Running short on space and time (and frankly the old OPSEC reflex said “hold on now”), during the discussion of current radio systems I gave short mention to some radios in the hands of troops in combat today which are to some degree providing the bridge between the past and future of combat networks.
If you have watched Restrepo, you noticed prominent use of a couple of radios from Harris Corporation. These are part of the company’s Falcon family of tactical digital radios and are considered Commercial Off the Shelf (COTS) radios. In short the COTS designation means, although the system conforms to military standards, the system was not directly developed through a military project office. The AN/PRC-150 and AN/PRC-152 offer the capabilities of SINCGARS along with some Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) compatibility. (I would also note other COTS sets such as the Harris AN/PRC-117 and the Thales AN/PRC-148 which deserve treatment in separate posts.)
These are software-defined radios (SDR) compatible with the “waveforms” used on the modern battlefield. What are waveforms? Well simply put, a waveform is the definition of the network transmission characteristics. For SINCGARS, that is FM, frequency-hop, in the 30 to 88 Mhz band. In addition to SINCGARS waveforms, the Harris radios also operate on SATCOM DAMA, HAVEQUICK, and the plan old FM and AM waveforms. The Harris systems are also rated as JTRS compliant with wavers. The radios also offer embedded GPS capability.
At first glance, the Harris AN/PRC-150 resembles a SINCGARS with the keypad shoved to the side. The PRC-150 weighs only twelve pounds, with rechargeable battery. Options include a vehicle mount, base stations, and high-profile antennas (for longer range).
The PRC-152 brings back memories of the venerable PRC-126. It weighs about two-and-a-half pounds with battery. In a small hand-held package, this radio offers all the security and compatibility of the larger set.
And one better! Harris offers an adapter, fitting into the existing SINCGARS mount, to power a set of PRC-152s designated the AN/VRC-110.
Many upsides to consider. Arguably the Harris radios can meet most tactical needs, save a few. One physical device reconfigured as needed to meet the mission. The PRC-152 is for all purposes an individual soldier radio. Issued with rechargeable batteries as standard.
But there are downsides. The radios do not offer significant improvement for data rates. The figure I’ve seen quoted most often is 14.4 kb maximum, which makes sense for the FM waveform. Use of the SINCGARS waveform perpetuates the chief complaint about that system – ease of operation. Use of GPS timing sources and improved variable fill devices simplifies operations, but the same can be said for SIP and ASIP SINCGARS.
From a maintenance perspective COTS systems offer a mixed bag. First off, the equipment is typically under some form of warranty or other support arrangement. That’s convenient in most garrison situations. I’m told that Harris has positioned support teams forward to provide in-theater support. Further Harris has provided training material for technical support staff. In my experience COTS support usually works fine, because the vendor has a vested interest in keeping the system operating. However, I’m a bit “old school” preferring to have a radio-repairman in uniform to do any repairs.
One complaint I have heard about the radios seems almost superficial in retrospect. When dismounting the PRC-152, the user loses connections to data systems, and in many scenarios will only retain SINCGARS waveform compatibility. Personally, I’d call that a “Duh!” observation. When a soldier dismounts, he has two hands on the “bullet launcher” and no hands left for fancy laptops, PDAs, or antennas the size of shrubs!
In trade fliers sent out last year, Harris noted over 100,000 PRC-152s were in service with the US military. While the Army and Marines have indicated SINCGARS will remain the near-term radio set, these two Harris radios offer tempting alternatives should the JTRS run into more troubles.