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Redesigned Communication Equipment Strengthens First-to-Fight Operations

March 1999
By Mark H. Kagan

Troops learn that new gear is not their father’s single channel ground and airborne radio system anymore.

Technology advances have transformed a longstanding U.S. Army radio system into a new device that barely resembles its progenitor. Features such as position location and tactical internet access promise to change the way Army forces operate on the battlefield, and other improvements in the pipeline may change the nature of the communication system.

When the Army began deploying the single channel ground and airborne radio system (SINCGARS) in 1988, it was a voice-only radio that broadcast messages up and down the chain of command. Over the past 11 years, it has evolved into a total tactical communications system with networking capabilities. It now offers secure voice and data communications that provide situational awareness and transmit command and control information across entire tactical echelons. In addition, SINCGARS is the backbone of the Army’s evolving tactical internet, which has been developed in the Task Force XXI Army warfighting experiment.

The advanced system improvement program (ASIP) model does all this in a package that is half the size and weight of the system improvement program (SIP) model currently fielded by the Army. The power consumption of ASIP SINCGARS has also been reduced so that the life of the battery, which is now carried internally, is double that of the first-generation SINCGARS. In addition, the ASIP model costs less than the SIP model, due to the economies derived from its advanced technologies.

ITT Aerospace/Communications Division (A/CD), Fort Wayne, Indiana, produces ASIP SINCGARS. The Army chose ITT over General Dynamics Land Systems, Detroit, which coproduced the earlier versions of SINCGARS with ITT, to be the sole source provider of ASIP for the remainder of the planned SINCGARS procurement. According to John T. Kirkwood, manager of public and government affairs at ITT A/CD, the company will have produced 200,000 SINCGARS of all types for the Army and U.S. Marine Corps by June 1999.

The Army currently plans to equip only its “first-to-fight” units with the ASIP model, and 69,000 units have been ordered in two buys at a total cost of $346 million. The first deliveries are scheduled for this month to the 3rd and 4th Infantry Divisions of the 3rd Corps as well as to the 82nd Airborne Brigade. ASIP radios will also be delivered to the Special Operations Forces, the 101st Air Assault Division, elements of the 1st and 8th Army Corps, the 25th and 2nd Infantry Divisions, and a number of miscellaneous units.

The Army does not plan to equip other units with ASIP SINCGARS. These groups will retain their SIP models. According to Lt. Col. Peter N. Fuller, USA, SINCGARS product manager, Communications and Electronics Command (CECOM), Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, the Army is committed to procuring the future joint tactical radio system. “It will not purchase any more legacy radios, although it could be convincingly argued that the ASIP, especially with its planned upgrades, is basically a new radio,” Fuller says.

The Army has proposed passing the SIP radios down to the U.S. National Guard, which is equipped mostly with first-generation versions of SINCGARS. Meanwhile, the National Guard is planning to procure ASIP SINCGARS in two buys for its 15 enhanced brigades to replace their first-generation radios, skipping the SIP generation version. The U.S. Army Reserve is also reviewing this option; however, a procurement decision has not been made.

SIP radios can be upgraded to carry the same features as ASIP radios, while ASIP SINCGARS is backward compatible with the SIP version. According to Michael W. Cook, director of communications systems engineering at ITT A/CD, a key design element in SINCGARS has been ensuring that each evolutionary step did not make the previous equipment obsolete. As a result, the already fielded radios and each new version of SINCGARS have been fully interoperable.

However, Fred L. Rost, product line manager for voice systems at ITT A/CD, points out, “There is a limit to how much you can change the technology and still be able to upgrade the older models. The time will come when you will want the same features in all the radios, but you will have to replace the older models simply because the technology that is the basis for each of the two architectures is very different.” For example, although SIP radios can be upgraded to support the same features as ASIP radios, they would still not include the enhanced system improvement program (ESIP) waveform, could not be reduced in physical size and weight, and would not have ASIP’s simplified man-machine interface.

According to company officials, ASIP’s digital signal processing (DSP)-based architecture permits field reprogramming through external connectors for future upgrades, including electronic counter-countermeasures, communications security and improved waveforms. Two additional circuit card slots provide for future hardware upgrades such as an embedded internet controller for vehicle-mounted radios, an embedded global positioning system (GPS) receiver, or a high-capacity simultaneous voice and data (SVD) processor that is under development.

The export version of ASIP SINCGARS will have an integrated GPS function, while the version that will be delivered to the U.S. Army initially will be equipped with an external precision locating GPS receiver. According to Col. Fuller, the Army has a requirement for an integrated GPS in ASIP but wants a more robust and capable version than the commercial GPS that will be installed in the export version.

