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Italian Software Defined Radio Exits The Lab for the Field

March 2006
By Adam Baddeley

 
Although Italy is involved in the Multifunction Information Distribution System Joint Tactical Radio System program to equip airborne platforms, problems have arisen over issues of software encryption.
National team is developing first prototype and planning for a system that allows portability on various platforms.

Italy is partnering with its local industry to develop a next-generation radio family similar to the U.S. Joint Tactical Radio System. The United States and several other nations will offer significant input in the radios’ development.

The first software defined radio (SDR) prototype, called Christina, is being funded and produced under a research contract. The radio will serve as a demonstrator for the concepts and technical capabilities of the broader SDR effort as well as form a prototype for the naval/ground iteration of the SDR family. It is based on two 19-inch rack-mounted boxes divided between radio and radio frequency (RF) distribution and capable of supporting eight simultaneous voice and data channels from 2 megahertz (MHz) to 400 MHz using test waveforms developed specifically for the program. Power amplifiers allow transmission of a 500-watt signal in high frequency (HF) and a 100-watt signal in very high and ultrahigh frequencies.

The Italian Ministry of Defense (MOD) established a 50-50 funding agreement with Italian industry at the beginning of the program in 2002. The partnership began evolving the then current software programmable technology into a complete family of SDRs. The team has adopted the U.S. Software Communications Architecture (SCA), developed under the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) program, and is participating in the Multifunction Information Distribution System (MIDS) JTRS program led by the U.S. Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command.

Maj. Gen. Pietro Finocchio, ITAF, director general of the Italian MOD Teledife department, explains, “This plan is being built up gradually. It takes into account the time constraints and the technological limits and, I would add, budget constraints that we envisage in the future. Possible obstacles also include waveform portability. One of the most important objectives of an SDR is to achieve the waveform portability. It is, however, very difficult to find common views among the nations on how to exchange specific information.” The original idea, according to the general, is that individual nations would develop an SDR with every waveform being compatible so that all could exchange information. However, if the standard or cryptographic code were to be changed, it would be difficult to remain interoperable, he says.

Gen. Finocchio initiated and was head of the Italian MOD’s research efforts in software-programmable radios. Today, he is responsible for the procurement of command, control, consultation and intelligence systems and satellite communications across the Italian armed forces. He is taking SDRs from the research labs and developing a fieldable system that meets both operational and budgetary requirements.

The Italian defense department has teamed with Selex Communications to acquire a thorough knowledge of SCA and related issues, to conduct studies and tests on hardware and software architectures that are necessary to develop SCA-compliant platforms, to investigate specific technical areas in enabling technologies and to demonstrate communications capabilities in accordance with the new SCA.

Italy’s activities do not stop at the radio box. Further research projects are planned to drive forward national requirements and expertise in both hardware technologies and software to support a military SDR.

To manage communications, Selex Communications is developing a core framework (CF) for a variety of SDR form factors that should be ready in two years, depending on funding. “The CF architecture is the most important part of the SDR and is one of the major development areas planned under the national research activities. It defines operational relationships by which applications components interact. It allows applications portability between SCA-compliant platforms. The decision to develop a CF is being driven by the need to facilitate portability on various national platforms,” Gen. Finocchio says.

Further hardware work includes developing a wideband antenna that Gen. Finocchio describes as a software antenna. Designed for naval use, it will cover the 2 MHz to 500 MHz range and will be capable of near-vertical incidence skywave, skywave and ground wave signal propagation.

The second hardware project focuses on microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), which will benefit the program by reducing volume, weight and power consumption. Under the MOD’s plans, they will be made in small number to support SDR demonstrators and will be used in switches and relays, fixed or tunable mechanical filters and electrically tunable air dielectric capacitors.

 
Italy participates in coalition operations including supplying forces in support of operation Iraqi Freedom.
Ultimately, the SDR that is adopted will have a scalable modular software and hardware architecture, reducing acquisition and maintenance costs and logistic burdens. “We plan to have the prototypes in the entire spectrum in five to six years. An ambitious plan could have a complete set of prototypes ready in 2009. The enterprise will cost approximately 150 million euros [$184 million] to arrive at the prototypes. Then we must plan their introduction into service.” He adds that an area of application often overlooked for the SDRs would be electronic warfare and intelligence applications.

The pace at which the work will be completed is dependent upon the scale of funding and whether an incremental research and development process has been adopted. “We will proceed a little like Bill Gates with Windows 95, 98, 2000 and XP. We cannot wait for the entire process to be complete, and we are adopting a progressive approach based on the budget available for this process,” Gen. Finocchio notes.

Italy is pursuing its international SDR segment through its participation in the MIDS JTRS program, which is updating the MIDS low volume terminal (LVT) program to a four-channel JTRS-compliant terminal. Italy, France, Germany and Spain began working together during the initial MIDS LVT effort via the MIDS international program memorandum of understanding.

