PROJECT CURRAWONG – GOING FROM
STRENGTH TO STRENGTH
Formally known as JP 2072 Phase 2B, Currawong has the aim of delivering secure internet, including on the move, to Army and RAAF – with the RAN a potential future user. The system must be self-contained and able to function in extremes of climate and geography,
with hardware resistant to heat, cold, dust, vibration, shock, and electromagnetic radiation – to name some of the most important characteristics. On top of this it needs to use a variety of communications bearers, including: troposcatter; satellite; deployed fibre
and line of sight links.
In looking at these extremely demanding requirements, prime contractor Boeing Defence
Australia concluded that no existing system came even close. Furthermore making use of commercially available hardware also fell short in a number of areas – and so the company and a network of mainly Australian suppliers set up designing a solution almost from first principles and tailored around the needs of the customer. What made this process unusual – and is a major ingredient for its success – is that every step has been done with the involvement of the Army, RAAF and CASG.
Another major milestone was reached on October 28 with the opening by Defence Industry Minister Melissa Price of Boeing’s assembly and test facility in the Brisbane suburb of Wacol. With an approximate value of $1 billion, Project Currawong deliveries – now at the halfway mark – are ahead of schedule, a rare and welcome achievement in the Australian
military contracting environment.
Boeing Australia is understandably proud of its supplier network: 270 companies are involved, of which more than 200 are local. To date, they have received $44 million worth of orders, something that makes a huge amount of difference to small and medium enterprises. And when we write local, we mean it – many of them are in the Brisbane area,
making face-to-face interactions fast and easy.
The contract was signed in 2015, though Boeing started work during the competitive bidding stage that began four years earlier. The company is also involved in LAND 200 Tranche 2 as a subcontractor to L3Harris, providing the network management system
for that project – meaning that the company is part of the solution for Army’s tactical communications as well as being the provider of the strategic backbone.
According to Ian Vett, Boeing’s Project Director for Currawong, the way that Army is structured when they deploy is in three basic levels: division (force node); brigade (formation-level) and battalion (unit level).
They also need an on-the-move capability as well to not only communicate amongst themselves but in the case of overseas deployments, back to Australia. The network needs to handle video, voice and data traffic.
This is the functional equivalent of having a modern mobile phone, but in a self-contained deployable network because Army frequently operates in remote locations with zero access to civil infrastructure – though the system can securely connect with that if
it is available.
Because there are typically no mobile phone towers in the area – or during a conflict they would have been destroyed or jammed – Project Currawong has to provide all of the network infrastructure. This involves the manufacture of a great deal of hardware because a total of 109 nodes need to be delivered – and all of that equipment has to be tested prior
to release with various chambers in Wacol able to produce temperature ranges of between -30 and +70, as well as replicate extremely harsh solar radiation – which incidentally had the effect of drying out the author’s morning tea muffin, a tray of which had been placed inside the apparatus to demonstrate its effectiveness. Each of the 109 deliverables is
around nine pallets of equipment, giving some idea of the scale of the task.
Previously Boeing used a number of scattered off-site testing facilities run by a number of companies but has decided to centralise everything in Wacol, greatly increasing the efficiency of the testing process.
The project is being rolled out in three stages – or Releases – the first of which took place two years ago; Release 2 is almost complete and Release 3 is at the end of 2020. Currawong is a huge improvement on previous systems because it is scalable and durable. For example, none of the core Network Access Modules (routers) needs any heating or cooling whatsoever – they can operate in the harshest conditions referred to above without
the need for fans or water. They can be taken off a truck and set up in minutes to then run nonstop for the duration of the mission, independent of anything other than their internal power requirements. A comparable system, such as the U.S. Army’s WIN-T can take weeks rather than minutes to set up and reach a comparable level of functionality. That enormous time difference, by the way, is not a misprint.
Currawong is highly automated, with the different components having the ability to sense each other and commence connecting without the need for a human operator. Each NAM meshes with others in the network and if one fails then traffic is automatically
routed through another unit to maintain seamless communications. According to Ian Vett: “it’s all in the smarts of the software that we have built.”
In trying to describe the overall capacity of Currawong compared with a civil mobile phone
network to APDR, Mr Vett patiently explained: “This is a deployed battlefield communications system, meaning that everything has to be transported and set up in the field. This means that you are only as good as the bearer you have and the bandwidth it is able to provide. If the system is using troposcatter, that gives you about 25Mb/s. Which
is good – but still not like what you would get if you were in an office somewhere.
“So the trick here is not how much bandwidth you get – but rather with limited bandwidth, what can you do with it. To give you an example: we get voice over very, very bad lines. Similarly we have built-in a video system that still works in poor conditions – even down to a line only able to provide 32Kb/s. This means a commander might be briefing his troops –
and you could still watch that video feed over a very thin line.
“You also have to be able to move quickly – to pack everything up into vehicles and then unload everything as fast as possible at the next stop. The speed with which you can do that is very important.” Another defining characteristic of Currawong is its flexibility: if atmospheric conditions impact on troposcatter, communications can be switched to
any other means, such as satellite or line-of-sight. It also has an External Network Access Point (ENAP) that allows civil infrastructure to be used, if it is available. This is so secure that the example given is that if you were in the Moscow branch of McDonalds and had access to the complimentary wifi network, the ENAP could connect with it and be on the
Australian battlefield system without any prospect of being monitored by Russia, let alone interfered with.
Boeing and Department of Defence officials believe that Currawong has considerable export
potential – and a quick overview of its capabilities explains exactly why. However, despite broad appeal, for security reasons marketing efforts are concentrating on the Five Eyes community. Of those countries, on the top of the list are the U.S. and the U.K. The former in particular has spent tens of billions of dollars on strategic communications
systems that have only a fraction of Currawong’s capability.
In Australia the system has already been so successful that Boeing and Defence are in
discussions about future versions of it – a remarkable success story due in no small part to the cooperative way the project has been managed.