New Army Radios to Provide SATCOM to Every Soldier

By Allyson Versprille

By Sandra I. Erwin
In a typical combat brigade, only a privileged few are able to talk, send and receive data via satellite. The Army says that will change with the introduction of two-channel radios that will connect to a new military-owned satellite network.

Soldiers in the future will be equipped with single-channel handheld radios that will give them access to the same satellite network that is now only available to users of much larger two-channel manpack radios. What makes this possible is a new radio software application, or waveform, that lets Army radios connect to the Navy constellation of narrowband tactical communications satellites called mobile user objective system, or MUOS.

“Now we are giving a capability to every soldier who has a radio to talk via satellite if they have to. That’s huge,” said Col. James Ross, Army program manager for tactical radios. “This was never available to these guys before. They only had terrestrial networks. We are now distributing SATCOM to the whole Army.”

Ross was at the Pentagon courtyard June 9 demonstrating how the MUOS setup works. An operator on one side of the building with a handheld rifleman radio would talk to a manpack radio that, in turn, would route information to another manpack or another rifleman radio via the MUOS network.

“The Army manpack radio is the center,” Ross said. “This is the only radio capable of doing this.”

In an interview, Ross said he hopes the Army will stick with plans to buy modern radios for the entire force, to the tune of 190,000 rifleman and 65,000 manpack radios to equip all combat brigades over the next one to two decades.

Once the MUOS waveform completes Navy-mandated trials later this year, the Army will begin to install the software on existing manpack radios and test them. To be able to talk to the rifleman radios, the manpack runs Army-developed software called the soldier radio waveform.

Soldiers at the platoon level would use rifleman radios to talk to one another. They would talk to higher level units via the manpack. With MUOS, a soldier would talk to the manpack user who would route the voice or data via the MUOS satellites to another manpack and to another rifleman.

The Army likes MUOS because it is a government owned satellite, dedicated for exclusive use by the military. It developed a radio so it could tap into the network, although it took years longer than planned. The Navy uses MUOS’ larger capacity pipes to communicate with ships and aircraft. Lockheed Martin is under contract to deliver five MUOS satellites and the ground systems. The third satellite was launched earlier this year.

The Army’s manpack can support up to 64 kilobits of data per second on MUOS in a static configuration, and at lower rates when on the move. The data capacity can be allocated so more users can access the network, said Joe Welch, chief of the technical management division at the office of the Army’s program manager for tactical radios.

“If you want to give more people voice, voice only requires 9.6 kilobits per second,” he said. “You can take one of those big data chunks for one big data user and give a lot of people voice.”

The MUOS network will support Army units that typically would only have terrestrial communications and would complement the coverage that higher echelons get from the WIN-T network, which operates in a different frequency band.

The Army’s goal is to have “one big network” with routers automatically deciding at any given time what is the best path for that data instead of using manual configurations, Welch said. One of the obstacles in achieving a single network is that different pieces were developed under different acquisition programs not necessarily intended to interoperate. The integration requires software upgrades, he said. “It is really the next step in connecting the tactical network.”

Ross said the MUOS radios should be ready for initial deployments around 2018. Between now and then, his priority is to “field radios.” The Army recently selected Thales and Harris to produce a small number of rifleman radios that will undergo qualification tests.

The current manpack radios are made by General Dynamics Corp. The Army will request bids for the next generation manpack later this summer. The Army is asking competitors to offer radios that weigh about 20 percent less than the current 19.5 pound manpack.

“We are looking to drop to below 16 pounds,” Ross said. The radio would be installed in vehicles but also would be carried by dismounted soldiers so weight is a huge concern.

“Everyone wants a lighter radio,” he said. “We take it as a mission to unburden the soldier.”

The plan is to offer incentives to companies that can come up with a “lighter solution that gets us better or equal capability,” said Ross. “There’s a marketplace now. So we can go out and compete for something that’s more capable at less weight. Range also is a factor.”

Radio manufacturers are closely watching the manpack program which has been under fire for failing to meet user demands. Ross, who took over the tactical radio procurement office 10 months ago, said one of his priorities is to have closer ties with the “user community” so radios are bought with the customer in mind.

Suppliers also have criticized the Army for promising to buy large orders and then backing down. Ross said he could not guarantee that the Army will follow through and buy 255,000 new radios, as many spending decisions often are made above his pay grade. “We are prepared to meet whatever the requirements are” but budget numbers could change.

Ross said the Army has clearly communicated its needs to vendors. “We are not asking for any futuristic requirements that weren’t anticipated by industry. We are at a point where the marketplace is viable. There are competitors that can deliver what we need without us having to spend an inordinate amount of dollars on development.”

Topics: C4ISR, Tactical Communications, Procurement

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