Army Rethinking Tactical Radios As It Tries to Lighten Soldier Load
Before he was promoted to oversee Army strategy and soldier equipment needs, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster threw a wrench into long-standing plans to buy thousands of new radios.
Following a spring 2014 field evaluation of prototype handheld and backpack-size radios that the Army had been developing and buying for several years, McMaster wrote a memo in which he called for a review of radio procurements, especially the manpack device that he considered too bulky and heavy for soldiers to carry and use in combat.
McMaster's critique rattled program offices that had spent years working on these radios. The problem, as he sees it, is that the Army is overloading soldiers with complex gear that puts them at a disadvantage in combat.
Heavy radios mean less "tactical mobility," said McMaster, who as director of the Army Capabilities and Integration Center has a strong say in what hardware the service should buy.
"We want to lighten the load to restore tactical mobility," he said Dec. 16 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The problem is not just radios, he added. Soldiers are burdened by heavy body armor, infantry weapons and other gear that should be made lighter, McMaster said. "We need to have a proper combination of mobility, protection and firepower across all our formations." In future wars, the Army wants infantry squads that are not slowed down by heavy equipment.
How McMaster's guidance will influence radio procurements still remains to be seen. Officials said existing requirements for new handheld and manpack radios will not change, but procurement plans are being scrubbed as Army leaders debate how best to provide tactical communications to soldiers in combat zones.
The Army has spent a decade and an estimated $9 billion on the pursuit of a modern wireless network for troops at war, but the effort has proceeded in fits and starts. Setbacks have been blamed on budget cuts, political interventions and technical misfires.
Soldiers can use commercial mobile phones in garrison and in forward bases that have access to cell towers. But they do not have reliable voice and data communications that work without an infrastructure, and behind rocks and trees.
"We have not reached the full capabilities of the network," Army Maj. Gen. Cedric Wins said at a news conference this fall. "Problems with the network might have soured some folks within the Army," Wins said. "In some respects, perhaps our ambitions and the timing in which we have been trying to field the network have not come into synch."
Wins, the director of requirements at the Army Capabilities Integration Center, was recently promoted to director of force development on the Army staff.
The lesson from the tactical network effort, he said, is that "we have to look at how we define requirements ... and figure out how to get capability into the hands of soldiers faster."
McMaster is leading a “mission command network assessment and strategy” review to re-evaluate requirements and expectations. The Pentagon gave the Army the green light in May to start production of "handheld, manpack, small form fit" radios. But the procurement plan is still in flux. The manpack has been in development since 2004 and in low-rate production since 2011. It is made by General Dynamics C4 Systems and Rockwell Collins Corp. The Army has bought more than 5,000 radios so far under low-rate production contracts. The handheld variant is made by General Dynamics and Thales Defense. Other suppliers would be eligible to compete for future buys, the Army has said.
Partly in response to McMaster's concerns, the Army is revisiting earlier plans to supply new handheld radios to every soldier and manpack radios to every platoon. There are also talks about cutting back on purchases of single-channel radios and, instead, buy a two-channel handheld for small unit leaders who need both voice and data communications.
Experts who have followed the Army's tactical communications programs believe McMaster will continue to be disappointed by the acquisition process that takes years to produce equipment that, once in the field, might be technologically outdated. The idea of providing soldiers with communications devices sounded simple in theory, but has proven very difficult to plan and manage. The weight of the radios is an issue, but it is just one piece of a bigger puzzle that the Army has yet to solve. "Even Congress is getting tired of this," said an industry source.
Army officials said a top priority is to "simplify" equipment and reduce the logistics burden on soldiers.
Communications for infantry brigades has been especially challenging, said Col. Mark Elliott, director of Army LandWarNet. "How do we enable a mobile force? How do we provide technology to talk from the installation all the way to the operating environment?" he asked during a panel discussion in October. "This is a big deal for the Army," said Elliott. "If I'm in a fixed command post, transitioning to a moving vehicle, transitioning to a handheld environment, I need a common picture of the operating environment."
The officer who oversees network and radio procurements, Maj. Gen. Daniel P. Hughes, agreed that additional work needs to be done to make equipment more functional for soldiers. "We need to give commanders the ability to operate from the enterprise to the foxhole." He said McMaster's criticism of the manpack radios is legitimate. "If the Army says a 14 pound radio may be too heavy for dismounted soldiers, technology will drive us to something lighter and smaller," Hughes said. He noted that the first sincgars combat net radio was the size of a microwave oven and modern ones weigh six pounds.
The Army also might revise its procurements of new radios as decisions are made about how equipment should be fielded. "Does every soldier need a rifleman radio? Maybe no," Hughes told National Defense in October. "There are affordability issues, and issues about how it's employed. ... In some places it makes sense for every soldier to have a radio. In some places it doesn't. The Army will continue to assess."
Simplicity is key, he said, not just in radios, but also in mobile networking systems like WIN-T, the war fighter information network tactical, which provides wireless connectivity to all Army units. After soldiers complained the system was too cumbersome, Hughes asked the contractor General Dynamics to redesign many of the features. "We need easy-to-access networks so commanders can do their business without having to think about the network. I want them to assume it works. By 2020 we are going to have a lot of that done. We have a really solid plan, and it's funded, to get the complexity out of the network."
Critics often don't appreciate how challenging this is, Hughes said. Consumers are accustomed to reliable wireless service because companies like Verizon have thousands of people working to make sure a customer's phone connects to the network. "Think about doing that in an austere environment in the middle of Somalia, where there's no cell tower you want to use and you need secure communications," said Hughes. "That's why it's complex."