Past, Present and Future of Tactical Radios – Part 10

In the first post in this series, I mentioned some long-standing requirements surrounding tactical use of radio:

  • Compatibility – initially between combat arms, later services and today coalition and non-military agencies.
  • Weight and size – the constant here is how much a soldier can carry, or space allocated in the vehicle.
  • Range – ever important as radios replaced wire/telephones for command and control
  • Clear circuits – free from natural or man-made interference.
  • Security – free from enemy jamming and intercept.
  • Durability and ease of maintenance – to include repair parts supply.
  • Ease of use.

In terms of compatibility, long gone are the days of incompatible infantry and armor frequency bands.  By the Vietnam war, retransmission systems actually bridged the gap from foxhole to division command (and beyond!) for voice traffic.  DoD wide standardization on the VRC-12 series and later SINCGARS ensured joint compatibility.  In the current operating environment, NATO affiliated coalition partners usually use compatible equipment.  However, interaction with non-NATO or non-military agencies often requires commercial radios (or the old practice of sharing sets).

Improvements in technology have reduced radio weight, increased range, provided clearer channels, and improved hardware reliability.  Recall the SCR-300 backpack radio of World War II which weighed 38 pounds, along with a 12 pound battery, with a range of three miles.  By Vietnam the PRC-77 weighed 14 pounds and boasted a five-mile range.  The ASIP SINCGARS weighs nine pounds and ranges to about six miles in backpack mode.    Similarly voice quality improved over the same time with electronic suppression of background noise, squelch options, filters, and channel spacing.  Security also improved with technology.  Encrypted, frequency-hop transmissions have all but eliminated the need for the obfuscation techniques of the past.

Ease of use is a different matter – perhaps a step forward and a step back.  Yes, radio operators are free from cumbersome tuning procedures found on the World War II sets.  Yet one can deride the SINCGARS radios for complex configuration and loading procedures, compared to the old PRC-77.  However, as explained earlier, part of the SINCGARS complexity was self-inflicted.  While the number of dedicated communications personnel dropped, the Army placed more demands upon those left operating the radios.  Secure radio nets, with the option to pass digital data, are not simple to establish and maintain.  Ultimately, the radio is only as good as its operator.  As with any system, particularly combat systems, training is paramount.  I would submit that training has ultimately enabled the success of the current tactical radios.

Going back to the beginning of this series, I mentioned Joint Tactical Radio System (JRTS) which figures prominently in future plans (and I might add for all services as the Army and Marines are no longer the only tactical radio net operators).  While the JRTS project is at an advanced stage, these are not ready to replace the SINCGARS in the inventory.

The chief feature to the JRTS, as defined currently, is the use of Software Defined Radio (SDR) components.  Again, briefly, this allows the radio to be configured specifically for mission requirements.  In a conventional scenario the JRTS might operate as a SINCGARS.  Then in a natural disaster scenario, it might operate in compliance with relief agency networks, on different frequency bands than military channels.  The need for an adaptable radio is paramount given the diverse mission scope facing the warfighter today.

Regardless of the scenario, the digital battlefield is here to stay.  Any new system must support greater and greater through-put for data.  During Desert Storm, dial-up connection speeds were more than enough.  As indicated a few days back, current operations depend on connections ten or twenty times that.   Any future radio should provide the basis for a robust, high-speed network that can be extended to the individual soldier where needed (WHERE NEEDED).  SINCGARS is barely capable of handling the necessary data rates, so this shortfall is felt in the existence of numerous parallel systems in the hands of the warfighter as things stand today.

The ability to “define” the radio to any number of operational parameters will place more demands on those establishing and maintaining the radio networks.  Beyond just training, the radios need to be “grunt proof,” for sure.  What model would I suggest?  Take a page from the cell phone industry.  How complex is your iPhone or Android?  Sort of depends on the individual of course, but the learning curve tends to flatten out once the basics are mastered.

Also mentioned the first post in this series, the JRTS program is at risk as leaders look for budget cuts.  DoD faces a big invoice if JRTS is going to replace the current suite of radios (even if, as currently slated, that replacement will not be a one-for-one swap-out and will also be phased over a decade).  The procurement model needs to change even if the radios don’t.  First off, with technology evolving faster than contract life-cycles, DoD should avoid decade long development programs.  This may lead to limited procurement lots, likely even commercial systems adapted to military standards.  That also sets up “best of breed” evaluations at frequent intervals.