In both versions, GPS information will be embedded in the waveform so that the radio’s position will be automatically transferred as part of its digital data transmission. When plugged into the Army’s Force XXI battle command brigade and below computer system that will eventually equip all digitized platforms, this will provide an unprecedented situational awareness of any operators or units that are connected to the network. This summer, the system is scheduled to go through an initial operational test and evaluation with ASIP by the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Hood, Texas.

“The ASIP radio was designed to provide vast improvements over current radios when operating in a digitized environment in which all units are transmitting voice and data information—especially situational awareness information—at vastly increased rates,” Fuller explains. “Situational awareness will change every aspect of how the Army operates in combat because you will be able to rely, at all times, on the information passed around on the network to tell you where you are, where your friends are and where the enemy is,” he adds.

SIP SINCGARS transmits data by analyzing the channel and squirting the data through between voice transmissions. Although the data transmission is interrupted each time the voice mode is used, the data transmission rate of the SIP radio is four times faster than the first data-capable SINCGARS.

The high-capacity SVD processor being developed by ITT will use a time division process to allow ASIP SINCGARS to transmit voice and data simultaneously on completely separate channels, which will double the SIP data transmission rate. This will virtually transform SINCGARS into a dual-channel ground and airborne radio system. The firm plans to demonstrate the high-capacity SVD capability in SINCGARS for the Army in the first half of this year.

Company officials claim that ASIP’s ESIP waveform improves the overall performance of voice and data transmission with a 90 percent reduction in network fragmentation, while maintaining 100 percent backward compatibility with earlier SINCGARS models. The ESIP waveform also provides automatic voice retransmission for voice and packet data networks using other SINCGARS radio units to extend its range.

According to Cook, ITT reduced the size and weight of SINCGARS to produce the ASIP model by increasing the density factor of the circuits on the radio frequency (RF) board. “This required some rather large technical leaps because RF normally drives the size of the radio,” he adds.

ITT also significantly improved the application specific integrated circuit and moved the software from the input/output unit into the DSP-based architecture that is the core of ASIP. These technical modifications made it possible to reduce the number of circuit cards from five to one and the size and weight of SINCGARS, without the battery, by 75 percent.

Both SIP and ASIP versions of SINCGARS benefited from the Army’s Task Force XXI exercise in April 1997. “One of the things that we learned is that the density factor in a fully operational environment was far in excess of anything that the Army expected,” Cook says. “There were many dozens of antennas, computers and all sorts of other electronic equipment operating in close proximity, which produced a tremendous amount of electromagnetic interference. This caused the SINCGARS units to go into their antijamming mode, which reduced their voice and data communications efficiency and message completion rate.” Messages went through, but it took longer, and the range of the units was reduced.

Rost admits that the Army severely criticized ITT after the exercise because, “People thought that SINCGARS didn’t work up to its advertised optimal capabilities and range. They didn’t realize that it was caused by the massive electromagnetic interference of the Army’s own equipment.” ITT fixed the problem with a major hardening effort before the Advanced Warfighter Experiment that was held the following August. “This involved not only SINCGARS, but also all the communications equipment that had been affected in Task Force XXI,” Rost adds.

In order to carry out this effort, ITT A/CD, in collaboration with CECOM, established the Tactical Internet Communications Validation Laboratory at its Fort Wayne, Indiana, headquarters. “The laboratory simulated vehicles, electronic equipment and an entire field of antennas and operated 50 to 75 radios simultaneously to determine the exact level of interference and develop countermeasures,” Cook says. “CECOM now brings other contractors’ electronic equipment [to the laboratory] to assess how well they operate in a high density communications environment.”

The export version of ASIP, known as the advanced tactical communications system (ATCS), has benefited from the development of both the ASIP SINCGARS and the British Bowman system and will include several capabilities. All voice and data messages will contain embedded GPS information to provide friendly force position reporting. Advanced forward error correction techniques will significantly increase throughput, while extending communications range with improved protection against local electromagnetic interference and enemy jamming. A new ESIP waveform improves voice and data networking. An improved channel access algorithm allows mixed voice and packet data operations. It will also feature field programmability, improved operations in high RF noise environments that are typical of tactical internets, a 50 percent reduction in size and weight, and enhanced power management techniques that significantly increase battery life.

The system will also carry the tactical communication system (TCS) handset, an advanced version of the handheld remote controlled device (HRCD) that equips many current versions of SINCGARS. It will display both the unit’s own GPS information as well as the position information of the source of a received message. The U.S. Army is considering a possible procurement of the TCS handset for its own SINCGARS for both the ASIP and SIP versions. The ATCS ordered by Bahrain and Ireland will be equipped with TCS handsets, while those ordered by Kuwait will be equipped with HRCD handsets.

