Handheld joint radios face critical network test

White Sands exercise will test the man-portable radio's ability to simultaneously run three waveforms

The Army has a lot riding on its upcoming series of network integration evaluations that begin this June. The culmination of years of development, budget issues and controversy, the evaluations are the beginning of the final test and evaluation cycle in the Army’s ambitious efforts to field a fully digital force where all units are linked together in a secure mobile network carrying voice, video and data communications from the front line to headquarters and back.

A key part of the Army’s plan is the Joint Tactical Radio System, a series of software programmable radios designed to operate across multiple channels. The JTRS radios will replace multiple dedicated, single-frequency equipment with a single device capable of doing the work of several legacy radios.

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Taking place at Fort Bliss, Texas, and White Sands Missile Range, N.M., the Network Integration Evaluation will involve a full brigade conducting a series of limited user tests for several Army programs. An important part of the limited user tests will evaluate network connectivity and integration for small tactical units. Central to these tests will be the JTRS Handheld Manpack Small Form Fit  (HMS) radio. It is a multichannel, soldier-carried software programmable radio able to transmit voice, video, data and images via high-bandwidth waveforms such as the Soldier Radio Waveform (SRW) and the Wideband Networking Waveform.

The HMS manpacks are two-channel radios designed to provide line-of-sight and non-line-of-sight communications while on the move and on the halt. This radio's capabilities will be the focus of one of the June limited-user tests, said HMS program manager Army Col. John Zavarelli.

The Army plans to test about 30 HMS radios in the exercise. These systems will be transported in mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles for use in mounted and dismounted operations. For the dismounted solider, the HMS is the workhorse communications system, serving as a gateway for platoon leaders to access the larger battlefield network, Zavarelli said.

During the exercise, most of the manpacks will be mounted in MRAPs. Some will be used by dismounted troops and some will be located in command posts. The radios will extend communications links between the companies and their various platforms down to dismounted troops. The largest unit responsible for operating the HMS radios in the field will be Charlie Troop, 11th Cavalry, based at Fort Bliss, Texas. “This is definitely supporting the disadvantaged user,” Zavarelli said.

The June exercise will test the radio’s ability to simultaneously run three waveforms: SRW, a satellite communications waveform, and the Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System. What exactly happens in the test will depend on where the radios are and where they are located in the formation, Zavarelli said.

The experiment also will test all of the radio’s operational attributes for establishing connections and architectures. But the evaluation goes beyond simply maintaining a stable network, said Zavarelli. Among other things, it will examine the radio’s ability to perform connectivity and scalability and its ability to link and complete voice calls.

A large part of the test effort will focus on maintaining a stable voice network capable of making clear calls for soldiers. The HMS operates a mobile ad-hoc network that is self-forming and self-healing. “There isn’t another true [mobile ad-hoc network] radio out there,” Zavarelli said.

Operational Focus

The exact operational focus of the test will be based on the unit’s mission profile, Zavarelli said. For example, Cavalry troops will operate over great distances. Because of the nature of the terrain at the White Sands testing ground, with dry river beds and low, rolling hills, there is the potential for some masking of communications by terrain features, he said.

Units participating in Cavalry operations will be conducting offensive, defensive, security and reconnaissance missions. These units also will include dismounted missions to acquire and gather intelligence. Besides the varied terrain, there are also small built-up areas, such as simulated towns, that will test the radio’s ability to operate in urban areas.

Because the radio can operate two channels simultaneously, it provides soldiers with more operational flexibility. It also replaces two separate radios that would have been required before, he said. Designed for the dismounted soldier, the HMS is optimized to operate in austere environments.

The HMS manpacks will be complimented by the Rifleman Radios, a four-pound personal radio designed to provide individual infantry soldiers with a networking, voice and positioning capability. The small personal Rifleman systems will fill this capability gap for frontline troops, Zavarelli said.

The Rifleman Radio covers what is known as the last tactical mile — the final jump communications need to make down to forward units and individual soldiers. The radio uses the JTRS SRW, and its key mission is to provide small units with the ability to communicate with each other and higher echelons in any kind of weather or terrain.

The SRW works in conjunction with the HMS manpack as the final link in the battlefield network. The program is also planning to work with other systems and peripheral devices such as smart phones. The smart-phone capability will allow a squad leader to see the location of all of his troops on a map screen. The phones have been tested at Fort Bragg, N.C., but Zavarelli said that they were part of other Army programs. “We’re building the Army network, and we’re building the section for the company and below,” he said.

But some tough technology issues still remain for JTRS, said Bradley Curran, an analyst with Frost and Sullivan. The chief challenge is the difficulty of having a single radio do many things. “They still want to go between HF, UHF, VHF and back with one radio,” he said.

Although the Army and the contractor community largely solved these problems for the smaller versions of the radio, such as the HMS, the development process led to cost overruns, delays and restructuring within the overall program. Experiences with programs such as JTRS have led the Defense Department to change how it approaches future command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technologies, Curran said.

The new trend in military C4ISR programs is to establish technical and operational requirements at the beginning of the process with only top-level personnel being allowed to make changes. Programs are also emphasizing more commercial technology based on easily upgraded open standards for hardware and software, Curran said.

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