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.