Tactical radios and mobile devices: Powered by imagination

Designers think creatively to meet the evolving communications needs of dispersed and mobile forces.

Imagination is transforming tactical radios, mobile devices and related communications systems in ways that are both amazing and pleasing to Army leaders and troops.

Drawing inspiration from commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) devices such as smart phones and tablet PCs, military radio designers are adding innovative features and functions to an array of communication and information delivery devices. The trend is leading to a new generation of flexible tactical systems that are easier to carry and simpler to operate and that allow troops to access, generate and use information in entirely new ways.

Although COTS devices are in the process of becoming battlefield mainstays, Michael McCarthy, director of operations at the Army Brigade Modernization Command’s Mission Command Complex at Fort Bliss, Texas, and co-leader of the service’s smart phone effort, still sees a bright future for tactical radios.

“There is always going to be a need for tactical radios in the military. There is no question about that,” he said. “The radios have proven their worth, but here is an opportunity, as we look at things, of enhancing that capability and doing some things that five years ago nobody even thought of.”

As technology advances, tactical radios are becoming more like COTS devices, incorporating features such as e-mail and chat modes. Meanwhile, many smart devices in the consumer market are acquiring military-like levels of ruggedness and security. In the years ahead, McCarthy expects more COTS devices to be deployed alongside tactical radios, even on the tactical edge when needs dictate their use.

Perhaps most importantly, budget concerns are helping to speed the arrival of COTS devices in tactical situations. “Because the commercially available technology is relatively inexpensive, it makes it much more affordable,” McCarthy said. “Instead of buying a $17,000 piece of radio hardware for soldiers to use, we buy them a lot of $200 smart phones.”

Evolving Technology

Both COTS and tactical radio designers are taking advantage of relentless technology progress to make their devices lighter, easier to use and more rich with features, without sacrificing available operating time. “Microprocessors and digital signal processors are scaled down to the point that entire systems can be built economically on a single die,” observed Randy Nash, RF and digital signal processing branch chief at the Army’s Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. “What was not so long ago a cellular radio with 200 or more parts is now made of only tens of parts.”

Yet even as device form factors shrink and more features are added, operating time has lengthened significantly in the past several years. “The demand for longer battery life has spurred the battery industry to develop the lithium-ion battery and to make strides to achieve even higher levels of energy density,” Nash said. “On the electronics side, much more is done to manage power...to stretch battery life. Processor speeds are slowed down, and unused functions are powered down when not needed.”

COTS technology is changing not only the radios but the ways troops use and interact with communication devices, McCarthy said. “There’s been a huge transformation in how we communicate within the military,” he said, reflecting back on his years in the field. “As a battery commander, I was the only one in my organization, in my battery, that had a radio, and now we're issuing them down to individual soldiers, squads and fire teams.”

Paying Close Attention

Harris, like other communications systems contractors, is paying close attention to COTS trends. The company, which won a $10.7 million order in March for its Falcon tactical radio systems and software from a country in the Middle East that was not publicly disclosed, is working to make its tactical radios as capable as COTS devices while offering full compatibility with a wide range of military gear and complete independence from commercial cellular and wireless networks.

Unlike COTS products, Falcon radios are specifically designed to provide troops with tactical line-of-sight and beyond-line-of-sight communications and situational awareness. The radios include the Falcon III RF-7800S body-worn Secure Personal Radio, the RF-7800V VHF Combat Net Radio, the RF-7800W High-Capacity Line-of-Sight Radio, and the RF-5800M multiband and RF-5800H high-frequency tactical radios.

“The key products in the Falcon III family — the AN/PRC-117G manpack and AN/PRC-152 handheld multiband radios — were developed to support the modernization of the U.S. military in the wake of emerging 21st-century threats,” said Bill Beamish, product line director for Falcon III manpack radios at Harris RF Communications in Rochester, N.Y. “Now they must also keep pace with COTS innovation. Military operations today emphasize coalition warfighting and coordination between the branches. Units today are formed to respond to threats quickly, given the evolution of the enemy.”

He added that the AN/PRC-117G and AN/PRC-152 radios were designed to support the development of network-centric warfare.

To that end, those radios offer troops an array of COTS-like applications at the tactical edge. “With these radios, users are able to access e-mail and chat rooms; coordinate medevac rescues; track convoys in real time; plan for full-spectrum operations, checkpoint and patrol biometrics, and more,” Beamish said. “In essence, what our radios do is connect warfighters to the tactical Internet — even though there is no traditional telecommunications infrastructure such as telephone lines, cell phone towers or fiber-optic wires.”

The AN/PRC-117G transmits voice and data to the tactical Internet at rates as fast as 5 megabits/sec, a 100-fold increase over current tactical data rates. The frequency range is 30 MHz to 2 GHz, marking a fourfold increase over previous radios, Beamish said. The AN/PRC-117G is also approximately half the size and weight of competing radios, which is extremely important to weight-burdened soldiers. The radio also contains embedded Global Positioning System technology to allow commanders to monitor individual troop locations and other information.

Embracing the COTS Spirit

General Dynamics is also embracing the COTS spirit with its AN/PRC-154 Rifleman Radio. “What really makes the AN/PRC-154 Rifleman Radio cutting-edge is the use of mobile ad hoc network [MANET] technology,” said Mike LaMacchia, General Dynamic C4 Systems' technical director for assured communications. “This is really providing a cell phone-like infrastructure without the towers, repeaters and other structures that enable the cell phones we use every day.”

