Farnborough Air Show

General Dynamics UK straddles transatlantic divide

 - July 7, 2008, 5:52 AM

As the British subsidiary of a leading American defense contractor majoring in sensitive communications and intelligence technologies, General Dynamics UK (Chalet A34) treads an interesting but complex path. On the one hand, the company is a portal for the import and adaptation of U.S. systems that help the British armed forces achieve connectivity and interoperability. On the other hand, GD UK is developing software and systems that are independent of U.S. export controls.

“We’re not a classic American company that just unpackages things overseas,” Steve Knowles, technical director of GD UK’s Mission Systems unit, told AIN. “We develop UK solutions that leverage U.S. technology where appropriate,” added Peter Eberle, the company’s C4ISTAR director. [C4ISTAR stands for command, control, communications, intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance.–Ed.]

“But we can also deliver ITAR-free solutions,” Eberle continued, referring to the U.S. International Trafficking in Arms Regulations, which have often created a transatlantic divide by inhibiting defense cooperation and trade.

Knowles explained that such UK solutions are developed in discrete “white-room” conditions by GD UK staff who have deliberately not been exposed to the classified U.S. technology in order to ensure that all the intellectual property that results is of UK origin.

Indeed, GD UK is a British leader in research and development of networking software, data fusion, data looping, data mining and 3-D imaging. The company runs a $120 million collaborative research-and-development effort in data information fusion (DIF) that also involves BT, QinetiQ and eight universities, and which UK industry and government jointly fund.

NEC for British Forces
On its own, GD UK has developed a modeling and simulation tool called Arccadia with which it claims the unique capability to generate complex scenarios quickly and repeat them. Thanks to these capabilities, GD UK has become a key contractor helping to build net-enabled capability (NEC) for the British armed forces.
General Dynamics acquired its British subsidiary in 1997, when it bought the U.S. and UK operations that had been developed by Computing Devices, a Canadian avionics and missions systems supplier. In the UK, the company provided “black boxes” for Harrier and Tornado combat jets, including an integrated video reconnaissance system for the latter.

In the last 10 years, though, the company has evolved into a complex systems integrator that buys most of its basic hardware and processing off the shelf, to which it adds smart and secure software. Today, GD UK is best known as the prime contractor for the $4 billion Bowman battlefield communications project, which is equipping more than 18,000 British military vehicles, ships, helicopters and headquarters with secure digital radios for voice and data exchange, plus applications including situational awareness and battlefield management.

GD UK claims to be a world leader in intelligence exploitation and dissemination systems. From its work on the British Tornado, the company developed reconnaissance management systems (RMS) for the F-16 and F/A-18 fighters that the U.S. and other countries adopted. On the ground, it has developed a modular imagery dissemination and analysis suite (MIDAS) and an intelligence reference library (IRL). To connect air and ground, GD UK offers an intelligent datalink (IDL) employing a data modem connection that relays images in incremental levels of resolution using only limited bandwidth. The IDL can be exported to countries that are not cleared to receive higher-rate, U.S.-designed datalinks.

According to GD UK, the main design driver for its C4ISTAR systems is “shared understanding.” This requires an ability to quickly integrate the feeds from multiple sensors, to add valuable context from, for example, digital mapping systems or open-source intelligence, and to disseminate to the appropriate third parties, taking into account security levels. The company’s products should be scalable for use in the field as well as headquarters, and they should overcome the “stovepipes” that have resulted from the previous deployment of standalone systems.

The British Ministry of Defence (MoD) has a long list of C4ISTAR and NEC programs and goals, but is struggling to fund them. The Dabinett program aims to make better use of the investments that the UK has already made in ISTAR collection assets. GD UK has already contributed through its leadership of an 18-month demonstration program called modular exploitation capability. The aim was to achieve interoperability between imagery analysis systems used with the airborne stand-off radar (ASTOR), the Watchkeeper UAV (electro-optics/infrared plus radar); and the RAPTOR sensor on the Tornado (EO/IR). To do this, GD UK devised a Web-based, service-oriented architecture, which Eberle describes as “a thin wrapper of software.”
Other Dabinett projects include a Joint Mission Support Cell, Project Diamond (exploring interoperability with the U.S. distributed common ground stations), and participation in the annual U.S.-led Empire Challenge exercise.

Close-Air Support Aid
GD UK has teamed with data modem supplier Innovative Concepts and secure radio specialist Rockwell Collins on two programs that will help improve the accuracy of close-air-support missions flown by the British Army and Royal Air Force (RAF). The tactical information and exchange capability program allows ground troops to transmit the coordinates of targets that they have identified into the cockpits of RAF Harrier GR9 and Tornado GR4 aircraft. A single black box will be added to the aircraft. Link 16 information can also be received and transmitted to provide pilots with threat information or intra-flight data communication.

The company has already developed a similar plan to provide Bowman digital data to the British Army’s Apache attack helicopters. The company delivered this capability for only $50 million by adding data modems to selected Bowman vehicles. It would have cost much more to modify the helicopters.

GD UK teamed with five partners, including the U.S.-based GD subsidiary Advanced Information Systems, for the assessment phase of the MoD’s Listener project. The goal was to fuse and disseminate airborne ISTAR data such as SIGINT and imagery in real time to enable time-sensitive targeting. The rival team for Listener was led by the UK subsidiary of L-3 Communications, which developed the Network Centric Collaborative Targeting (NCCT) system in the U.S., which has similar aims. The RAF participated in flying trials of NCCT in the U.S.

GD UK believed that the MoD wanted a bespoke system, and the company said it could deliver a proposal for Listener that embeds elements of proven U.S. technology within a UK-designed and owned system architecture, at a cost of only some $100 million. But the MoD recently scrapped the next stage of the Listener project, evidently on cost grounds. “Starkly, it is no use collecting data without the means to fuse it into a timely and coherent picture so that decision makers can act upon it,” commented GD UK.

Presumably, the MoD could still buy the U.S.-developed NCCT system off the shelf, but the process of importing U.S. defense technology is “a rather long rigmarole,” according to GD UK managing director Dr. Sandy Wilson.

The company has incorporated nine items from the U.S. in the Bowman system. They are all ITAR-controlled. Wilson told a British parliamentary inquiry last fall that GD UK had been able to service only urgent requirements to add Bowman to new armored vehicles to protect British forces in Iraq and Afghanistan from improvised explosive devices, after a long effort to persuade the U.S. State Department to grant an ITAR waiver.

A new U.S./UK Defence Trade Cooperation Treaty is supposed to clear away much of this frustrating bureaucracy, but the Treaty needs a two-thirds majority in the U.S. Senate, where ratification is stalled because the American legislators want more clarity over the details.