An airman riding as part of a convoy escort team in Iraq keys his radio microphone to check in with his base, and hears nothing but dead air. The U.S. Air Force is leading a joint implementation of a Radio over Internet Protocol Routed Network (RIPRnet) communication system that prevents such a scenario. RIPRnet ties convoy radios in with Internet-based technology to extend their range, providing robust, clear, reliable, and secure communications for soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who are out on the roads of Iraq.

Last September, the Air Force's Combined Air and Space Operations Center (CAOC) in Southwest Asia completed the initial phase of an extended network of towers and ground stations to cover the ground convoy communications network. RIPRnet is a key communications network for both ground convoys and air operations throughout Iraq, consisting of 15 core sites and 37 ground station consoles.

RIPRnet is being used to ensure that convoys like these traveling through Iraq have reliable communication. (U.S. Air Force/Master Sgt. Lance Cheung)

The command and control capability of RIPRnet allows the CAOC to communicate directly with airborne aircraft as part of the Air Defense of Iraq. This link was the initial catalyst for constructing RIPRnet.

In December 2005, Iraq was on the eve of democratic elections, and the possibility of civilian airliners being used as weapons was a very real fear. The operational decision-makers at the CAOC needed the ability to directly communicate with air defense aircraft and hear an intercepting pilot's first-hand observations. They needed to shorten the decision cycle from minutes to seconds to enable them to make an accurate "shoot or no-shoot" decision from the center, more than 700 miles away.

The communication capability and proven efficiency was quickly adapted for close-air support coordination and command and control. Real-time communications between the Air Support Operations Center (ASOC) in Baghdad, coalition aircraft conducting armed overwatch missions, and joint terminal attack controllers on the ground became the next application. With traditional, line-of-sight radio networks, overwatch aircraft had to remain in the vicinity of ASOC communications to receive mission tasks before they could move forward to execute operations requested by air and ground commanders. Once the aircraft completed the tasking, they had to return to their orbit near Baghdad.

RIPRnet extends the ASOC network, enabling ASOC controllers to move the aircraft orbit areas away from Baghdad and closer to the missions on the ground, reducing response times and ensuring the best support for forces in contact with enemy forces.

Although the thrust of setting up RIPRnet was improved communications for air operations, the network now includes critical communications capabilities extending radio connectivity for ground forces. "It has been applied to both air and ground missions," said Col. Ian Dickinson, U.S. Central Command Air Forces director of command, control, communications, and computer systems. "It is an example of a joint service partnership on how to apply technology to conduct military operations in Southwest Asia."

A Communications Lifeline

Tech. Sgt. Eric Yingling, communications engineer at the Combined Air Operations Center, uses a RIPRnet console to monitor convoy operations. (U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Melissa Koskovich)

The Air Force has developed and tested the system, which allows commanders to talk directly to troops operating convoys outside their bases. More specifically, it has helped how convoys in Iraq conduct command-and-control operations. Convoys rely on line-of-site radio for most of their connectivity. Before RIPRnet, there were a number of relay points, positioned about every 15 to 20 miles along the main supply routes. Many of these radio relay points were "outside the wire" and posed additional force protection concerns for units operating along the supply routes.

Additionally, there were points along the routes where convoy vehicles were out of radio range. This limited communications capability left convoys out of range for medical evacuation and close-air support should they be attacked or hit an improvised explosive device (IED). To overcome this and extend the relay points, the Air Force flew aircraft to relay radio traffic between convoy commanders and check points. The completion of the construction of RIPRnet towers reduced the need for these airborne assets.

The system enables hundreds of soldiers to be pulled back inside "the wire" to main operating bases, rather than keeping them stationed at small outposts along roadsides, and helps senior officials determine the proper air and ground mix necessary to support convoy operations, freeing up aircraft for other high-priority missions. The system also accelerates the response times for emergency and recovery forces by directly receiving distress calls and not relying on a third party.

While RIPRnet does not replace current communications, it does provide another avenue for senior leaders to talk directly with the warfighters. RIPRnet can be anywhere users want it to be, as long as they have a long-haul circuit to get it there. Before RIPRnet, once a convoy left a forward-operating base, it would lose traditional radio communications after several miles. The origination point can maintain direct audio contact with the convoy throughout the day or night, regardless of whose battlespace they're in, or how far they have traveled.

Better communications could make the difference between life and death for troops in Iraq, but that is not the only benefit of RIPRnet. Other applications include use for air defense, and command and control of close-air-support missions. For example, in air defense, RIPRnet allows the Combined Forces Air Component commander to communicate by radio directly with aircraft flying over Iraq. Commanders don't have time to react to a threat, such as a hostile or suspicious aircraft. RIPRnet expands his view of the battlefield and allows him to have real-time information, helping him make the right decision quickly.

In addition, the RIPRnet frees resources previously tied up supplementing radio coverage, including those used operating remote radio relay points throughout Iraq to support convoy communications.

The project is similar to systems used by U.S. Border and Customs authorities and for homeland security purposes. The system rolls in on the same infrastructure used to provide Internet and radio services. Also, RIPRnet's console uses the same technology as desktop computers, so no specialized training is required to use it.

Although the network was initially headed by the Air Force, RIPRnet is not an air capability. "RIPRnet is a jointly created and installed, jointly used, and jointly managed and operated network," Colonel Dickinson said. "It took a lot of teamwork from Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force personnel to make it a common user network for radio communications supporting air and ground operations."

Today, the network supports convoy operations, a quick-response force called the sheriff net, the ASOC, and air defense of Iraq, providing extended connectivity to coalition forces operating in key areas of Iraq. The combined services will continue to work on new systems and capabilities, to include potential expansion of RIPRnet capabilities in an effort to both improve mission performance and save lives.

For more information on RIPRnet, click here .