RFI vs. Big Green

Strategy Page has a post up about the Rapid Fielding Initiative, a streamlined way of getting certain types of equipment into the hands of troops, outside the normal procurement channels.

When wars end there is a search for lessons. One of the most important lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan is that the same lessons tend to be relearned in war after war. The recent wars were different because there was some awareness of this repetition (learning lessons, forgetting them, learning them again during the next war). Perhaps the most important lesson learned this time around was that a lot (usually most) wisdom and innovations begins at the bottom, not at the top. In past wars leaders often believed they knew how to deal with the smallest details of combat operations and ordered disastrous policies to be implemented. There was a lot less of that this time around.

In Iraq and Afghanistan the military, especially the army, was quick to take advice from the troops actually doing the fighting. That was recognized even before Iraq and led to the RFI (Rapid Fielding Initiative). Established in 2002, RFI recognized that the American army did not always have the best weapons and equipment available and that the troops and low-level commanders had a better idea of what was needed than the senior generals and politicians. RFI was intended to do something about that and do it quickly. During the next nine years the army approved the purchase of 409 items immediately, which is what RFI was all about. Last year the army began deciding which of these RFI items to make standard equipment (about a quarter of them) and which to discard (the rest, although many were obsolete and improved replacements were being sought). The marines went through the same process and found that most of their RFI items were worth keeping. This is due to the marines having a tradition of doing more with less (since they have much less money to spend per person than the army).

Not everyone was a fan of RFI. Traditional (government and contractor) weapons and equipment developers did not like RFI. Procurement bureaucrats like to take their time, even when there’s a war going on. This is mainly to cover everyone’s ass and try to placate all the big shots and constituencies demanding certain features. In wartime, this process is sped up somewhat but it is always slower than it has to be.

During a lot of my time in the Army, from the mid 1980s to the late 1990s, the Army swung from robust budgets, to fairly lean times (though rarely could the term austere be genuinely used).  But there’s never enough money, especially in peacetime, to buy everything you want. So the Army tended to prioritize procurement funding toward big ticket, long lead time items, be it vehicles, communications, or missiles.  Little stuff, such as the personal equipment soldiers actually wear or use, tended to fall to the back of the line. An example- in an era when virtually every person who camps or hikes can get a very nice, completely waterproof/windproof one-man tent from REI for around $100, the Army was still issuing the cotton duck shelter half pup-tent first fielded around 1912.

A good example of a piece of kit that quickly found its way to the troops is the Camelback hydration system. It’s easier and quieter to carry a larger volume of water with a Camelback than with traditional Army canteens. And so, virtually every troop now uses one. Troops started buying them with their own money. But  the Army quickly found a way to find funding to buy them for issue to the troops.

Still, rapid fielding of low cost items like personal gear isn’t without its risks. For instance, Let’s say a notional company makes a neat little widget that fills a niche for the troops. But they tend to only make 5000 a years. Suddenly faced with an order for 50,000, they’re going to struggle to meet demand, and, almost certainly, there will be quality control issues in trying to ramp up production. Existing supply line items already in the Army’s inventory tend to have established supply chains, and even surges in production tend to cause less disruption than for Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) items.

And while sometimes, new, better equipment for more advanced uses, say, communications, is available from vendors, just buying it doesn’t mean there are no problems.

In Craig’s series on the Past, Present and Future of Tactical Radios, he discussed the challenges of training soldiers to adapt to the SINCGARS family of tactical radios. Mind you, this was a system that was procured through normal channels. Doctrinal Field Manuals, and Technical Manuals were written, reviewed and published. New Equipment Training Teams (NETT) went to each unit as it fielded the SINCGARS and gave intense instruction in the use and maintenance of the radios. And yet, the complexity of the full range of features meant that the learning curve was still very steep, leaving many units to forego using the secure modes built in, and operating in unsecure, single channel mode- thus obviating the whole point of fielding SINCGARS in the first place.