The HRCD, which allows over-the-shoulder control of SINCGARS by the user, was introduced with SIP SINCGARS in 1997. This was a man-machine interface improvement over the original simple voice/audio handset, Rost says. When using the HRCD, troops carrying the manpack version of SINCGARS no longer have to take off the backpack and set up the radio to use its controls. The Army has ordered 25,000 units to retrofit SIP radios in the inventory, but does not plan to buy additional units.

Army officials are encouraged by the prospects for the SINCGARS-based battlefield combat identification system (BCIS), which has been developed by ITT and CECOM to prevent friendly fire incidents. Using its external or embedded GPS unit, a SINCGARS radio mounted on a ground-based weapon system would communicate with SINCGARS-equipped units that are in its line of fire. These units could respond within two seconds, warning that the weapon would be firing into an area close to a friendly radio. This capability has already been demonstrated in a prototype form for the Army and will be demonstrated again in the first quarter of this year.

“The real advantage of BCIS is that it is a software upgrade to SINCGARS,” says Cook, “which would provide a very quick and easy way of protecting units from friendly ground-based fire. It also would tie in with the high-capacity SVD program, which would enable the digital data package to be sent independently on a priority basis, and thus provide near 100 percent reliability.”

Over the past 15 years, ITT has also been working on tactical voice recognition systems (TVRS) for a variety of military platforms. Such systems allow users, while on the move and in high noise and high stress environments, to control platforms and systems through voice commands, with greater than 98 percent accuracy. The company has demonstrated its “Command Voice!” TVRS for the Army on the M1A1 Abrams tank, M2/M3 Bradley fighting vehicle, UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter and the land warrior infantryman.

Rost asserts that SINCGARS would be a logical platform for embedded speech recognition and voice control. “This would allow a user to give voice commands, such as ‘Go to command net’ or ‘Go to plain text or cipher text,’ without having to look at a display, search for a button or look at a menu,” he explains. “The fact that the ASIP SINCGARS is a DSP-based radio with upgradeable software would make this readily possible.”

The Army, primarily the armor community, is planning to use platform-based tactical voice recognition systems. This would make it possible for a SIP SINCGARS mounted in an Abrams or Bradley to use the speech recognition and voice control capability, but the function would reside in the platform and be routed through the distribution bus when the radio is used. ASIP would also use this method to operate a tactical voice recognition system instead of the software upgrade suggested by Rost.

New Bowman Radios Give British Forces SINCGARS Capabilities

The British Army chose ITT’s advanced digital radio plus (ADR+) in August 1997 as its baseline transceiver for its new Bowman tactical radio system. The Bowman system will replace the British Army’s current Clansman manpack and vehicular radio units, which were manufactured by Siemens Plessey Systems, Racal Radio Limited, MEL and GEC-Marconi Defense Systems Limited.

The Bowman system will use the same processor and waveform technologies as advanced system improvement (ASIP) single channel ground and airborne radio system (SINCGARS), providing the same future upgrade capability as ASIP to a high capacity, simultaneous voice and data system. The British Army also selected ITT’s Network Data Service, which will connect all its tactical radios in a wireless network that will be similar to the U.S. Army’s tactical internet. More than 35,000 Bowman systems will be produced by the U.K.-based Archer Company, in which ITT is a majority shareholder, with deliveries scheduled to begin in 2001.

According to Michael W. Cook, director of communications systems engineering at ITT Aerospace/Communications Division (A/CD), the primary difference between ASIP SINCGARS and ADR+ will be the mechanical packaging. “The British Army wants a single radio with an integrated power amplifier, global positioning system and terminal. They have a somewhat different approach to networking because they have to network with high frequency and other systems with which the U.S. Army doesn’t typically network.”

“The only factor that will stand in the way of interoperability between the SINCGARS and the Bowman systems will be communications security (COMSEC), which is a political, not a technical issue,” according to John T. Kirkwood, director of public and government affairs at ITT A/CD. The United Kingdom uses Pritchell COMSEC, while the United States uses Railman COMSEC.

The two systems will deliberately not be interoperable. “But because they are both DSP-based radio systems, it will be possible for the first time to set up a common COMSEC or a new COMSEC for U.S. and British forces equipped with ASIPs and Bowmans that were operating jointly,” Kirkwood adds. “This would require either inserting a different card or upgrading the software.”

Furthermore, it would remove the requirement for the tactical satellite liaison teams that currently operate with the units of each other’s forces. They are normally equipped with very high frequency and ultra high frequency radios and a super high frequency satellite dish to provide connectivity. “You would still need a liaison team, but you might need only an officer and a senior noncommissioned officer, without all the other equipment and personnel,” Kirkwood suggests.