TACTICAL RADIOS – IT’S TIME TO DO MORE THAN JUST TALK!
Byline: Gordon Arthur / Hong Kong
The US is a leader in terms of military radio technology, and its Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) was slated to be the crème de la crème with its wide-ranging multipurpose communication capabilities. As with so many of its ambitious programmes, the US Army cancelled the Boeing-led JTRS Ground Mobile Radio (GMR) in October 2011 after multiple years and billions of dollars of development. A letter from Frank Kendall, the undersecretary of defence for Acquisitions, Technology and Logistics, stated it was unlikely “products resulting from the JTRS GMR development programme will affordably meet service requirements, and may not meet some requirements at all.”
A major problem for the JTRS GMR was its developer’s attempts to ‘improve’ the system by increasing its complexity and list of functions. In the end it weighed several times that of existing systems and comprised an overly sophisticated radio with every conceivable bell and whistle. Simply adding time, weight, money and complexity did not add up to a better radio. In the same letter, Kendall instead called for an off-the-shelf procurement “with a low cost, reduced size, weight and power variant.” Indeed, militaries need focused systems predicated on technically and operationally relevant criteria. Whereas this particular US Army programme failed, other manufacturers have incrementally improved their radio systems, some of which are presented in this overview of regionally relevant programmes.
Even at the best of times, radio-based communications can be unreliable, something the author has witnessed on numerous occasions during field exercises. Tactical networks for voice, data and video communications need to be versatile and reliable, plus radio integration and connectivity must be as easy as possible. Various systems need to talk to each other and to eliminate ‘disconnects’. However, a lack of international standards in communication architecture poses hurdles, especially with older-serving radio systems that were not designed to connect to broad-reaching IP-based networks. Network routers and radios also need to be capable of forming ad hoc networks with minimal configuration changes.
Vehicle-mounted and man-portable tactical internet relies on very-high frequency (VHF) Combat Net Radios (CNR), particularly at the section/squad level. VHF offers a sizeable frequency range of 30-300MHz for high-quality signals, a range generally avoided by the commercial sector. However, the downside of VHF is its limitation to line of sight, meaning a dismounted soldier only manages an average range of about 8km. The CNR offers vertically connectivity within the chain of command, but it fails to give horizontal connectivity between squad members. This gap has been addressed by the fairly recent advent of smaller, handheld ultra-high frequency (UHF) Personal Role Radios (PRR) carried by individual soldiers. The wider dispersal of radios within units – they are now commonly fielded by squads, fire teams and even individual soldiers – has heralded greater efficiency in small-unit tactics, often allowing soldiers to bypass traditional shouts and hand signals. The battlefield role of the VHF CNR is thus being complemented by these handheld UHF radios and by a backbone of wideband high frequency (HF) manpacks.
Although the technology is not exactly new, the application of software-defined radios (SDR) is now spreading. The advantage of SDR is that it allows a single radio to operate in multiple waveforms for a wide range of capabilities. Furthermore, with the plethora of modern coalition operations, the ability to coordinate with foreign militaries, as well as within services of a single armed force, is crucial too.
Satcom technology has been a huge boon to the military, but interestingly HF communications have undergone a resurgence in the tactical arena since falling into disfavour back in the 1960s. Ground forces are the major users of HF, and it has been widely used in Iraq and Afghanistan where satellite communications are finite and overburdened. HF radio sets are traditionally heavier than VHF ones, and HF bands (2-30MHz) are notoriously prone to unpredictability and unreliability. However, its key contribution is its beyond-line-of-sight application by refracting signals off the ionosphere for a fraction of the cost of a satcom signal. HF radios have also increased their data transmission capacity, thereby allowing messaging and situational awareness to be integrated into command-and-control (C2) networks. Thanks to size and weight reductions, HF radios are now commonly used on foot patrols. Another advantage is the use of Automatic Link Establishment (ALE), which means the average soldier can operate HF radios without detailed technical expertise.
Australia has initiated a process to replace its Raven radio inventory (e.g. RT-F100 HF, RT-F200 VHF, RT-F500 and RT-F700 VHF Pintail). This is occurring through Joint Project 2072 Battlespace Communications System (Land). Phase 1 is focusing on replacing these aforementioned legacy voice systems as well as providing the digital backbone for the Battlefield Command Support System (BCSS) and Battlefield Management System (BMS) being procured under LAND 75. After equipping the technological-vanguard 7th Brigade of the Australian Army, the solution will roll out across the armed forces. Phase 2A, meanwhile, will introduce deployable communications systems to high-readiness land formations. Phase 2B will see enhanced C2, including an Integrated Battlefield Telecommunications Network trunking and switching infrastructure.