Come the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even the SINCGARS family had shortcomings that desperately needed to be addressed. As Craig mentioned, the PRC-150/152 family of radios was available off the shelf to address those shortcomings, primarily in data transmission, and in integrating with GPS, but also to provide SATCOM and other waveform capabilities down to low level tactical units via a single radio system.  The Army quickly bought tens of thousands of these radios.

But while the radios themselves provided enhanced capability, that didn’t mean there were not some disadvantages to buying them this way.

Buying off the shelf means the Army hasn’t developed the doctrinal or technical training to teach soldiers how best to use or maintain the radios, nor to establish networks. Some doctrine would translate over from previous manuals, but each unit would tend to develop its own interpretation, and often such interpretations don’t translate from unit to unit. Thus, the point of expanding capabilities instead can turn to friction between disparate units trying to establish comms with one another.  Because the radios haven’t been bought through the conventional procurement system, spare parts and organizational and higher level maintenance procedures and training aren’t in place. In effect, buying a new system off the shelf to address a shortcoming can actually produce as many new problems as it solves.

Mind you, one reason this RFI for COTS equipment takes place is that the conventional procurement system is so sclerotic that even relatively simple systems such as backpack radios can take 10-15 years to wend their way through the procurement maze, much of that time spent even before hardware is first assembled. By the time a viable piece of hardware has been developed, technology has moved on so far that the fielded piece is already obsolescent, prompting the end user to instead lobby to buy COTS.

Between SINCGARS and JTRS: AN/PRC-150 and 152

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.

Harris AN/PRC-150

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).

Harris AN/PRC-152

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.

Harris AN/VRC-110

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.

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.

Past, Present and Future of Tactical Radios – Part 8

Before the Christmas break, I left off the discussion of tactical radios discussing different issues and requirements from the late 1970s and early 1980s.  The main reason I didn’t jump from the Vietnam era radios straight into the first digital radios was to give those issues and requirements their proper air, as they lead directly to the advantages and limitations of that radio system.

The Army started development of the replacement for VRC-12 and PRC-77 radios, now called Combat Net Radios (CNR), in 1974.   The technical requirements, as mentioned in the previous post, included enhanced communications security, support for digital traffic, and improved reliability.  The Army needed highly reliable communications to synchronize lean force structure in combined arms operations.   After a decade and a half of work, around 1988, the Army fielded the SINgle Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System, or SINCGARS for short, to front line units.

U.S. Army photo.
AN/PRC-119 Backpack SINCGARS

SINCGARS consisted of a modular set of radios equipping ground units, paired with compatible aircraft radios.  These were not just “Army” sets, but also used by the Marines, Air Force, and Navy.  The aircraft sets are outside the scope of this study, but the chart below breaks down the major components of the SINCGARS ground variants.

The radio itself evolved through several generations, but the supporting components remained the same generally speaking.  The AS-3900 antenna sensed the radio transmit frequency and automatically adjusted resistance to match, eliminating the “clacking” matching units of the old VRC-12 series.  For command posts, the OE-254 antenna (three up and three down) did not require reconfiguration with frequency changes, as with the older RC-292.  The power amplifier boosted transmit power to allow a planning range of 40 km.  (Many units would report 50 km out in the desert.)  Without the amplifier, SINCGARS ranged about 10 km.

OE-254 Antenna

SINCGARS transmitted on the frequency range of 30 to 88 Mhz.  By reducing the channel separation to 25 Khz, SINCGARS doubled the number of available channels.   Radio operators keyed in the frequency from a numeric pad on the front of the radio.  Gone was the old dial; replaced by an LED digital display.  SINCGARS had space for six pre-set frequencies (and two additional spaces reserved for special functions described below).  The radio operated in single channel (SC) mode or frequency hop (FH) mode.

The backpack versions (PRC-119 or dismounted VRCs) weighed about 20 pounds when dressed out (comparable to a PRC-77 with KY-57).  The BA-5590 (same used on the KY-57 VINSON), gave about six to eight hours of life (if you were lucky).  Field experience lead me to plan for a 6 km range, instead of the 10 km range noted in the technical manuals.

