The next-generation survivor radio for U.S. military pilots has
completed several key tests in recent months. Programs officials
said that the radio has overcome serious development problems experienced
three years ago and that the technology will work as planned.
The CSEL (combat survivor/evader locator)—conceived as a
replacement for the PRC-90 and PRC-112 radios—would help recovery
units to pinpoint the location, authenticate and establish communications
with downed aircrew in need of extraction.
The Pentagon’s budget for fiscal year 2003 includes $50 million
for the procurement of 3,500 CSEL radios. The 2002 budget was $30
million. Through 2015, the plan is to buy up to 53,000 units for
the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. The manufacturer is the Boeing
The CSEL radio will enable two-way, over-the-horizon encrypted
communications, so downed aviators can exchange messages with rescue
coordination centers around the world.
The handheld radio—with an embedded GPS satellite receiver—is
only one piece of an elaborate command-and-control network envisioned
for CSEL. The system will include four dedicated UHF (ultra-high
frequency) satellite base stations for two-way secure communications
with the users, and other ground-based search-and-rescue sites that
process information. Two of the four UHF base stations will be located
in the United States (Hawaii and Virginia) and two in Italy (Naples
and Sicily). These facilities currently are U.S. Navy UHF satellite
communications centers. They provide a conduit for the radio signals
to be transmitted over the horizon and fed into the existing secure
Air Force Col. (Sel.) David Madden, CSEL program manager, said
in a recent interview that the system has performed well in tests
this year, and that his most significant challenge in the months
ahead is the training of the CSEL operators.
The Air Force is responsible for the CSEL program management on
behalf of all the services. But, as a result of development glitches
that plagued the program in 1998, the Defense Department’s
Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) office was asked to
oversee the project.
In his fiscal 2001 annual report, DOT&E director Thomas Christie
said that the CSEL technology is “potentially effective and
suitable.” But he cautioned that it’s not ready for
operational use, because there are important issues about CSEL fielding
and operator training that have yet to be worked out with the services
and the U.S. regional war-fighting commanders.
According to Christie, some “users, trainers, testers and
acquisition personnel ... have not been involved in the program
enough. ... Concept of operations, fielding, manning, training and
support have been slighted in the rush to produce a ‘radio.’”
The program’s aggressive schedule, Christie said, has kept
CSEL “on the leading edge of technology.” As a result,
“the technology at times has been too immature for the users
Madden said he was not familiar with the DOT&E report, so he
could not comment on it.
The next major milestone in the program is a multi-service operational
test and evaluation (MOT&E), scheduled for October, he said.
In April and May 2002, the CSEL program office conducted tests
with Army troops at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., and with Air Force units
The tests in Alaska focused on cold weather and SARSAT (Search
And Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking) mode operations. In latitudes
above 72 degrees North and below 72 degrees South, the UHF satellites
don’t provide wide enough coverage, so CSEL must rely on signals
from the international SARSAT system, Madden explained.
During the tests, he said, the “radio worked well. ... The
issue is training operators. The challenge was teaching the users.”
In early May, CSEL was tested at sea, on the USS Lincoln aircraft
carrier, 200 miles off the coast of San Diego. “We had a recovery
work station on board the ship,” said Madden. “We dropped
off survivors on San Clemente Island and ran a full rescue.”
Madden admitted that there were “minor errors over the four
tests,” but he is working to “make sure our training
program is solid.”
The MOT&E in October will include 12 major events. Between
15 October and 1 November, there will be a full-blown exercise for
all the services.
Pentagon approval for full-rate production could come as early
as May 2003, said Madden. He said the radio costs about $9,000.
The contractor, he added, will try to get the price down to $6,000
to $7,000, “when we increase the quantities.”
This month, Boeing is scheduled to deliver the first lot of 376
radios—288 for the Air Force and 88 for the Army. By March
3002, the company is expected to ship about 1,300 radios—900
to the Army and the rest to the Navy.
The naval aviation CSEL variant had experienced the most technical
problems, because it was not adequate for seawater operations, so
the service cancelled its CSEL funding in 2001. Now that the problems
have been fixed, said Madden, the Navy has reinstated the funds.
The $50 million budgeted in 2003, he said, is “evenly spread
among all services.”
The CSEL program office is trying to get the services to accelerate
the funding so they can buy all 53,000 radios before 2015. Madden
said that 30,000 of the radios will be bought by 2007.
Over the course of the entire production run, the Army will receive
18,500, the Navy 15,000, Navy special warfare 1,600 and the Air
Madden explained how CSEL would be used in a typical rescue mission:
Before the mission, the radio is loaded with data about the theater,
maps, personnel data, GPS coordinates and encryption keys. “The
rescue center knows everything about the pilot,” said Madden.
If the plane crashes and the pilot ejects and survives, once he
is on the ground, he pushes a button on the radio. A UHF signal
goes up to a satellite orbiting 22,000 miles above the earth. The
signal then goes back down to one of the four base stations. Only
two are operational today.
The pilot’s message travels via the Pentagon’s classified
network, the SIPRNET, to a joint rescue center. An acknowledgment
message is sent back to the pilot. The pilot then must authenticate
his identity and respond to questions with “yes” and
“no” answers in text format. A typical question, said
Madden, would be “Are you hurt?”
Messages are exchanged while the rescue center tries to figure
out his location. “When we get to the point we are going to
pick him up, the pilot can shift to a VHF mode for voice communications
with the recovery aircraft.” Pilots carry a map and a compass,
just in case GPS is jammed.
The two-way communications and over-the-horizon capability are
CSEL’s biggest advantages over the existing radios and interrogator
systems, said Madden.