The Italian MOD’s participation in MIDS JTRS is through Selex Communications in collaboration with other European countries. It started with a feasibility study to include an SDR, as defined by the JTRS program, in the MIDS LVT form, fit and function.

However, the move from a hardware to a software radio generated security issues. Whereas the MIDS LVT had an encryption package that could be removed from the rest of the terminal, the MIDS JTRS encryption is meshed tightly within the radio. Consequently, the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) decided that international participation could not continue as planned. The United States is now proceeding with this phase largely alone, funding development under an engineering change proposal. European involvement, such as performing program reviews, continues on a limited basis. Relevant data from this work will be transferred to the partner nations via a technical data package supported by U.S. companies connected with the program. Viasat is teaming with Selex Communications and German partner Rohde and Schwarz. Within Datalink Solutions, Rockwell Collins and BAE Systems are working with Thales in France and partnering with Spain’s Indra.

In the meantime, the NSA is using the experience of MIDS JTRS to establish a new policy to deal with the software encryption issues within international programs.

“This is something that was not expected when we signed the agreement with the United States. This is an obstacle that we hope to remove. We are participating, but we will not know how to set up a firewall security. Of course, we do not want to enter the mechanics of U.S. crypto, but we need to share a lot of security information. Otherwise, with our software radio connected to a U.S. network we risk not being interoperable with other networks. We are trying to convince NSA to cooperate in order to obtain limited access,” the general relates.

For Gen. Finocchio, the specific issues of encryption and information sharing generated by MIDS JTRS are equally applicable to other SDR issues, which may generate obstacles to interoperability. A balance has to be struck between security policy and the need for effective coalition operations.

“Working with the United States is a must, but we can also decide to work with others—France, Germany or Spain. However, in these cases we have completely different standards. We plan to be independent in the future, but this does not exclude the possibility of working with other partners in some specific SDR areas such as waveform development.

“We need to have standards and to be able to rely on others when we exchange waveforms because a weak or vulnerable radio is a danger for the network. Europe and the United States should be in coordination and agreement and should exchange information. Measures should be put in place to exchange on an equal basis.” The general adds that a European agency such as the European Defence Agency could be authorized to certify waveforms and  platform development.

Gen. Finocchio believes that waveforms certified by this agency, similar to the JTRS Technology Library, should be certified for use on any European or U.S. platform, and vice versa. The agency also would maintain a waveform library and would undertake configuration control.

Italy uses a combination of waveforms. The variety of combat net radios used by the Italian army illustrates some of the issues being faced. The standard HF radio used is the recently acquired Selex Communications CNR-2000, whereas the very high frequency radio is the SRT 635, a license-produced, single channel ground and airborne radio system, which also is made locally by Selex. Obtaining the rights to these waveforms for their instantiation on successor SDRs is a major challenge. The challenge is multiplied when further waveforms across the armed forces are included. Gen. Finocchio explains that later stages of the program will have to address this issue.

“Sharing is a matter of national security and industrial interests. Cost also is an important driver. This is a very sensitive subject. For the moment, [because] we have some limitations from NSA, we are not yet considering sharing. Once we reach an agreement with NSA, we could probably share technology while safeguarding our national interests and sovereignty. We hope to be able to do so, but we are not yet at the point where we can do it safely,” he says.

At the industrial level, Gen. Finocchio is aware of calls from other European programs for greater cooperation in the development of prototype SDRs and ultimately in joint production of common hardware.

He explains that in response to these desires, Italy relied on its national industry for SDRs as it was unclear whether European industry could safeguard the interests of all nations. He believes that cooperation should see participating nations specializing in complementary technologies. “This is an industrial issue. We have had certain experiences in the past that we hope not to repeat. We realized that when we made the Euromids consortium, the cost of Euromids terminals was higher than U.S. terminals. I am in favor of European cooperation provided that we succeed in building equipment for the market. Otherwise, it is useless. In Italy we have had a relatively bad experience with European cooperation because the concept is not yet mature. In Italy we have suffered in the past from a ‘colonial campaign’ from many nations, and we have decided to defend ourselves. This is our reality.”

Irrespective of the obstacles, Gen. Finocchio says that the commercial sector provides insights, lessons and models on what the military SDR community might achieve. “Do not forget the great success of Microsoft Windows. Nowadays we can buy computers and software at a very low cost. One of the dreams [of the Italian program] is to have something like that for SDR—to buy cheap equipment and low-cost software created through widespread standards, which is highly adaptable and available to a very large market. We are investing money today to safeguard the future budget.”

 

Web Resources
Software Defined Radio Forum: www.sdrforum.org
Italian Ministry of Defense: www.difesa.it
Selex Communications: www.otefinmeccanica.com