At the heart of SINCGARS was a frequency hopping technology which addressed the long-standing jamming and intercept threat.  Simply put, in frequency hop mode the radio skip 100 times a second through the frequency range.  To work properly, the radio needed five keys, or variables.  First a crypto key for encryption.  Second a TranSec (TSK) that provided the hopping pattern.  Third a HopSet specifying the set of frequencies to use.  Fourth the NetID, a number between 000 and 999, identified the radio network.  And lastly a synchronization time.

The first four variables required the operator to perform a set of about two dozen steps, in sequence.  This was difficult to train, but once an operator got the hang of it, no more complex than setting head-space and timing on a M2 .50 cal.  But the synch time proved a troublesome in practice.  By default the radio reset to 00 seconds of 0 hour of 0 day.  Even when set, radios would drift off time.  New CNR practice revived the concept of a single net control station (NCS) or “master” set to the FH/M mode.  When that station broadcast, all radios on the hopset would re-synch time.

But this failed at several levels.  First, since 1940, the Army had brow-beat operators to reduce transmissions.   SINCGARS had a “time capture” mode that would pick up synchronization, plus or minus five seconds.  But this didn’t help where the day or hour was incorrectly set.  Lastly, doctrine called for the use of queue (CUE) and manual (MAN) frequencies allowing operators to “page” the net master.  But typically the NCS was the command radio which rarely had the time to drop out to respond.  In the field, users often resorted to the old practice of synchronizing wrist watches, then setting the radio’s time.

The first generation SINCGARS, using the RT-1439 radio commonly called non-ICOM (Internal Comsec), lacked the internal crypto circuits.  The only place I encountered these was Korea.  We used a special Y-cable to connect to external KY-57 crypto devices.

RT-1439

The second generation, or ICOM, used the RT-1523 radio and put the crypto circuits in the radio. Note the difference width difference between the ICOM (top) and the non-ICOM the photo below.

ICOM and Non-ICOM

The early generation were great radios from the hardware perspective.  SINCGARS saw its combat debut in Desert Storm with 1st Cavalry Division, some Patriot batteries, and some USMC users – all told about 700 sets.  According to often cited statistics, SINCGARS achieved a mean time between failures rate of 7000 hours, compared to 200 to 300 for VRC-12 radios.  My personal experience strengthens this statistic.  In 18 months as a platoon leader in Korea, I never had a radio down for repair.  As a mechanized infantry SIGO, I had maybe ten SINGCARS turned in for repair in about 20 months – total.  (Yet on rotations to Kuwait, we’d have fifteen or more VRC-12 radios in the shop at any one give time.)

For digital data transmissions, SINGCARS supported up to 16,000 bps (bits per second). Sounds pale compared to our high-speed internet today, but in 1989, this was impressive.  But data transmission required clean, strong signals.  On good days, a practical transfer speed was 4800 bps over 20 km.  That would support TACFIRE and other early battlefield digital systems.  But demand would grow significantly by 1995.

The main complaint with these radios was, as alluded to above, the timing variable.  As a SIGO, I often rushed out to a “problem” only to resolve the issue by a time hack.   The problem, I feel, was not the hardware but the complexity of operation, training, and perception.  In 2nd Infantry Division, which received non-ICOM in 1989, from the division down the standard was “frequency hop, green” meaning fully secure.  With training, command emphasis, and real-world operations on the DMZ, the radios worked.  In CONUS, we were lazy, citing the need for compatibility with VRC-12 radios, and radio performance suffered.  However in two contingency deployments to Kuwait, we preferred to carry our own PRC-119s instead of using the PRC-77s issued in theater.

Bottom line – SINCGARS were too complex in operation, certainly not “grunt proof.”  Indeed, even the soldiers in the divisional signal battalion had problems learning the system!

Even in advance of the first generation fielding, the program managers pursued better versions of the SINCGARS.  In addition to addressing the time synch and complexity issues, the Army wanted more data throughput.  Those radios, which began to arrive around 1996, were the System Improvement Program (SIP) SINCGARS.  I will discuss those, and the Advanced SIP (ASIP) radios, in the next post in this series.