Italian Software Defined Radio Exits The Lab for the Field
National team is developing first prototype and planning for a system that allows portability on various platforms.
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.
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.
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.|
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.
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
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
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
“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
Gen. Finocchio believes that waveforms certified by this agency, similar to the JTRS Technology Library, should be certified for use on any European or
“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,
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.”