Rifleman Radio offers combat lifeline

The first Rifleman Radios are scheduled to roll off the assembly line this July in a low rate of initial production, General Dynamics officials said.

The first Rifleman Radios are scheduled to roll off the assembly line this July in a low rate of initial production, said executives at General Dynamics, the contractor building the radio.

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Radio connectivity on the fly

The Rifleman is a single-channel, handheld radio that transmits the next-generation tactical waveform on a mesh network, part of the Joint Tactical Radio System program’s Handheld Manpack Small (HMS) domain. The radio underwent testing in November 2008 by the Army Evaluation Task Force at Fort Bliss, Texas, and is set for a limited user test this month at the same location, JTRS program officials said.

The testing revealed a need for improvements to network scalability and in push-to-talk responsiveness, said Joe Miller, director of JTRS programs at General Dynamics C4 Systems, the overall JTRS HMS prime contractor. The primary response from soldiers was positive, he said.

Weighing about 2.5 pounds and with an anticipated life of five years, the radios are expected to become part of the Army's Ground Soldier Ensemble and also probably be mounted on unmanned aerial systems to boost the radio’s range. The radios should reach initial operating capacity by summer 2011, program officials said.

By themselves, the radios have a range of about 5 kilometers, Miller said. However, they are designed to network individual radios into a mesh. That means that one Rifleman-equipped soldier would be able to reach another soldier located outside of immediate antennae range because the connection would hop through nodes along the mesh. The radio has the Soldier Radio Waveform, which converts signals into digitized packets. Throughput should be 600 kilobits/sec, according to the JTRS program executive office.

Miller said mesh networking allows for radio connectivity in difficult environments that obstruct line-of-sight connectivity, such as cities, mountains or caves. The radios’ capacity to act as routing nodes as opposed to primary communication devices depends on the number of nodes and speed at which they move, Miller said.

“If they’re moving at a pretty rapid rate, then the radios have to spend some amount of bandwidth keeping the network routing tables up to speed,” he said. At a certain point, it becomes more efficient to incorporate additional users by creating tiered networks rather than expanding an individual mesh, Miller added. Network administrations can designate a single radio in a mesh network as the sole bridge between its immediate network and another, rather than trying to have every radio network in a single mesh. Testing of the Rifleman is uncovering the maximum number of nodes a single mesh can reasonably support, Miller said.

Although the Rifleman could theoretically support voice, video and images, the dominant application will be networked voice, said Steve Davis, a spokesman at the JTRS program executive office. Miller said there’s no plan to send video communications via the Rifleman, but still-frame pictures could be a possibility.

The Rifleman will transmit users’ location data through the Global Positioning System service. Program officials said commercial GPS is a cost-cutting move – individual radios should cost no more than $1,800 per unit. That figure excludes development, operations and maintenance expenses.

Army situational awareness platforms such as Force XXI Battlefield Command Brigade and Below will be able to display Rifleman locations, Miller said.

The Rifleman originally was part of the Land Warrior networked solider system, which the Army canceled in 2007 following a decade of problematic development. General Dynamics subsequently signed a contract in June 2008 to modify the Rifleman into its existing configuration, Miller said. The Army is considering buying 300,000 to 350,000 units, Miller said, although the JTRS program office said the capability production document calls for 120,000 radios.

The Rifleman is rated as a National Security Agency Type 2 radio, which means that it can be used for sensitive but not secret levels of information. “To handle a Type 1 radio, you’re supposed to have a security clearance, and you can’t give a security clearance to every soldier in the Army,” Miller said.