“In the tests, we found the downed pilot within three minutes,”
he said. “We know exactly where he’s at.” Eventually,
said Madden, CSEL could help turn search-and-rescue operations into
“no search, all rescue.”
In most SAR operations, he noted, “our problem is that we
don’t know where the guy is, within 100 miles. So we end up
sending 100 planes to look for him.”
The voice channel in CSEL has a 50-mile range. But Madden said
he hopes that downed pilots will refrain from using voice and rely
more on the text messages, to avoid being located by the enemy.
“We are trying to get these guys off voice,” he said.
“They are used to all voice with the current system. ... We
want them to use the over-the-horizon capability, which has low
probability of being intercepted.”
One of the most technically challenging components that had to
be developed for CSEL was the battery. Most of the radio’s
32-ounce weight is the battery, said Madden. The lithium-magnese-dioxide
battery survives in -20 degrees Centigrade temperatures and is water
submersible, he said. It has a life of about 10 days.
The CSEL office developed two batteries. A non-rechargeable, “prime
mission battery” and another one that is rechargeable. Some
services were concerned about the cost of the batteries, “so
we developed a rechargeable.” All services are considering
buying a mix of the two, said Madden.
Technical problems and delays in the CSEL program, meanwhile, have
spurred manufacturers to release upgraded GPS-based search-and-rescue
radios that can fill in the gap until CSEL is fielded.
The maker of the PRC-112, General Dynamics Decision Systems, received
a $10 million Navy contract earlier this year to upgrade 1,422 AN/PRC-112B1
aircrew survival radios. Dede Connors, the company’s marketing
manager, said the upgrade involves the addition of a GPS appliqué
and encrypted two-way messaging.
The AN-PRC-112B1 costs $11,000, said Connors. General Dynamics
recently introduced a redesigned version with embedded GPS, called
GPS-112, which costs $8,000.
The GPS-112 will be ready for deliveries in late 2002, she said.
The target customers are the Defense Department and NATO countries.
The 112B1 radio is part of the so-called Hook 2 combat search and
rescue (CSAR) system, which includes the AN/PRC-112B1 radio and
the Quick Draw 2 interrogator. Most rescue aircraft have the Quick
Draw 2 interrogator, Connors said.
“When someone goes down, the aircraft looking for them has
to have a system on board to interrogate the radio, to gather information
from the radio,” she said. “Preset messages are loaded
that tell rescuers about the condition of the fallen crew and the
environment—as well as identify the particular radio. That
message is an encrypted data burst.”
Connors said that she does not view the GPS-112 as a competitor
to CSEL. “They are both likely to co-exist in the Defense
Department portfolio,” she said. “GPS-112 is less expensive
and less difficult to use. It’s compatible with the 25,000
PRC-112 radios in use today.”
An undisclosed Defense Department customer already has ordered
the GPS-112, she said.
Another competitor in the CSAR radio market is Israel’s Tadiran
Spectralink Ltd. The company has a partnership with the Tobyhanna
Army Depot, in Pennsylvania, to upgrade the older PRC-112 A/B/C
models into a C version, for the U.S. Army. Tadiran also received
a $7.5 million Navy contract recently for 3,662 personal locator
beacon/voice transceivers, 400 emergency locator transmitters and
20 training radios for Navy aircrew survival gear. The equipment
will be manufactured in Tallahassee, Fla.
Tadiran’s latest offering is the advanced search and rescue
system (ASARS-G), with embedded GPS. It consists of the ARS-700G
interrogator and guidance system and the handheld PRC-434G personal
survival radio. The system has a digitally encrypted data link channel
at all available frequencies.
Avi Halel, Tadiran’s business development director, said
that his company’s technology is more advanced than the GPS-112,
because it provides longer range.
In various tests, said Halel, the ASARS-G demonstrated a range
of nearly 100 miles, more than double what competitors offer. The
extended range is attributed to the additional power in the radio
(2 watts) and more sensitivity overall, Halel said.
At least two countries have bought the PRC-434 radio, but Halel
said he could not name them.
The PRC-434 is not meant to compete with CSEL, he said, since the
U.S. Defense Department already is financially committed to CSEL.
However, he said, “CSEL had a lot of problems. That is why
Navy and Army came to us.”
Ultimately, said Halel, “we can offer PRC-434 if CSEL doesn’t
Madden, the CSEL program manager, said that the commercial systems
don’t really stand a chance against the U.S. military radio.
“There is nothing even close to the capability of CSEL.”
In Madden’s opinion, “People are overselling. ... You
can take a 112 and put a GPS receiver. [But] You don’t have
over-the-horizon capability, access to the national systems, the
battery life that we have.”
It is interesting to observe, however, that the commercial radio
makers are upgrading the systems to be more like CSEL, said Madden.
“Systems are evolving toward a CSEL. Almost all the plans
I see, that is what they are doing.”
Vendors have been taking advantage of the technical problems in
CSEL to sell their products, he said. But those days are over. “The
senior leadership now is convinced that CSEL is on track. So we
are not messing around with any other system.”
It is not clear yet whether CSEL will be compatible with the Defense
Department’s Joint Tactical Radio System, a program designed
to replace every military radio with a standard software-based JTRS
An industry source said that JTRS-CSEL compatibility would be hard
to achieve, because CSEL was started before JTRS became a requirement
for military radios and because CSEL is not a software-based radio.
“It would not be technically difficult, but it would be programmatically
difficult, because it would take time and money to modify a radio
to do the CSEL function, with the JTRS software base, as opposed
to a hardware base,” the source said. “It’s a
question of cost and value to the government.”