Tactical Communications Technology Reaches Inflection Point
Military radio experts reveal emerging trends in acquisition and technology.
|U.S. Air Force combat controllers set up communications to contact the special tactics operation center while conducting a drop zone survey in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, during Operation Unified Response. Industry experts credit special operations forces for being on the forefront of rapidly fielding cutting-edge tactical communications technology.|
The current combat communications marketplace is undergoing major transformations, including budget restrictions, greater demands for data at the tactical edge and the emergence of smartphone technologies on the battlefield. Under such dynamic conditions, military forces may need to abandon the program of record acquisition model to provide the most state-of-the-art systems to the warfighters as rapidly and inexpensively as possible, some experts say.
The tactical communications market is at an “inflection point” for several reasons, says Maj. Gen. Dennis Moran, USA (Ret.), who is vice president of government business development for the RF Communications Division at Harris Corporation, Melbourne, Florida. “Technology in the radio area, the mobile area, is changing rapidly. You have a demand for wideband services down to the tactical edge, and you have the downward pressure on the budget,” he explains. “When you put all that together, the department has to invest in a much more cost-effective way to take advantage of the technology. There’s an opportunity here for the Department of Defense to take a totally different direction.”
Gen. Moran says he sees the military already moving away from the program of record model because it no longer is feasible for this technology. Innovation and change are occurring in this industry beyond the reach of such programs. “The days of the program of record have got to be gone. Everybody is seeing that this program of record model is not working. The Marine Corps has abandoned it. The Navy has abandoned it. The Air Force has abandoned it,” the general points out.
The Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) is the U.S. Defense Department’s primary remaining tactical communications program of record model. JTRS was conceived in the mid-1990s and has been restructured and delayed to the point that some warfighters have begun fielding alternatives, including the Harris AN/PRC-117G, which could be an even bigger seller if the military forsakes the program of record acquisition model. Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Nally, USMC, the Marine Corps director of command, control, communications and computers and the chief information officer, has described the Harris radio as a “game-changer” in Afghanistan.
The JTRS program office announced in August that the AN/PRC-154 Rifleman Radio has received its security certification from the National Security Agency and is preparing to move into full-rate production. Gen. Moran recommends continuing with the limited-rate initial production of JTRS radios, which would allow the system to gain more exposure with the warfighters, and then enabling industry to offer alternatives as the system goes into full-rate production. He credits several Harris competitors with developing innovative solutions and suggests the Defense Department should place JTRS alternatives in a “store” or “catalogue,” allowing warfighters to pick and choose whichever solutions best suit their needs. “This is not a new acquisition model. This is something they’ve already done with handhelds,” Gen. Moran states.
One advantage of the changing dynamic is that companies are investing their own “nickels” in research and development, virtually eliminating the need for the government to do so, Gen. Moran contends. “There are a lot of areas where it makes sense for the government to invest in research and development, but tactical communications is not one of them,” he says.
Gen. Moran expresses optimism that the U.S. Army and the Defense Department will adjust the acquisition model to take better advantage of industry innovations. He cites the Army’s Network Integration Evaluation process as a positive development. Other experts, however, seem less hopeful about the department’s ability to adapt to changing conditions. “We have a tendency to fight the previous war. The war they are fighting now is with laptop computers, and if you look at all of the policies that are coming out for mobile devices, they’re putting the exact same restrictions on mobile devices that you would put on a laptop,” says Pat DeShazo, who heads the Combat and Command Air Force Space Security department at the MITRE Corporation, McLean, Virginia.
Research by DeShazo and his colleague, Bob McKee, technical integrator in MITRE’s Army Programs Directorate, led to the development of the Wearable One-Way Transfer (WOWT) device, which is designed to be worn by squad or platoon leaders who often use unclassified radio networks. It allows them to pass situational awareness data up the chain to classified networks. MITRE also has formed a Government Mobile Applications Group, an open community of representatives from the government, military, academia and industry that is designed to explore the use of smartphone technology in the military and government. The group’s objective, McKee says, is to find ways to “protect soldiers, protect data and protect the network.” A MITRE spokesperson points out that DeShazo and McKee voiced their own opinions and not the organization’s views.
|Private first class Taylor Cardinale, USA, from 1st Platoon, Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, calls in grid coordinates over a tactical satellite radio in the Kunar province of Afghanistan. Industry experts see a merger of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance functions and tactical command and control as greater amounts of data are pushed to the tactical edge.|
The warfighters’ demand for information at the tactical edge is one of the major trends mentioned by a variety of experts, and according to some, it is leading to a merger of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and tactical command and control (C2) functions. In the past, recounts Denis Couillard, director of products innovation with Ultra Electronics, Montreal, ISR information would be gathered, stored, analyzed and disseminated by higher headquarters down to the tactical C2 warfighters. “Right now, there is a convergence of command and control into what some people call actionable intelligence,” Couillard observes. “At the battle edge, people don’t want to wait for all of this stuff to find its way to a database. The guys who do tactical command and control, when they want to assess a situation, want this enhanced situational awareness immediately.”
That need drives a demand for smartphone technologies, Couillard asserts, predicting that, especially in the United States, smartphones ultimately will replace radios. “All of these multi-hundred-million-dollar programs are being torpedoed by the smartphone. The general trend in the United States is that these smartphones will replace the legacy radio platforms,” Couillard says. To meet customer demand, Ultra Electronics has integrated different technology families into a product known as UltraMove. The system delivers Internet protocol services, including voice, data and video in a portable transit case, providing connectivity at the outskirts of military networks. The system provides 400 megabits of shared aggregate bandwidth to simultaneously support multiple users and applications. It also provides Wi-Fi, WiMAX and high-capacity, line-of-sight, wireless point-to-point radio.
Gen. Moran predicts a future—maybe seven years from now—where warfighters will use one device, possibly a tablet, with integrated radio, smartphone and sensor technologies. “I think where we’re moving is to a device, a software-defined device, that incorporates the radio frequency portion and the user interface, and you want that to be a multipurpose device. Because of the cellphone technology and because the power of the processor has so much more capability, you have the ability for a system to be not only a communications device, but also a sensor,” Gen. Moran states. Integrated sensors could detect transmissions from friendly and enemy forces, providing greater situational awareness. Harris has been working with special forces to determine the best solution for alerting a soldier to enemy transmissions in the area, Gen. Moran reveals. “What they really, really need is high-definition video down to that special operator level,” he adds. Harris offers the RF-3590 tablet, which provides secure access to full-motion ISR video, situational awareness displays and tactical databases at the lower echelons. It also allows real-time sharing of information across the battlespace.
Meanwhile, officials with the Thales Group, Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, say their customers are looking for solutions in three primary areas: more services inside the radio, increased data rates and greater networking capabilities. Thales offers an array of systems to meet the need, including the PR4G/F@stnet Geomux waveform. Geomux provides simultaneous voice, data and transverse blue force tracking, which allows a soldier to talk and send files and messages within his unit and to know the positions of other vehicles regardless of unit. Thales officials say one F@stnet radio replaces three traditional systems.
Couillard points out another advantage to providing smartphone technologies on the battlefield. “Since you can store videos and music on a smartphone, soldiers tend to take care of them,” he says.