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Tactical Radios Become Smaller, Lighter and Wetter

May 1999
By Mark H. Kagan

Communications on demand are available with innovative devices that can descend to deeper waters.

New versions of handheld tactical radios offer secure links, improved portability and the ability to function after being submerged in up to 20 meters (66 feet) of fresh or salt water. Special operations forces equipped with these radios can travel lighter and be in touch as soon as they get out of the water, instead of having to stop, unpack and hook up their radios.

The use of commercial technologies is making it increasingly possible to miniaturize tactical radios, while giving them the same or even greater capabilities than much larger radios used by the military and other government agencies. Software is the major driver in this trend, as it allows components to be made smaller or eliminated entirely and enables upgrades with just a double-click of the computer mouse.

Two radios—the miniature secure handheld radio (MSHR) and the multiband inter/intrateam radio (MBITR)—are designed and manufactured by Racal Communications Incorporated, Rockville, Maryland. Affiliated with Racal Electronics PLC, a major multinational electronics manufacturer headquartered in the United Kingdom, Racal Communications is separated from the parent company through a proxy trust. This legal separation and the resulting security isolation enables the subsidiary to operate as a U.S. company with U.S. clearances.

The U.S. firm, which has 11 National Security Agency Type-1 (up to top-secret-level encryption) endorsements, designs, manufactures and supports tactical communications products for the U.S. government and military, and for the governments of U.S.-friendly nations.

Special forces units can dive and swim with these radios without having to bag them or put them in heavy, bulky aluminum containers, according to James Baer, Racal’s director of U.S. Defense Department marketing. “This allows them to wear the radios in their normal configurations with everything hooked up, and then they just turn them on and operate them.”

Racal’s Mitchell Herbets adds, “The first thing that those special forces personnel want to do is figure out where their buddies are when they get out of the water, and these radios allow that.” Herbets, senior vice president and general manager at the company, asserts that the new versions of the MSHR and the MBITR are the only ones available in their specific frequency ranges and are also submersible up to 20 meters. The original versions of the MSHR and MBITR are submersible to only 1 and 2 meters, respectively.

Racal’s product focus is on smaller and lighter full-featured tactical radios, with heavy use of commercial digital technology. “We’re trying to break the paradigm that only heavy manpack radios can meet tactical radio requirements,” Herbets asserts. Racal’s technical expertise lies in the areas of broadband very high frequency and ultra high frequency; digital signal processing/microprocessor-based applications; communications security; and small and ruggedized packaging.

Both radios have digital signal processing and flash memory architectures. “The software resides in the flash memory,” Herbets explains. “When the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) wanted to add a data encryption standard option to their Type-1-only COMSEC (communications secure) MSHR radios, all we had to do was hook up the radios to a personal computer and download the new software that we had written,” Herbets recounts. “Flash memory allowed the FBI to get a new capability without changing its hardware investment, which was protected.”

According to Racal officials, at 16.2 cubic inches and 15.5 ounces with battery and antenna, the original version of the MSHR is the smallest and lightest tactical radio in the world. The FBI, the first customer for the radio, required a unit that was sufficiently small and slim to be easily concealed on a person. Racal signed a development contract for the 1-Meter MSHR with the FBI in March 1995 and a production contract for 4,000 to 5,000 units in September 1996. It replaced the FBI’s 29.64-ounce, 29-cubic-inch Motorola Saber ultra high capacity radio equipped with Type-1 encryption add-ons.

According to Herbets, the U.S. Army Special Operations Forces (SOF), Fort Bragg, North Carolina, liked the MSHR, but SOF’s requirements led to the development of the larger, heavier 20-Meter MSHR to withstand deeper submersions. The radio is 21.5 cubic inches and weighs 24.5 ounces with battery, antenna and waterproof connector. Racal signed a production contract in September 1997 with SOF to deliver up to 1,000 radios this year.

The MSHR, which has a maximum power output of 5 watts, covers the entire very high frequency range of 136 to 174 megahertz and operates in 12- and 16-kilobits-per-second digital voice and data modes. It has 100 programmable channels that are spaced 25 kilohertz apart and is operated by menu-driven keypad entry. The radio’s embedded Type-1 encryption includes both federal standard (FED-STD)-1023, at 12 kilobits per second, and VINSON, at 16 kilobits per second. Both versions of the MSHR contain internal speakers and microphones.

Designated AN/PRC-148, the MBITR is currently undergoing operational testing and evaluation by both the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), a unified command with headquarters at McDill Air Force Base, Florida. This radio provides amplitude modulation/frequency modulation voice and data communications in the 30- to 512-megahertz frequency range. Including the battery, it weighs 32 ounces and measures 29.6 cubic inches. Racal claims that the MBITR provides the same functionality as the single channel ground and airborne radio system, or SINCGARS, system improvement program (SIP), but at a fraction of the size and weight.

Development of the MBITR is an outgrowth of Racal’s work on the digital signal processing-based and flash memory-based architecture of the MSHR as well as SOCOM’s ongoing requirement for a multiband handheld radio, according to Herbets. During testing and evaluation exercises, the MBITR proved its interoperability with the Motorola PRC-112, Magnavox PRC-113, Harris PRC-117, Racal PRC-139 and Magnavox MX-300 radios, the entire line of Motorola Saber radios, as well as the ITT PRC-119 SINCGARS. It also communicated with the Raytheon PSC-5 and Motorola LST-5 radios via satellite.

Marine Corps participation in the program resulted from the Corps’ requirement for a tactical handheld radio (THHR). “The timing was right, the money was available, and they decided to sign up with this program to see if it would satisfy their THHR requirement,” Baer says. The Marine Corps is funding the joint electronic counter-countermeasures evaluation and may procure several thousand units if the test results are satisfactory.

Racal expects testing of the MBITR to be completed early this summer and delivery of production units to SOCOM to begin as early as October. The contract has five production options with a cap of 12,000 units.

Both the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force are also showing considerable interest in the MBITR, Baer notes, but are waiting to see how testing and fielding by SOCOM and the Marine Corps progress. The Army would be interested in the MBITR for the 101st and 82nd Airborne and the 10th Mountain Divisions, while the Air Force has a revolving requirement for a radio with MBITR capabilities to replace 10,000 to 12,000 handheld radios in its inventory.

Racal also plans to offer the MBITR for export to countries such as Canada and Australia that have requirements for Type-1-encrypted handheld tactical radios. “We will eventually develop an exportable version of it, but right now, we’re concentrating on customers who can purchase Type-1 U.S.-classified equipment,” Baer stresses.

The company can now post software upgrades on a protected Internet site for the Racal 25, a handheld radio. This capability, which eliminates the need to send radios back to the manufacturer for upgrades, is possible because of digital signal processing-based and flash memory-based technology. “With the right password, a customer can download the software upgrade to a personal computer and then download that to the radio by simply double-clicking the icon,” Herbets explains.

This capability may become available for the MSHR and MBITR radios as well, which have similar architectures. However, no customers have requested it yet, probably due to security concerns, according to Racal officials.