Secure connectivity is provided as signals navigate their way through other AN/PRC-154 radios and eventually find their way to a gateway that leads into the Internet or a satellite connection. “This is the first time MANET has been deployed in the military, and [it] is the answer to the radio range problem,” LaMacchia said.

With MANET, AN/PRC-154 Rifleman Radios are not restricted by the coverage limits of radio-to-radio communications technology, as conventional handheld radios are. New networking waveforms supported by the device, such as the Soldier Radio Waveform (SRW) and the Wideband Networking Waveform (WNW), are both MANET-based. Small groups, such as AN/PRC-154 Rifleman Radio users, are connected to one another using SRW. “WNW is what enables their connectivity over the long haul, like all the way back to the Pentagon,” LaMacchia said.

All those features are packed into a radio that weighs about 2 pounds. And “combined with other advanced technologies, the battery life is 25 percent better than what the government specifies,” LaMacchia added.

Connecting Soldiers to Digital Applications

With COTS devices destined for use alongside tactical radios, the Army is eager to make the technology as useful as possible. Since 2009, managers working in the Connecting Soldiers to Digital Applications program have looked at how smart phones and other advanced COTS technologies can be used to expand troops’ access to critical information at a far lower cost than would be possible with traditional radios.

McCarthy notes that using COTS devices provides benefits that extend beyond lower upfront costs. “For one, it reduces the need for us to invest money in research and development,” he explained. “If we're able to leverage the velocity of change in the commercial sector, that enables us to buy the best available technology that we can afford, and we've saved huge amounts of money in research and development [by not] developing hardened, mil-spec, 2 1/2-pound cell phones.”

COTS devices also help the Army ride on technology’s leading edge with relatively little risk. “Cellular communication is advancing so fast that [with] the traditional methodology used for the procurement of equipment...we would be looking at fielding things six or seven years from now that have been obsolete for six-and-a-half years,” McCarthy said.

Meanwhile, COTS devices help the Army shave testing costs by transferring most of the benchmarking burden to the vendors. “We are able to work with our industry partners and let them bring their technology in [and] show it to us under operational conditions,” McCarthy said. “We'll inform them on strengths and deficiencies so that they can go back and correct them.”

The overall effect of the shortcuts is to speed COTS device deployment to troops in the field. “It gets things into the hands of soldiers early in the development process,” McCarthy said. “It also provides feedback to the developers, and more importantly, it enables us to expedite getting the equipment into soldiers' hands in operational environments. Training time is also shortened since many soldiers are already familiar with COTS devices from using similar gear for personal tasks.”

Battlefield Network

With more COTS devices moving to the tactical edge, the Army is currently developing a deployable battlefield smart phone environment, based on cellular and wireless Internet technology, that aims to provide seamless connectivity for soldiers using COTS devices. The Multi-Access Cellular Extension (MACE) is designed to supply Wi-Fi, WiMax, 3G and 4G connections to soldiers equipped with smart phones and tablet PCs, as well as a link from cellular base stations to tactical systems.

“MACE is not about developing a cellular infrastructure,” said Kim Ploskonka, a division chief in CERDEC's Space and Terrestrial Communications Directorate (S&TCD). “What we want to do is to be able to bridge the gap between the commercial technologies and the military unique requirements at the tactical edge.”

Ploskonka noted that the MACE program, which launched about two years ago, will allow soldiers to communicate seamlessly on a tactical battlefield while using almost any smart COTS device. “That is because the MACE program is developed based on common standards and interfaces that are being used to integrate technologies into the Army's communications network architecture,” she said. “It's really important to note that there's no proprietary protocols or interfaces...utilized in MACE's architecture. It’s all common standards that will enable us to adapt throughout the future as technologies evolve.”

An online tactical marketplace — the Army’s version of an apps store — will allow MACE users on the battlefield to download software tailored to specific kinds of missions. “Based on the mission, you pick whatever applications you need,” said Vince Halsey, a branch chief in CERDEC’s S&TCD. “If it's a mission manager, say, for a squad going out and doing a mission...then he can push it to everyone in the squad.”

Halsey noted that MACE provides a degree of communications flexibility that doesn't exist today. “Once we address the challenges of security and network management and whatever technical challenges we may face, I think this will become a very, very powerful tool,” he said. “I don't think, at this point, we're looking to replace the military radio, but it certainly will enhance the soldier and his mission.”

A MACE demonstration project was deployed at Fort Dix, N.J., last year. “We did some exercises there showing how we can push applications, how we can mix modes with Wi-Fi or 3G kind of transport,” Halsey said. “We've really done the basic foundation...so that this year we can look at more of the technically challenging, the harder nuts to crack.”

Coming Soon

In the next few years, tactical radios and mobile devices are likely to evolve in ways that aren’t even fully predictable from today’s vantage point. Emerging technologies such as Nett Warrior, a compact communications/computing device that the Army intends to use to drive mission command and position location information down to the team leader level, already promises to challenge many cutting-edge COTS devices for innovation and operational flexibility. A concept design unveiled late last year showed a device that could be worn on a soldier’s chest, arm or wrist. The proposed system included the ability to project battlefield maps and unit location data to its user and to a device linked to an AN/PRC-154 Rifleman Radio.

When and if the Army actually deploys Nett Warrior (the program has already passed through several design and name changes), it aims to use the technology to facilitate command, control and sharing of battlefield information and to integrate each leader into the digitized battlefield.

Meanwhile, Army leaders and troops wait for the next innovation to appear. “Who can predict five years from now what the best phones or the best operating systems, the best tablets are going to be?” McCarthy observed. “What new piece of technology may come along and supersede everything else?”