Military, Industry Gung-Ho on Software Defined Radios

By Jon Harper
AN/PRC-163 multi-channel handheld radio

Photo: Harris

Industry is moving to supply the U.S. military with new communications technologies that are more cost-effective and offer enhanced capabilities. Software defined, multi-channel radios are seen as the wave of the future as the armed services try to stay ahead of emerging threats.

The network is one of the Army’s top six modernization priorities. The service recently undertook a comprehensive study of its communications architectures.

“One of the big ah-ha moments for us … [was the realization] that we missed that strategic shift in the IT marketplace that started happening — this idea of software defined radios,” Lt. Gen. Bruce Crawford, chief information officer, Army G-6, said at the MILCOM conference in October.

“It started to pick up steam right under our noses … [but] we were kind of busy fighting two wars,” he added.

There are generally two kinds of military radios: hardware centric/purpose-built designs, and software defined.

“Most purpose-built solutions are optimized for size, weight, power and performance but are significantly more expensive and time consuming to design and produce,” Paul Mehney, a spokesman for the Army’s program executive office command, control and communications-tactical, said in an email.

Additionally, they cannot be modified easily because they would require redesign or re-manufacturing to accept new technology, he noted.

Software defined radios, on the other hand, can receive upgrades by changing the software load, enabling the radio to run multiple waveforms or accept new ones. That will enable the Army to acquire new radio technology as it emerges without having to buy additional equipment or start a new program, he said.

The Army is now dedicated to a software defined radio acquisition strategy, said Col. Garth Winterle, project manager for tactical radios at PEO C3T.

“We recognize that there are advantages to purpose-built, hardware defined radios,” Winterle said in a written response to questions. “However, the Army operates in an evolving threat-based environment that requires upgradeability that is limited by a hardware defined solution. Software defined radios allow for less complicated waveform upgrades and do not require costly hardware changes as we incorporate electronic warfare hardening and cyber protection.”

Army officials are also keen on two-channel radios. The service had been fielding a one-channel Rifleman radio to infantry brigade combat teams until 2017. But soldiers requested a two-channel capability to eliminate the need to carry two radios — one for voice and another for data. The single-channel effort has now been deferred, and there is no plan to revisit that decision, said Mehney.

Instead, the Army is now pursuing a two-channel Leader system under PEO C3T’s handheld, Manpack and small form fit (HMS) radio program.

The new Leader device is a handheld, software defined radio with an NSA Type 1 certification for encryption. It provides two-channel secure voice and data via multiple waveforms as well as connectivity to the Nett Warrior system, according to Winterle.

In September, the Army awarded a competitive procurement contract to two vendors — Harris Corp. and Thales — which included initial delivery orders for 1,540 Leader radio sets from each company. Harris is offering its AN/PRC-163 and Thales is offering its AN/PRC-148.

The two-channel radio is a big step up for the Army, said retired Maj. Gen. Jeff Smith, vice president of business development at Harris for U.S. Army and Special Operations Command products.

“The handheld has traditionally been a single-channel radio with somewhat limited range, but with the new technology, the software defined technology, it is a significant improvement in capability writ large.”

The AN/PRC-163 enables cross-banding for more flexible communication, he noted.

“You can … have conversations — both data and voice — on both channels as well rather than only limiting yourself to one channel for voice, one channel for data,” Smith said. “This has the technology that allows you to kind of go talk across those channels.”

The two-channel feature also means troops have to carry less equipment because they only need one radio for voice and data communications, he noted. “You effectively have two radios inside one case.”

The advanced waveforms offer a mobile ad hoc networking capability that allows seamless and simultaneous communication among many different users. The size, weight, power and small form factor have been optimized for handheld use, he added.

The full-motion video feature for improved situational awareness in the past would have required too much power, he said.

“Quite frankly, you never could get it to the soldier on the battlefield because of the bandwidth that was required,” Smith said. “But this particular radio has a capability of doing that with a module.”

A key aspect of the radio is that it allows for upgrades to include advanced waveforms and other means of addressing growing electronic warfare threats, Smith said.

“Instead of having to change out hardware with changes in threat or changes in technology, we’re now able to do this with software squirts … much like you draw down and upload software into your [cell] phone right now,” he explained.

The Army plans to procure the Leader radios through yearly delivery orders that can be competed. The contracts that have been awarded are firm-fixed-price, 10-year indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity, and are structured to maximize flexibility for the Defense Department.

“With each delivery, radio upgrades/enhancements can be ordered to support communication design changes,” Winterle said. “Based on market conditions, additional vendors can be ‘on ramped’ to compete at time of delivery order if the government sees value in the [company’s] capability.”

