The Past, Present and Future of Tactical Radios – Part 1

Craig Swain, author of the remarkable Civil War history/monument blog “To the Sound of the Guns” has kindly offered his expertise as a signal officer to us. I’ve long wanted to talk about tactical level communications, but I’ve always been overwhelmed by the scope of the project. So when Craig offered to write about it, I wasted little time saying , “Yes, please!”-XBradTC

Readers need little reminder the political atmosphere in Washington trends towards any cost saving measures possible.  And even with an ongoing war, defense projects are not off limits.  Among the projects mentioned as potential sacrifices is the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS).   No doubt the system has suffered through some setbacks and adjustments.  As things stand, the Army plans to introduce the Ground Mobile Radios (GMR) component of JTRS starting over the next two years.  Likely, even with a curtailment of the project  the Army’s maneuver commanders will project their “command” through these new radios.

The major feature of  the new system is a software defined radio (SDR).  The SDR concept, which dates to the 1990s, involves the use of a computer to translate the received signals.  Conventional radios depend upon hardware – modulators/demodulators, amplifiers, decoders, etc.  In the SDR, software performs the task of translating radio signals into audio or digital feeds.  Right off the bat, from the perspective of those who carry the radio, this has the advantage of reducing weight.  Well somewhat, you still have a computer device of some sort (ranging from the size of a desktop computer or laptop down to a PDA).

Another advantage is upgrade options.  Without dependence on specific hardware components, the radio system may be upgraded with new software.  Although I would argue this is a diminishing feature as the system ages.  Technology being what it is, software of tomorrow will demand more on the processor of today (anyone still using a 486 system out there reading this?).

But the main advantage, not one readily appreciated by someone doing the “carrying” of the radio, is operational flexibility.  A basic problem with communications at the tactical level is integration with other warfighters.  Even in an “all Army” show, this can be tricky, as anyone who has worked on a mech-light mixed rotation at the NTC can attest.  Joint operations introduces the various equipment used by Navy, Marine, and Air Force organizations, often on different frequency bands.  In today’s coalition environments, often warfighters encounter allies who use many incompatible systems, some dating to World War II.   And consider also in the light of recent relief and homeland security operations, military formations must coordinate across a range of law enforcement, government agency, and civilian networks.  An SDR offers the option to load software based on the mission’s needs.  Imagine an always compatible radio.  (Although there is still a gotcha here called the antenna… but I’ll save that for another post.)

Keep in mind this “compatibility” requirement is not something new.  Its been around since Marconi, Tesla, and a cast of other notables invented the radio. Like many of the issues we can cite with regard to tactical communications today – battery weight, limited range, interference, durability, maintenance, difficulty of use – these requirements existed when the technology was first adapted to military use.   While contemplating the future of tactical communications, we should consider the context of past successes and failures.

In my next installment, allow me to discuss some of the issues facing the Army’s tactical communications in the past, starting with World War II.

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