New Comm Systems Come Into Their Own Just as Budgets Fall (UPDATED)

By Stew Magnuson
Vendors with new digital radios were at the Association of the United States Army annual show in full force. After years of delays developing the software to enable digital rather than analog communications, the technology is ready, executives said.
But is the customer ready?
Radio manufacturers are anxiously awaiting two requests for proposals. One is for full-rate production for the handheld rifleman radio. The second is for a larger backpackable radio, better known as the HMS manpack. While both have entered low rate initial production, vendors may have to wait before a new set of requirements documents come out. The Army is reportedly reconsidering its acquisition strategy. First, the RFP was expected in April, then it was October, now it could be another 60 days, executives said.
The radios will be using waveforms developed under the program formerly known as the joint tactical radio system, or JTRS. That program was cancelled in 2011 after years of cost overruns and restructuring. Software defined radios, however, have survived and are being fielded in small quantities.   
Not every brigade of the Army is going to receive the radios all at once. And that goes for the relatively new Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, WIN-T, increment two communications system that allows officers in battlezones to move data to and from soldiers and higher headquarters while on the move, and creates an ad hoc mesh networks.
Some units are receiving only WIN-T, increment two, which allows for on-the-move communications. Some are receiving only digital radios. Few are receiving the full capabilities, a reporter at a press conference noted.
That is true, Lt. Gen. Keith Walker, director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, responded. “And that is because of our dollar constraints.”
WIN-T has a third increment, one that will make the system more robust and decrease its reliance on overtaxed military satellites by employing manned or aerial unmanned vehicles as an aerial tier to boost radio connectivity. Increment two relies on satellites and lets each radio to serve as a node to create an ad hoc network and improve line of sight communications. Increment three will also improve data throughput because an aerial tier will allow for more bandwidth.
Heidi Shyu, assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology and the service's acquisition executive, said budget constraints have put increment three at risk of cancellation or a delayed rollout. The goal was to have the final increment debut in 2017.
“When the top line comes down, I am going to have to assess, ‘what is good enough?’” she told reporters.
“Literally, we are doing an assessment right now. [Training and Doctrine Command] is doing assessments of the future of mission command before we make a decision as to what is good enough,” Shyu said.
Bryan Ellis, senior program manager for Army programs at General Dynamics C4 Systems, said there is still some fine-tuning to do for WIN-T increment two. The company is working to simplify the user interface. Some of the soldiers who will be operating the system are not trained as communications specialists, he noted.
There were eight communication nodes for increment one, which is only used at the brigade level. Now that increment two is being pushed down to the company level, there are 58 nodes. Fifty of the 58 nodes will be operated by “non-signal” trained soldiers. The driver for a company commander, for example, might be expected to hop on the system and use it, Ellis said.
Two divisions and four brigades have received increment two to date, with two more in the process of integrating it. The 10th Mountain Division is using the system in Afghanistan, Ellis said.
“They are seeing the utility of on-the-move capability while on patrol,” Ellis said. GD will continue to reduce size, weight and power demand of the system as it works in simplifying the interface, he added.
Meanwhile, General Dynamics C4 Systems, Thales Defense and Security, and Harris Corp. are among those competing for the rifleman radio and HMS manpack contracts — if those programs should move forward.
“The Army is still wrestling with the acquisition strategy for the full-rate production, but we are standing by to compete for that,” said Aaron Brosnan, vice president of business development at Thales. Thales and GD have been a co-developer and manufacturer of a rifleman radio for five years.
With the new software defined radios, every soldier will henceforth have the ability to be connected to the network, if that is what the Army wants. The view screen can provide blue-force tracking to let soldiers know where other members of their squad are located. The radios can serve as a wi-fi hotspot, take pictures and transmit them to higher headquarters, and send and receive text messages. Thales has also developed a full-motion video module that can be attached to the radio.
Software defined radios have been in low-rate initial production, and are being delivered to some Army units.
“We have been proving it out … it has been delivered to operating units in theater, and they are running with it,” Brosnan said. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that the technology is finally coming into its own during a time of continuing resolutions, government shutdowns and sequestration. He preferred to look on the positive side.
“If we are going to be a smaller force, wouldn’t you really rather have a more empowered force? A force that is more capable of conducting its mission,” Brosnan said.
Because of the slow roll out, most are two-channel radios with the soldier radio waveform on one side, and the legacy single channel ground and airborne radio system (sincgars) on the other to enable soldiers to communicate with those who haven’t received digital communications systems yet.
Sincgars is also longer range because it is lower frequency. The higher frequency bands that SRW operates in allow for more data throughput, but is not as long range. Since a two-channel system gives operators the best of both worlds, there is a lot of interest in keeping both in the same device, Brosnan said.
Both General Dynamics C4 Systems and Thales have the ability to slip their rifleman radios into vehicle adapters, and therefore boost the range by increasing the amount of watts.
Contracts may hinge on such innovative ideas, said George D. Helm, president of Harris’ DoD business unit. The contractors are all using the same standard waveforms, so it is up to them to innovate by reducing size, weight and power, coming up with different form factors, and making them easy to train on and employ in the field, he said.
“How quickly does your radio turn on and get into a [network]? We are very focused on those kinds of things because they make life or death differences to the soldier,” Helm said.
“This is the true vision of what JTRS was all about. Putting common waveforms in scalable platforms, going anywhere from a single handheld for a soldier up to two-channel manpacks that can support virtually all the waveforms,” he added.
“I think we are at the point where the government is truly going to see the benefits after investing in JTRS for quite a long time,” Helm said.  
Harris’s Falcon III two-channel manpack radio, the company said, is 30 percent smaller than the competition’s radios. GD on its website says its manpack is the lightest. The batteries are part of a modular system that lets a soldier distribute them anywhere on his body to make the load more even.
Harris made its manpack as modular as possible so new components such as batteries or software can be swapped out as technology advances.
Executives said the Army is leaning toward multiple contract winners with smaller indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity orders rather than naming one winner for the manpack and one for the rifleman radio.
Brosnan believes the Army will see the advantage of multiple awards. It will force the vendors to innovate and to compete with each other on cost, and would not lock the others out for five-year periods.
Correction: An earlier version of the story described sincgars incorrectly.

Topics: C4ISR, Tactical Communications

Comments (0)

Retype the CAPTCHA code from the image
Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Please enter the text displayed in the image.