Special Operators in Market for New Radios
Photo: Air Force
Commandos, who are often fanned out across the globe on sensitive missions, have critical communications requirements. To meet them, Special Operations Command is investing in new technology to keep them connected.
“We’re always interested in seeking transformative or … revolutionary capabilities,” said Deborah Woods, program executive officer at SOCOM for command, control, communications and computers.
This is especially true as operators more frequently conduct missions in electronically degraded areas, she told National Defense.
“The operational environment has become increasingly challenging for communication capabilities in general,” she said. “Because of this we need to develop advanced, flexible, secure, cognizant and resistant communications for our systems operating in a disadvantaged combat environment and for the safety of our operators.”
Many countries, she noted, do not have an existing communications infrastructure for special operations forces equipment to use. “That presents its own unique challenges,” she said. Military leaders have also frequently noted that the United States may face degraded communications in jammed environments. Russia and China have both been investing in electronic warfare capabilities.
Special Operations Command is looking for a variety of new technologies, from devices that can provide low-probability of intercept, to non-radio frequency communications, to next generation encryption, she said.
However, SOCOM’s C4 program office operates on a tight budget, Woods noted.
“Our budget is very, very constrained. And at least for my portfolio, we don’t have a lot of” research, development, test and evaluation funding, she said. “In fact, it is a … small percentage, usually on the order of less than 2 percent.”
That means that PEO C4 needs mature solutions, she said.
“We essentially have enough dollars to do test, integration and operational evaluation before we field them, [but] we don’t have the luxury of doing some significant development effort … like the services” can do, she added.
In fiscal year 2016, the program office was allocated $16 million for RDT&E and $187 million for procurement. For the fiscal year 2017 budget, it requested $21 million for RDT&E and $220 million for procurement.
Special Operations Command is known for its ability to procure new technology quickly, and often much faster than the services. For urgent needs that are validated as combat mission requirements, SOCOM has a policy to deliver that capability within 180 days or less, Woods said.
At the same time, it has niche requirements and buys technology in low numbers, she noted.
That sometimes “makes it difficult to motivate or work with some of the most innovative companies … [because] they don’t see the demand, [or] their return on investment,” she said.
Special Operations Command, however, is reaching out to industry through its SOFWERX initiative, she said. SOFWERX is an organization that is meant to facilitate communication between special operations forces and companies. It is based in Tampa, Florida’s Ybor City neighborhood. It is a partnership between SOCOM and the Doolittle Institute.
In December, Woods’ office held a capability collaboration event facilitated through SOFWERX that focused on non-RF communications.
“We had a good dialogue with the engineers and various folks, and where that goes is TBD at this point in time,” she said. Woods estimated that there were about 35 attendees.
No experiments or demonstrations occurred, but rather it was a technical information exchange, she noted. PEO C4 may have additional SOFWERX events this year.
Some of the biggest investments her office is making are in new radios, Woods said.
Users currently “require massive amounts of tactical data and bandwidth which is usually a limiting factor for them,” she said. “We’re replacing our legacy tactical radios which will help with some of these limitations. But we’re also always looking for solutions to increase our bandwidth, as well as our bandwidth efficiencies.”
Last September, PEO C4 awarded a $390 million indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contract to Harris Corp.’s RF Communications division for its next-generation handheld radio, she said.
The new radio will upgrade SOCOM’s legacy systems from one-channel radio to two-channel. It will also integrate wideband communication and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. It essentially provides “additional capacity over what we have today,” she said. Low-rate initial production is slated for later this year.
Gerhard Schulz, Special Operations Command business lead for Harris Communication Systems, said SOCOM had levied “some pretty significant requirements” for the radio.
“Just the two-channel aspect of it alone is a pretty significant technological [advancement] from the current radios that are in the field right now that are only capable of one transmit-and-receive channel,” he said.
SOCOM also asked for more capable voice and data networks and full-motion video application, he added. That will be integrated through an external mission module that Harris will develop and incorporate into the radio.
Additionally, a new tactical wideband networking waveform will offer users the ability to send more information, Schulz said. “It incorporates a much higher throughput in terms of the bandwidth, so they’ll be able to move larger amounts of data around the battlefield with just this one radio,” he said.
Harris is “off and running with program execution and we are currently in the development stage,” Schulz said.
The first prototypes will be finished this summer and then the company will move into the testing and certification phase of the program. Harris hopes to deliver the first models to SOCOM for customer testing around December, he said. Initial delivery will include 100 radios, he added. Program production deliveries should start in the spring of 2018.
Special Operations Command is still working through its fielding plan, but Harris anticipates that it will ultimately purchase between 15,000 to 20,000 radios, Schulz said.
The company has been eyeing the command’s effort to replace its legacy radios for years, he said.
SOCOM signaled a need for new, advanced radios to replace its legacy systems around 2013, he said. “We started way back then just kind of looking at advances in wideband networking, advances in radio and RF. … It has been a pretty long effort to get to the point that we’re at right now where we’re actually developing and building the radio itself.”
Harris has invested its own internal research-and-development dollars toward manufacturing the system, he noted.
Woods said PEO C4 is increasingly asking companies to invest R&D dollars in new technology.
“We are putting a lot of demand on industry as far as pushing our requirements and we’re looking for non-developmental items,” she said. “That essentially translates into industry having to use some of their internal resources to actually achieve what is going to meet our performance specifications.”
SOCOM is also currently evaluating bids for a new MANPACK radio.
“It’s providing the same capabilities as our handheld but it will be able to support additional waveforms that demand more power and/or processing,” she said. The command anticipates awarding a contract this summer, she added.
Harris has entered the competition for the new MANPACK radio and hopes its work with the next-generation handheld system will put it in an advantageous position, Schulz said.
“A lot of the requirements are the same, a lot of the technology that they are looking for is the same — the improvements in terms of two-channel characteristics and more capable wideband networking,” he said. “We’re already doing that with the handheld, you just increase the scale a little bit for the MANPACK.”
SOCOM is also looking for new developments in line-of-sight or beyond-line-of-sight communications, Bluetooth, secure cellular-like devices and low-profile antennas, Woods said.
PEO C4 also wants new battery technology for its systems, she added. “Any time we can reduce the size, weight and power demands for our tactical users is going to be a benefit,” she said. “If we do have increased power densities, the guys will be able to operate longer, not have to bring as many batteries maybe, and so that’s always going to be of interest.”
New ways to crunch data are also important, Woods noted.
“Data inventory and analysis is still very manpower intensive and can be a boring business,” she said. “We have developed exquisite collection systems that already inundate our analysts and planners with information. As we seek military meaning and publicly available information, the situation is only going to become worse.”
SOCOM needs automated assistance from computer programs that can pull data from disparate sources, including multiple networks to validate the information and ensure compliance with data policies, and then present operators with the information in actionable, easily digestible ways in real time, she said.
To reach “big data nirvana,” the command needs predictive algorithms that can provide courses of action and recommendations before situations become time critical, she said. “Today we don’t have those tools,” she added.
Currently, Woods’ office does not have any formal programs going after big data technology. The command, however, is investigating such technologies and there have been various assessments and engagements with industry, she said.
PEO C4 is “synched up and monitoring how and where this is going because … my portfolio provides the backbone of the SOF information environment, so we need to be dialed in.”