Further, scope programs to specific functional requirements; meet those requirements; and field equipment based on those requirements.  Remember the rush fielding of PRC-25s to Vietnam?  That was, in my opinion, because the Army worked towards the “perfect” radio, which would have been the PRC-77, not fielding the 90% “good enough” solution until troops in the field were in a bind.  But at the same time, any accelerated program should not skip the testing and validation.  “Good enough” should really be good enough for troops to stake their lives on.

In closing, let me say that I predict the current combat radios, SINCGARS and other contemporaries, are actually the last of a vanishing breed.  While the Army plans to hang onto those radios at least through the first quarter of this century, our communications patterns are evolving away from voice-only systems.  The days of commanding through a hand-mike are limited.

The Battle of Wanat

I was planning a lengthy post on the news that the Army’s review of the Battle of Wanat has been completed. But frankly, I’m a bit of a mess and undecided as to what is what. I’m getting conflicting views on what the real ground truth is (and I say this as someone who read the entire preliminary report when it was leaked). That said, other folks have a lot to say about this.

CDR Salamander thinks the Army is covering for its senior leaders.

Here’s the WaPo take on the matter.

Neptunus Lex chimes in.

And finally, Uncle Jimbo thinks the revised report is more the ground truth than the others.

I’ll just say this- while I do NOT want to see a return to a zero defect mentality, I also think senior leaders should be held accountable. Yes, the enemy gets a vote in every combat action. And we don’t want to see leaders so worried about how their actions will be reviewed that they instead take no action at all. But even honest mistakes call for accountability.

I had a friend that accidently fired 7 rounds from a SAW. Each round managed to hit two soldiers. Those two soldiers were critically wounded, but survived. My friend was court-martialed, and sentenced to 18 months in prison. For an honest, if stupid, mistake. A moment of inattention at about 3am. If enlisted soldiers can be sent to jail for making a mistake, is it too much for a senior officer to receive a letter of reprimand?

We Have Met The Enemy, And It Is Us « The H2: Trading Frozen Concentrated Orange Juice Since March 2009

Let that sink in for a minute.

Our elected officials are in a power struggle with unelected functionaries who are on a power trip.  Unelected functionaries who are not accountable to “We the people.”

via We Have Met The Enemy, And It Is Us « The H2: Trading Frozen Concentrated Orange Juice Since March 2009.

Past, Present and Future of Tactical Radios – Part 9

In the last installment, I introduced the first generations of SINCGARS radios, but left off with mention of the System Improvement Program (SIP) and Advanced SIP (ASIP) generations.  If one considers the PRC-77 based on internal improvements to the PRC-25, then perhaps the SIP and ASIP are analogous evolutions from the original SINCGARS.

After Desert Storm, Army planners realized further battlefield digitization was inevitable.  Through the early 1990s Army Communications-Electronics Command (CECOM) began programs to introduce near and long-term solutions to meet the digital requirements.  At the time, the tactical Army relied heavily on an integrated data-voice network from the maneuver brigade up to the theater level.   Mobile Subscriber Equipment (MSE), at division and corps level used packet switching to pass, what was for its time, high-speed data.  These formed the backbone of the Army’s first Tactical Local Area Network (TACLAN).

The “must have” application for brigades and above in the post-Gulf War was imagery, particularly from the much ballyhooed Joint-STARS.   But planners also recognized the need for more than intelligence products at the foxhole level – particularly friendly forces information, general situational awareness, logistics reporting, and digital supplements to field orders.

The problem was the hardware between brigade and battalion.  Maneuver battalions typically possessed two AN/VRC-97 Mobile Subscriber Radio Telephone (MSRT) tied into the MSE network.  MSRTs were ungainly – sort of a cell phone the size of the old VRC-12 radio.  Battalions often paired MSRTs with an AN/UXC-7 Lightweight Digital Fax, which weighed 55 pounds (“lightweight.” I’m not making this up!).  Clearly not an option for the front line.

Also in limited service was the Enhanced Position Location and Reporting System (EPLRS), providing “friendly forces” tracking using a set of digital radios, both vehicle mounted and backpack.

EPLRS Radio Set

Although not a true combat net radio, but in scope of this discussion, EPLRS offered a 56 kilobyte-per-second (kb/s) network for data traffic (again, state-of-the-art at the time).  With a data cable, an operator with a laptop could send and receive data.  The EPLRS software application displayed friendly forces within the network.  On the down side, the radio didn’t support voice traffic; weighed as much as a SINCGARS; and introduced another radio to configure.  While useful, the EPLRS was about a generations ahead of its operators in my opinion, with a steep learning curve.

