By Sandra I. Erwin
An enemy ambush in Iraq in 2003 led to the capture of Private First Class Jessica Lynch, who was traveling in a Humvee truck that had no radio. The incident set off a radio buying spree as the Army rushed to install communications systems in every vehicle that was deployed in war zones.
Since the Lynch incident, more than 500,000 single channel combat radios, known as SINCGARS, were purchased and installed on military Humvees.
But the Army is still nowhere close to satisfying troops' voracious appetite for mobile data, GPS location, texting and streaming video. Troops who patrol on foot, away from their trucks, become digital orphans as soon as they are out of the vehicle radio's line of sight.
“We have very good communications systems for our vehicles” but the dismounted soldier is still not part of the network, said Army I Corps Command Sgt. Maj. John Troxell. “We need technology so every squad leader, team leader and every soldier is in the [Army tactical] network and can be tracked from command post,” Troxell said Oct. 22 at the Association of the U.S. Army annual convention, in Washington, D.C.
Soldiers who have smartphones, for instance, cannot tap into their headquarters' information network because the devices do not have the proper encryption. “That is a tremendous frustration,” said Command Sgt. Maj. James Carabello, of the Army's Maneuver Center of Excellence in Fort Benning, Ga. That can keep soldiers from sharing important intelligence with their chain of command or within their units.
Army leaders have promised to help. They have declared “the network” the Army's number-one modernization priority, and began hosting “network integration evaluations” at Fort Bliss, Texas, to probe available technologies.
Manufacturers of military radios expect the Army to spend several billion dollars in the next five years to fill soldier communications needs. Whereas companies view the vehicle radio market as already saturated, they see a rising demand for backpack-sized and handheld radios that can send and receive classified data, industry officials said.
“The Army is committed to the network. The issue now is how fast they can buy [equipment] and how much they can afford,” said Dennis Moran, retired Army major general and vice president of Harris Corp., a supplier of tactical radios.
“Not every soldier needs wideband communications, but every soldier has to be connected in the network,” he said in an interview at the AUSA conference.
During the past decade, the Army purchased thousands of handheld radios for team and squad leaders. But there is a “desire to connect more soldiers” and plug them into the military's tactical Internet, Moran said.
The next step is to acquire radios that have a data device in addition to voice communications, and that meet strict encryption requirements.
The Pentagon requires type 1 encryption for secure classified communications. But not every soldier has the clearance for type 1 encryption, and the technology is pricey. The Army last year got approval to make its future rifleman radio with type 2 encryption for sensitive but unclassified communications.
Rifleman will be the first radio that is type 2 for sensitive data, but can be used by soldiers who don't have secret clearances.
The Army published a “request for information” Oct. 22 on the Federal Business Opportunities website in anticipation of a future procurement of a rifleman radio. So far, the Army has been authorized to purchase 19,327 rifleman radios from General Dynamics Corp. There is a potential market for 200,000 more, according to industry officials.
The Army is hoping that multiple vendors will bid for thee full-rate production phase of the program. The Pentagon's budget for 2013-2018 includes $1.6 billion for purchases of rifleman radios.
"Our strategy is intended to increase competition and decrease costs,” Col. Russ Wygal, the Army's project manager for tactical radios, said in a statement.
The rifleman radio falls under a larger HMS (handheld, manpack, small form fit) joint tactical radio system program.
All radios must run the Army's “soldier radio waveform,” or SRW, which is the software that forms a network that connects lower echelon soldiers to one another and to company commanders.
The Army has begun equipping two brigades with an advanced mesh network, as well as a mix of rifleman radios and manpack devices made by General Dynamics and Harris. Both brigades will be training with the new systems over the coming months.
The Army also is considering adding a data-transmission module, known as “SRW applique,” to current SINCGARS radio that have no capability to send or receive data. Several companies have produced their own versions of such applique. SINCGARS manufacturer ITT Exelis calls it a “side hat.”
Industry proposals for the applique are due in two weeks. The Army most likely will select multiple vendors that will compete for small orders.
The Army, meanwhile, is bulking up its inventory of two-channel manpack radios. So far, it has purchased 22,000 from Harris Corp., and recently ordered 3,700 from General Dynamics. But companies expect additional buys of up to 71,000 more radios. Decisions on how many current SINCGARS end up being upgraded with appliques, however, could reduce the need for new radios.
Vendors regard the applique option as the “poor man's” manpack radio. The applique would cost $20,000, compared to $78,000 for a two-channel digital manpack.
Rifleman radios are expected to cost from $2,500 to $7,000 each, depending on the quantities ordered, industry officials said.
As the prime contractor for both the manpack and handheld HMS radios, General Dynamics expects to be challenged aggressively by the likes of Harris, BAE Systems, ITT Exelis, Northrop Grumman and others. Competitors have privately complained that General Dynamics received a $250 million contractor for 3,700 manpack radios even though the system had performed poorly in tests.
Chris Marzilli, president of General Dynamics C4 Systems, said the problems that testers had identified were fixed. He said the company welcomes the competition. The joint tactical radio program, while highly criticized, has created a large market for software-defined radios that didn't exist before, Marzilli said. “I see a global market for these new waveforms that previously were on the drawing board,” Marzilli said in an interview.
Vendors are looking to improve their radio designs by making them smaller and less power demanding. “Battery life is a big deal,” said Marzilli.
Another, highly anticipated, radio competition is for a high-bandwidth vehicle radio that is intended to replace the joint tactical ground-mobile radio, made by The Boeing Co., which the Pentagon terminated due to cost overruns and poor performance. The mid-tier radio must run the more complex wideband networking waveform, in addition to the SRW.
Chris Bugg, director of business development at Harris, said the possible size of that program could reach 10,000 to 11,000 radios. The 2013 budget funds 900.
The Army will evaluate competing mid-tier radios next year at Fort Bliss. How many they will buy probably depends on “how affordable” they are, Bugg said.
Despite recent efforts to accelerate the procurement of radios, the Army still is reeling from missteps in the joint tactical radio system, a 15-year project that has been widely criticized for draining the Army's coffers and not deli ering useful hardware.
“Despite spending $6 billion over 15 years, the Army failed to produce much in the way of actual radios,” Air Force acquisitions expert Lt. Col. Dan Ward wrote in a National Defense Magazine article. “Having already spent $17 billion, the Army may have to pay out billions of dollars more to get the radios it needs.”
Photo Credit: Army