Harris Corporation announced in late January an Australian order worth US $235 million for the Falcon III AN/PRC-152(C) multiband handheld tactical radio. The American company has supplied more than 160,000 units to US, NATO and other militaries to date. The AN/PRC-152(C) operates in the 30-512MHz range, plus it supports the Single-Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System (SINCGARS). These new radios will provide secure Type 1 tactical voice and data communications for the Australian Defence Force. A large number of sets are already in service with the 7th Brigade, SAS Regiment, 2nd Commando Regiment and No. 4 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force. This particular radio can transmit voice and data to the internet at 5 megabits/second, which is many times faster than current tactical radio rates. It also has an embedded automated global positioning system (GPS) receiver so commanders can monitor troop locations, plus it meets JTRS Software Communications Architecture (SCA) standards.
This latest order followed a US $112 million contract in April 2010 for Harris Corporation Falcon III AN/PRC-152(C) handheld radios, as well as AN/PRC-117G wideband and AN/PRC-117F multiband manpack units. The order also comprised AN/PRC-150(C) manpacks plus amplifier adaptors to mount AN/PRC-152 units in more than 1,000 armoured vehicles. For linking dismounted elements at the platoon level, Australia uses Raytheon’s EPLRS MicroLight, while Harris AN/PRC-152s connect sections using SINCGARS waveforms.
Under JP 2072, Australia is simultaneously acquiring the aforementioned Falcon II AN/PRC-150(C) manpack that operates in the 1.6-60MHz range. It features third-generation ALE, which the US has made more freely available to allies. Harris has recently established an Asia-Pacific headquarters in Brisbane to help support JP 2072 and other programmes in the region. The New Zealand Army and Royal New Zealand Air Force, for example, use the Falcon II RF-5800H and AN/PRC-117F.
The Antipodean neighbours both use SINCGARS Advanced Systems Improvement Program (ASIP) radios, these being the only regional countries permitted access to US-controlled Type 1 SINCGARS. Australia began using it when it acquired M1A1 Abrams tanks while New Zealand bought in when it acquired NZLAV 8×8 vehicles.
The US Army has a target of 581,000 SINCGARS radios, with most already fielded. More than 300,000 of this total were acquired after 9/11, meaning they are relatively new and will remain in service for many years to come. SINCGARS is produced by ITT Exelis, with the current model distinguished by the inclusion of acronym-filled JTRS Enhanced Multiband (JEM) technology from Thales.
Other Harris markets
The export version of the Falcon II AN/PRC-150 is the RF-5800H-MP, the only difference being the replacement of its encryption with the firm’s generic Citadel system. Recipients include Pakistan, which made US $76 million and US $68 million purchases in 2005 and 2007 respectively. In April 2008 it was announced the Philippines had ordered the same HF manpack system in a US $79.6 million deal that also incorporated Falcon II RF-5800V VHF handheld systems. Deliveries to the Philippines were completed in 2009, with these new devices greatly improving the ability of units to communicate when combating communist and Islamic extremists in remote and rugged regions. Additionally, Brunei awarded Harris Corporation a US $25 million contract in 2008 that included the RF-5800V-HH. Brunei is now contemplating Phase 2 of its CNR Standardisation Programme.
General Dynamics and Thales
There are a couple of other noteworthy radio systems, especially since an important factor in many nations’ choices is the ability to interoperate with US forces and systems. General Dynamics is proffering its AN/PRC-154 Rifleman Radio, which claims to be cutting edge thanks to the use of Mobile Ad Hoc Network (MANET) technology. Essentially, this means the radio system is self-configuring and does not require any infrastructure since its intrinsic connectivity allows signals to hop from one AN/PRC-154 to another until a gateway to a satellite or the internet is gained. The networking Soldier Radio Waveform (SRW) connects individual radios, while the Wideband Networking Waveform (WNW) provides long-haul connectivity. The AN/PRC-154 is the first military usage of MANET technology, and it provides a good solution to the traditional problem of range. In June last year, an initial contract for 6,250 radios was awarded and the Rifleman Radio was trialled by the US Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment in Afghanistan.
Thales Communications has created the AN/PRC-148 Multiband Inter/Intra Team Radio (MBITR), and it holds the distinction of being the most widely used handheld tactical SDR in use with NATO. It entered production for the US Special Operations Command in 2000 before being distributed within Stryker Brigade Combat Teams. Australia, for instance, is a recent purchaser of the Thales Extended Band Manpack based on the AN/PRC-148.