CECOM concurrently worked towards the integration of SINCGARS with the MSE and EPLRS networks.  SINCGARS SIP introduced a network interface card (NIC) option.  This gave the radio an IP address (just like the computer you are reading this on) and connected to the TACLAN.  An external InterNetwork Card (INC) performed routing functions between SINCGARS, EPLRS, or MSE networks.  In operation, a SINCGARS on a vehicle mount used an INC to connect to either EPLRS or MSE.  That radio set became the “gateway” for other SINCGARS, even PRC-119s, and computer terminals (imagine a big, fat 1990s era laptop) connected by data cables.  Although the data rate remained at 19 kb/s.  In 1995, CECOM demonstrated this setup as part of “Force XXI,” with a team in the field at Fort Gordon passing an email through SINCGARS to a garrison terminal at Fort Monmouth.   And, no it was not a PowerPoint attachment!

SINCGARS SIP, designated RT-1523C or D, were externally similar to the second ICOM sets.  The SIP also introduced an interface to the standard Precision Lightweight GPS Receiver (PLGR) devices, and allowed the radio to pass its position to other stations in the network, thus making SINCGARS a “poor man’s” EPLRS.  Further, the GPS provided a handy time source to resolve continuing time drift issues.

Keeping with the ever evolving electronic technology, the next upgrade for SINCGARS featured a digital signal processor further reducing the physical size of the radio. Although I’ve never seen it stated in such terms, the ASIP in some regards answered a pressing need (once again) for squad level radios.  Ever since the introduction of frequency hopping radios, the old single channel PRC-126s’ days were numbered.

ASIP SINCGARS (RT-1523E)

The radio, designated RT-1523E, weighed 9 pounds even with battery, handset, and antenna.  Even at half the width, the ASIP fits the older SINCGARS mounts.  Note the large side panel on the photo above, which is the compartment for a BA-5590 battery.

ASIP and SIP SINCGARS

But the “time drift” issue remained.   The official solution involved a new fill device.  In the mid-1990s the Army began introduction of the AN/CYZ-10 ANCD (or “crazy ten”) device to replace the various fill devices (KYK-13 being the most familiar).

The "Crazy Ten" ANCD

The ANCD, with all those buttons and tiny display, carried all five variables (and more), including time, needed for SINCGARS operations.   I’ll be blunt in my assessment – the initial fielding was rushed without proper training and the devices were complex in operation.  The “crazy ten” worked, but I spent many a tense moment trying to figure out what button I’d skipped around COMSEC change over time.

In 2001, the US Army and Marines had the best system of combat net radios in the world, particularly considering the digital capability.  Trouble was, the system was designed around a conventional war to match up with conventional threats.  The asymmetrical wars in Afghanistan and Iraq brought requirements unseen by the original SINCGARS requirements.  The adversary lacked sophisticated jamming and intercept capabilities, rendering some of the radio’s features unnecessary.   Yet, the warfighter needed more support for data traffic than ever imagined.  In a war where routine patrols could become front page news within hours, rapid dissemination of information was paramount.

A senior communications officer once confided that OIF and OEF are “bring your own damned radio” wars.  With the distinction between conventional and special forces blurred, many new radio types arrived in line units. Many “limited procurement” radios found their way into the combat zone.  Commercial “fill in” (or COTS) products abounded.  In the remote areas, regular infantry squads used single channel satellite radios (practically unheard at that echelon before 2001).  Partly addressing the needs, the AN/PRC-117 multi-band radio appeared in significant numbers.

PRC-117 in TACSAT Mode

The PRC-117 offered capability to operate with SINCGARS FH nets and single channel satellite nets.  As seen in the photo above, the set is about the same size and weight of a PRC-119.  And somewhat a glimpse into the future, the PRC-117 is a “software-defined” radio.

In retrospect, while many (including me) have cursed SINCGARS for its complexity, the radios have proven adaptable and reliable.  Over the years, better training programs have resolved the complexity issues somewhat.  The system has served through a transition from “voice-centric” radio nets to a time of “data-centric” computer networks.  For what it is worth, the VRC-12 and PRC-77 family served as the primary US Army radios from 1965 until about 1992 – some 27 years.   SINCGARS took over that role starting 1990 and is still going strong at 20 years with no replacement in sight.  Current plans call for over 400,000 SINCGARS remaining in Army inventories out to 2028.

In the last post in this series, I will summarize 70 some odd years of combat radio development and offer my thoughts about what could and should be done for the future.