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Battlefield Communications 

Army Under Pressure to Bring Broadband to the Battlefield 

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By Sandra I. Erwin 


Sometimes having more is less.

The Army has more radios, computers and advanced networking technology than ever before. Soldiers at war, alas, are information-deprived.

Despite an information-technology buying spree over the past decade, the Army has yet to figure out how to sate troops’ gargantuan appetite for information and ever-growing needs for battlefield intelligence. Current battlefield networks are accessible by divisions, brigades and battalions. But smaller units remain digital orphans, even though they lead the day-to-day fighting in current wars. The squads, platoons and companies require high-bandwidth connectivity so they can share information and gain instant awareness of what is happening on the ground, Army officials said.

Help appears to be on the way. In the Army’s 2010 modernization roadmap, the “network” is billed as a top priority. After more than a decade of failed efforts and billions of dollars spent, the pressure is on for the Army to deliver a battlefield network that supports small, mobile units. Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli characterized the network as essential to the future Army. “It will require an open architecture that will allow further plug-and-play development in the future as our network grows and matures,” Chiarelli said at an industry conference last year.

The Army since the early 1990s has made several attempts at building a battlefield Internet, but the technology has leapt way ahead of the military procurement bureaucracy. The closest the Army has come to having an IP network at the squad level is in the “land warrior” system — an ensemble that includes a communications and navigation computer-radio suite. In the land warrior network, each member can pinpoint other soldiers’ locations by simply looking at a display. But this is only a niche solution and does not solve the larger problem of connecting every element of a deployed brigade.

Visions of broadband connectivity in the field and smart phones that can be constantly updated with new applications, from a technical standpoint, are realistic, experts said. But they will never be realized as long as the Army continues to buy IT the same way it acquires tanks and helicopters. It simply takes too long to move technology to the field, and by the time it gets there, the market already has moved on.

The Army’s chief information officer, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson, said at an industry conference that the service since 9/11 has tripled its inventory of radios to more than 900,000 and increased its ability to transmit data within U.S. Central Command networks from 46 megabytes per second to about 10 gigabytes per second.

Similar capabilities have not trickled down into the small units that don’t have access to the high-tech command centers and need mobile equipment they can operate from their trucks. Platoons and squads have line-of-sight radios — whose signals are blocked by buildings or mountains — with low-bandwidth and they are unable to chat online or transmit images. Soldiers at a typical forward base in Afghanistan using line-of-sight radios travel only a few miles down the road before they lose their connection to the base.

Under a program called Early Infantry Brigade Combat Team Increment 1, or E-IBCT, the Army is piecing together its most advanced information technologies into a deployable network that would allow soldiers to not only stay connected to each other but also to capture intelligence from unmanned sensors and disseminate it throughout the brigade. The Army’s 3rd Infantry Brigade of the 1st Armored Division, which is scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan in 2012, will be the launch customer for the new technologies. Soldiers from the brigade are testing the systems at Fort Bliss, Texas. If the Pentagon approves additional funding, more brigades could be equipped with the advanced network later this decade.

With this technology, the “company commander becomes the network quarterback for the Army,” said Lt. Col. Darby McNulty, deputy program manager for network systems integration. The future company “command post” is being designed to link all soldiers in a company and below, and also to connect the company with higher echelons and with national intelligence databases via satellite. The command post could be set up in a fixed site or could be installed in the cab of a large armored truck.

The nearly 1 million radios that the Army currently owns, however, are not part of this setup. The E-IBCT program is building the network with new software-programmable radios that were developed by the Defense Department’s “joint tactical radio system” or JTRS program. The radios can be programmed to operate a variety of software communication applications that are called “waveforms.”

JTRS program officials said that current radios cannot deliver the high bandwidth that deployed forces need and cannot run the required software applications.

For the company command post, three waveforms are required: The soldier radio waveform (for narrowband communications within a company), the wideband networking waveform (for broadband data transfer) and the network centric waveform (for satellite-based communications). The soldier radio waveform capacity to pass data is about 500 to 600 kilobits per second. The wideband networking waveform transfers five megabytes per second.

JTRS hardware includes a family of radios — a half-pound device for small robots, a two-pound handheld “rifleman” radio, a 14-pound “manpack” and a four-channel command-post system. The entire JTRS program includes nine waveforms not just for the Army but for the other branches of the military as well.

For the first time, the latest advances in radio communications are being brought together in a live exercise, McNulty said during a conference call with reporters. The recent tests at Fort Bliss proved that JTRS is an essential piece of the Army’s future network, he said. “It’s something you absolutely want to stick with.”

For the exercise, mobile company command posts installed aboard armored trucks were outfitted with “network integration kits,” which are the network hubs connecting the terrestrial and satellite layers of the network to one another. Each NIK consists of a command-and-control terminal, called the “integrated computer system,” a four-channel JTRS ground mobile radio and a blue-force tracker display screen. Dismounted soldiers carried either a JTRS rifleman radio or a manpack radio.