Malaysian company Sapura has teamed with Thales to locally manufacture the PR4G F@stnet CNR for the Malaysian Armed Forces since 2007. Sapura Thales Electronics (STE) also makes a handheld TRC 5100 VHF radio that is used at the squad level. The Malaysian company produces the St@r Mille-S UHF handheld radio too.
Unsurprisingly, Japan produces its own radio equipment and does not export it. The country’s standard manpack is the JPRC-F70 manufactured by Mitsubishi. Taiwan is beginning to use the indigenous CS/PRC-37A tactical radio with voice, data and location capabilities. Developed by the Chung-Shan Institute of Science & Technology (CSIST) under Project Chien Kuo, a complete system including vehicle-mounted and manpack versions was displayed at last year’s TADTE defence show in Taipei. Originally suffering the ignominy of having its funding frozen because it was considered substandard, the PRC-37A can communicate with the incumbent AN/PRC-77. As the Taiwanese military uses predominantly American equipment, Taiwan also uses SINGCARS in aircraft, helicopters and Patriot PAC-2 in its Po Sheng network.
South Korean firm LIG Nex1 produces the in-service PRC-999K VHF CNR, as well as the smaller but incompatible PRC-96K, for the Republic of Korea Army. However, its new SDR requirement is being met through LIG Nex1’s Tactical Multi-Mode Radio (TMMR) programme. The manpack version has a single channel and is scheduled for delivery in 2015. There is also a developmental programme for a handheld version, with LIG Nex1 offering its XPRC-10K and Samsung Thales its Next-Generation Handheld Radio.
Indonesia adopted an export version of the South Korean PRC-999K, but the country has real interoperability problems because it sources radios from diverse places. The Turkish ASELSAN PRC-9600 VHF radio has been sold to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, while Pakistan also produced 6,000 sets under license. Delivery of 1,000 PRC-9661 and 2,000 PRC-9651 radios to Pakistan commenced in early 2012.
Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) has been developing a new SDR manpack, plus it has supplied most of India’s current inventory such as the STARS-V VHF radio. However, India also uses Israel’s Tadiran CNR-900. Thailand and Singapore are traditional users of Elbit Systems and the Israeli company’s latest VHF offering is the Tadiran CNR-9000HDR. Singapore’s extant VHF manpack is the locally produced PRC-940A, while the AHF-130 with ALE capability is used for HF. Singapore’s Advanced Combat Man System (ACMS) employs the Selex SSR+, which has been issued to three battalions to date. Incidentally, Singapore has selected the Rockwell Collins-Thales FlexNet-One vehicle-mounted radio and trials will begin in 2014; a dismounted version is also planned.
Other manufacturers include Codan and Barrett Communications in Australia. Codan is producing radios for an undisclosed Southeast Asian country, while it also demonstrated its 2110 manpack interoperating with Harris radios to the Philippines. Barrett sold PRC-2040 HF manpacks to Timor-Leste in 2008, and manpacks to Papua New Guinea. The Afghan National Army uses HH7700 handheld VHF radios from American firm Datron, with the US providing an interoperability bridge with the US/NATO network. Datron is able to lower prices by dispensing with high-end encryption and frequency-hopping capabilities such as on the standard PRC1099A HF manpack.
Many militaries are drawing inspiration from commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products such as tablets and smartphones, and we can expect the future onslaught of a new generation of flexible tactical systems that are lighter and offer innovative data access. The USA’s Connecting Soldiers to Digital Applications project has been investigating how to integrate tactical radios with COTS devices since 2009, the aim being to expand soldiers’ access to information at a lower cost. The breakneck velocity of commercial technology allows militaries to piggyback and save money with minimal risk. Because such gadgetry is so commonplace nowadays, it also shortens soldier familiarisation time.
Commercial technology is relatively inexpensive, so budget stress alone is speeding up the implementation of COTS devices for tactical use. This technology is ensuring tactical radios are now incorporating commercial features such as e-mail and chat too. COTS systems are also becoming more rugged and secure, which is a boon for military applications. Michael McCarthy, direction of operations at the Army Brigade Modernization Command’s Mission Command Complex at Fort Bliss, Texas, stated: “There is always going to be a need for tactical radios in the military. There’s no question about that. The radios have proven their worth, but here is an opportunity…of enhancing that capability and doing some things that five years ago nobody even thought of.” The interplay between tactical radios and mobile devices will mushroom, and the military communications industry will certainly remain a hugely important sector – global expenditure of USD17 billion is forecast for 2012 alone.