COMMENTARY

Manpack radios overcome battlefield interference

It's time troops on the ground had the same reliable network that civilians take for granted

It’s happened to all of us. You are on your smart phone, talking away and the voice on the other end becomes distorted, or worse, silent.

You immediately start walking around, changing directions to recapture your signal — very annoying.

Now imagine you’re an exhausted squad leader in the mountains of Afghanistan. Enemy fighters, hidden in the rocks above, fire down on your position with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. You try to call for close-air support on your radio, but you hear nothing except static. Steep terrain towers over your position and blocks your connection with friendly forces. Now what?

As civilians, we have become dependent on smart phones to conduct business anywhere, anytime. But the stakes are far higher for combat troops who must communicate and understand their situation to fight and defend themselves in unfamiliar places.

Yet warfighters usually find themselves in hostile environments where cellular voice and data services would be too unreliable and easily compromised by the enemy.

Even after 11 years of war, door-kickers and other conventional, dismounted combat forces still rely on line-of-sight radios to maneuver, coordinate fire support and call for medical evacuation. Despite multiple upgrades over the years, these older radios can still fail troops when they need them the most.

Industry has taken a step closer to solving those problems with new Handheld, Manpack, Small Form Fit (HMS) radios.These Joint Tactical Radio System radios, which the Army could field next year, will deliver a twofold improvement in size, weight, power and unit cost performance over today’s so-called next-generation tactical radios. HMS radios also can handle significantly more data than existing radios can, and they can do so with a much higher level of cybersecurity.

More importantly, HMS is designed around the Army’s future tactical network strategy, which relies on sophisticated standards, such as the Soldier Radio Waveform (SRW) in this case, to create secure tactical networks without the logistical nightmare of a tower-based, cellular infrastructure.

The 2-pound HMS AN/PRC-154 Rifleman Radio and the 14-pound, two-channel HMS AN/PRC-155 Manpack Radio resemble existing soldier kits, but they’re powerful wireless networking nodes. They combine with an assortment of tiny radios in the HMS line that are designed to fit inside unmanned ground sensors, unmanned aerial vehicles, robots and ground vehicles, creating a self-forming, self-healing network.

So if I were a deployed soldier hunkered down in a wadi and I couldn’t see anybody, I could still talk to my platoon leader.

A UAV overhead or ground sensor nearby with embedded HMS would see my HMS radio and automatically pick up my signal, retransmit it and make sure my platoon leader receives it.

The Army demonstrated those HMS capabilities at its recent Brigade Combat Team Network Integration Exercise at White Sands Missile Range, N.M.

Dismounted units, separated by rugged terrain, communicated with one another using an HMS network embedded in Land Warrior systems, UAVs, ground sensors, vehicles and command posts.

Commanders could see soldier positions, tactical commands were rapidly disseminated, imagery and situational awareness were transmitted to wherever needed, and everyone could talk.

In addition to SRW, soldiers operating at the company level will need two other waveforms: the Wideband Networking Waveform for broadband data transfer and Network Centric Waveform to strengthen the connectivity with satellite-based communications.

The two-week demonstration also showed that HMS, using SRW, could communicate with Wideband Networking Waveform radios through the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, the Army’s high-speed broadband communications network.

The network created in the demonstration worked because systems such as HMS and WIN-T are designed to plug in to the Army’s tactical network vision and communicate with one another — a feat that the mishmash of proprietary systems already fielded cannot duplicate.

Just as civilians don’t worry which tower is picking up their smart-phone signal, dismounted troops operating at the tactical edge of the battlefield shouldn’t need to care what radio or waveform is keeping them connected. They just want to know that they can transmit and receive the information they need to complete their mission — no matter how bad conditions are on the ground.

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