in real time enhances the efficiency and effectiveness of military missions. The further development of military data links will be crucial to meeting future challenges in a successful and safe manner for the armed forces.

by Stephan Prietzel