The radios in each vehicle create a “mobile ad-hoc network,” or manet. Each tactical radio functions as a cell phone tower. At the tests in Fort Bliss, engineers extended the range of the network by adding an “aerial layer” made up of unmanned aircraft and helicopters that were outfitted with small JTRS radios. “We were able to extend sensor and position data beyond 20 km, in some cases up to 40 km,” McNulty said.

The four-channel JTRS, made by The Boeing Co., runs the soldier radio waveform, the wideband networking waveform and the Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System, or Sincgars, waveform, which allows the commander to talk to all the vehicles in the unit. Sincgars is the most commonly used radio net in the Army.

Details about how the network will be organized and what specific equipment will be acquired are still being hashed out, said McNulty. “We need to better understand who needs what information at what level so we can better optimize the network,” he said. “If you can eliminate extraneous information you can improve the quality of the network, if you send everything to everyone all at once the quality of your service decreases exponentially.”

Tests will continue over the next several months.

It is not an exaggeration to say that this program is under intense scrutiny. The Pentagon’s senior acquisition officials will be reviewing test results this fall, and will determine whether the program will continue to receive funding. A separate evaluation is under way within the Army. This “network capabilities portfolio review” will examine the entire litany of Army IT programs and nominate winners and losers. It will look at whether the Army can afford to acquire new equipment, whether it should stick with “legacy” systems or, a most likely outcome, whether it should have a mix. Overseeing this review is Chiarelli, who has expressed concern about the “affordability” of current programs and famously brandished his iPhone as an example of the low-cost apps-friendly IT that soldiers need but the Army’s plodding acquisition system is unable to provide.

Another contentious issue in the ongoing reviews is whether JTRS can make up for lost time and deliver hardware at prices that are competitive with other radios. JTRS has been in development since 1999 and originally was scheduled to be fielded by 2006. Delays dogged the program as the slippages coincided with the war buildup, when billions of dollars were being appropriated in emergency war budgets to purchase new radios. When it became clear that JTRS was not ready, the Army poured billions into other radios. The result is today’s inventory that has tripled in size.

JTRS program officials now are forecasting that the models that the Army needs — the JTRS HMS (handheld/manpack/small form-fit) radios will be ready for deployment by 2011.
“These radios provide digital connectivity, networking down to the soldier level. That has not been done before,” said Army Col. John V. Zavarelli, program manager for JTRS HMS. Orders of up to 215,000 HMS radios are expected, he said in an interview. “We believe they could increase to 250,000 based on service needs.”

Zavarelli said he was not familiar with the Army’s network review and could not comment on the affordability of JTRS. He said all the services have been funding their share of JTRS research and development expenses. “I’m not sure the costs are an issue,” he said. “I certainly haven’t been told it in that way.”

About 750 pre-production radios have been purchased so far from prime contractor General Dynamics. Once the radios are cleared for full-rate production, the JTRS program office will solicit competitive bids from vendors for each variant. The assumption is that competitors will challenge General Dynamics and help to drive down prices, Zavarelli said. Several industry sources told National Defense that current JTRS HMS handheld radios cost upwards of $75,000 each, but Zavarelli said he could not confirm or discuss prices.

“We are on the edge of operational testing and limited rate production decisions in the next year,” he said. “We’ve offered some alternatives for accelerating [the development] and are waiting for a decision.”

Radio suppliers are watching these events closely as they seek to position their products for future JTRS business. Several executives interviewed for this story said they fear that the JTRS program is too rigid in that only radios that strictly meet the technical specifications of JTRS will be allowed to compete. That means none of the radios that exist in the military’s inventory today are acceptable. Under that scenario, the Army would be in a position of having to replace hundreds of thousands of radios that already are paid for and installed. A radio installation kit for an average Army vehicle costs more than the radio itself. When JTRS was conceived in the late 1990s, it was assumed that the radios would be installed in new Future Combat Systems vehicles. But when the FCS vehicle program was terminated last year, some Army officials sounded alarms about what this meant for JTRS. “By losing FCS a lot of the Army’s network and communications programs seriously unraveled,” said a retired Army officer who was closely involved in FCS.

Ripping out existing radios and installing new JTRS systems across the Army’s fleets of vehicles would be an exorbitant expense, several industry sources said. They don’t see how the Army will go along with such a plan when the services are under pressure to cut costs and find $100 billion in savings across all defense programs over the next five years.

Officials from one of the Army’s major radio suppliers, ITT Corp., have for years been trying to sell the idea that its Sincgars combat radios could be modified to run the soldier radio waveform (SRW) so the Army would not have to replace them with more expensive JTRS systems. ITT is the prime contractor for the SRW software and also the manufacturer of the Sincgars radios that the U.S. military has been using since the early 1980s.