The total buy could be worth nearly $4 billion.

Another major software defined radio initiative underway is the Generation II Manpack that can be carried in a rucksack or mounted on a vehicle.

In April 2018, the Army gave delivery order contract awards for low-rate initial production to Harris for its AN/PRC-158 and Rockwell Collins — now known as Collins Aerospace — for its AN/PRC-162. The total order will consist of 1,129 radios from each company.

The AN/PRC-158 covers a broad range of frequencies, from 30 to 2,500 megahertz, which is an improvement over legacy systems, Smith said. The vehicle-mounted version offers greater range.

Additionally, the Generation II Manpacks are lighter than the Generation I. Hardware improvements and battery life improvements — from six to eight hours — have reduced the 24-hour mission weight from 19.5 to 16 pounds, according to Winterle.

Smith noted that the system’s wideband and narrowband waveforms will allow for interoperability with legacy radios that have already been fielded. The technology will be compatible with the Navy’s mobile user objective system satellites, as will the Leader radio.

Winterle said the Generation II Manpack provides two-channel secure voice and data communications via a variety of Army and joint service waveforms. But it is also able to accept other advanced networking waveforms, he noted.

“Until recently, the Army focused waveform integration on government-developed or government purpose rights waveforms and radio services to provide communication capability,” Winterle said. “Moving forward, the Army has begun expanding its capabilities to incorporate industry waveform advancements.”

The service has adopted the commercial TSM waveform developed by TrellisWare Technologies Inc. to provide more secure data connectivity for both the Generation II Manpack and Leader radios, he noted.

“The shift in strategy is enabling experimental [development and operations] with commercially available solutions to improve network survivability, including simplification of network, cryptographic key and electromagnetic spectrum support requirements, while also informing decisions on how to sustain and modernize enduring waveforms” such as SINCGARS, Link-16 and high frequency, he added.

The program office plans additional LRIP delivery orders for the second-generation Manpacks over the next two years. Full-rate production approval will be granted after the successful completion of an operational test of the TSM waveform, which is now slated for fiscal year 2020, Winterle said.

PEO C3T’s Manpack initiatives — which include Generation I AN/PRC-155 radios developed by General Dynamics — are expected to be worth up to $12.7 billion.
Smith said software defined radios are the wave of the future for the U.S. military.

“It’s really the only way to go as you look at technology and how fast technology changes, and particularly when you look at the threat and how frequent your threat changes,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to go in as we evolve our own technology and rapidly upgrade without the need to replace their radios.”

U.S. Special Operations command is already buying the AN/PRC-163, he noted. “We’re looking at all the services,” he added.

Meanwhile, Raytheon has developed a new software defined radio, known as X-Net, designed to operate in challenging military communication environments.

The company showed off the technology at a demonstration at Patuxent River, Maryland, in August. The event was hosted by the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Navy’s small tactical unmanned aircraft systems program office.

The company put its system in a RQ-21A Blackjack intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance drone, which was flown in a dense signal environment.

“We swapped out two existing radios [that were responsible for flight control operations and video transmission] with a single X-Net device, and then we were able to demonstrate that with X-Net we can provide the functionality of those two radios,” said Barbara Borgonovi, vice president of integrated communications systems at Raytheon.

“It was a very successful demonstration.”

The benefit of software defined radio technology is that it enables a single radio to provide multiple capabilities, she said. For X-Net, it includes the ability to automatically select the best radio frequency for operations. “It continuously can hop so that in environments where there may be a lot of congestion on one frequency it can adjust to those situations,” she explained.

While unmanned aerial vehicles are prime candidates to be equipped with the device, it can be adapted to the needs of the customer, Borgonovi noted. For example, dismounted troops could potentially use X-Net to remotely control an unmanned combat vehicle, she said.

“The potential is extremely broad … because it’s a very small form factor, it’s about the size of a hockey puck,” she said. “That means that from a size/weight standpoint, it’s not limiting relative to different applications. And because it is software [defined], there are a lot of … possibilities for us to look at.”

A key focus going forward will be expanding the system’s ability to operate in a contested signal environment such as the U.S. military might encounter when fighting enemies with advanced electronic warfare capabilities.

This year Raytheon will perform low-rate initial production of X-Net for a U.S. military customer that Borgonovi declined to identify. “We’ve already secured a small contract for weapons data links activities, is all I would be able to say.”

All of Raytheon’s legacy radios already have, or will soon have, an updated software defined radio version, Borgonovi noted. She anticipates that most of Raytheon’s future radio systems developed for the U.S. military will also be software defined. “All of our customers are moving in ... [that] direction.”

Topics: Battlefield Communications, Defense Department

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