ITT has delivered more than 500,000 radios, nearly half of them during the past two years. War funds paid for a huge expansion of ITT’s manufacturing plant so it could ramp up production from 1,000 to 6,000 radios per month. The Army Science Board, an advisory panel, recommended in a 2007 report that the Army “stop buying Sincgars immediately” so it could invest the money in “future, not legacy hardware.” But Congress continued to fund Sincgars purchases, and production continues to this day, although Army orders are scheduled to end in a couple of years.

With such a large inventory in the force, it is hard to see how the Army can toss it and buy all new hardware, said David Prater, ITT vice president for network communications.

“We’ve proposed adding a single channel SRW [to current Sincgars] to keep the cost down,” he said. “For $10,000 to $15,000 you’d get a two-channel radio that does Sincgars or SRW,” compared to a $75,000 two-channel manpack that does those two waveforms plus perhaps one or two others,” Prater said.

“The Army is wrestling with this,” he said. The timing has worked against JTRS. “In the meantime you’ve got all these Sincgars radios,” Prater said. “JTRS kind of missed the war. A lot of [non-JTRS] equipment was bought” during the past eight years.

Zavarelli insists that none of these options meets the requirements of JTRS.

“Some radios by design are incapable of hosting narrowband and wideband waveforms,” he said. ITT has suggested adding a “sidehat” data radio to Sincgars that could run the SRW waveform, but Zavarelli is not convinced that it would work. “That’s a separate entire radio that’s added to the Sincgars. I have a requirement for SRW radios and that’s what we are doing.”

Other vendors also have questioned the radio-procurement strategy as well as the Army’s larger game plan for acquiring information technology.

The Defense Department spent the better part of a decade developing JTRS and during that time the industry has moved on to other products and the technology landscape has changed, said Steve Marschilok, president of defense business at Harris RF Communications.

Any company that competes for JTRS production contracts will have to build a custom radio that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the marketplace, Marschilok said.

“You can’t procure IT the way we always have,” said Dennis Moran, vice president of Harris Corp.’s government communications systems division. The Army is stuck with an “antiquated requirements process that goes from Fort Gordon, to Fort Monroe, to the Pentagon,” Moran said. “You can’t force technology to adapt to requirements that are out of touch before ink is even dried on paper at TRADOC [Training and Doctrine Command] headquarters.”

In the case of JTRS, the government could have saved billions it spent on development by purchasing off-the-shelf products, Moran said. That is how U.S. Special Operations Command does business these days, he noted.

Harris has supplied more than 120,000 radios to the Defense Department. The company is a JTRS contractor for single-channel radios and expects to compete for future production contracts for the JTRS rifleman and manpack systems. It plans to offer variants of its existing radios even though the program office says none of today’s commercial radios meet the JTRS requirements. Harris also is expected to bid its PRC/117G radio against competing systems from BAE Systems and Rockwell Collins for the four-channel JTRS ground mobile radio.

A commercial approach to building the Army’s networks would save billions of dollars, said Moran. If JTRS were to be canceled, “ITT and Harris radios could give you an extremely powerful architecture at a much better value than potentially the Defense Department has budgeted for JTRS,” he said. Still, JTRS is an important program for the Defense Department because it can help guide industry investments, he said. “We need the program to develop the standards, to ensure interoperability,” Moran said. “You want waveforms to be seamless to the soldier. We don’t want the program killed. But is there a better way to invest the dollars? Maybe there is.”

Paul D. Mueller, vice president of Motorola’s federal government market, said the military has failed to tap the commercial sector for new technology and remains bogged down in “programs of record” that take too long to deliver products. Defense Department IT users demand unique levels of security for information networks but there are ways to bridge their needs with commercially available technology, Mueller said.

“We’re excited about the adoption of the smart phone technology” for the U.S. military, he said. “That looks like a good bet for us.” There is growing interest in Motorola’s Android smart phone because of its open system and its potential for the military to be able to run its own software applications. Smart phones are regarded as the ticket to information sharing on the battlefield.

The Marine Corps has been ahead of the Army in modifying commercial radios and wireless networking technology for tactical communications, he said.

Motorola has designed a “gateway” box that would bridge cellular, Iridium satellite and land mobile radio networks so users of different cell phones and radios can talk to each other.

The JTRS waveforms could be installed in current radios such as the Marine Corps’ P-25 handheld devices as a low-cost alternative to the HMS radios, said Mueller.

Marines in small units communicate on the battlefield and back to their ships with a mix of commercial and military systems. The “distributed tactical communications system” employs military radios and Iridium commercial satellite services. They also have a terrestrial mobile network built by Trellisware, a commercial supplier of wireless systems.

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