DOD takes entrepreneurial approach to tactical radios/waveforms

The Defense Department’s 15-year, multibillion-dollar effort to build new, standard tactical communications networks is shifting to a more entrepreneurial approach, filling the need for mobile waveform technologies with commercially available solutions.

The new Army-run Joint Tactical Networking Center (JTNC), which took over much of the responsibility for building the new battlefield networks, is charged with “facilitating lower-cost radio procurement through open standards and certification of waveform-based interoperability.”

The JTNC’s mission also includes the Network Enterprise Domain program – the “waveform factory” of the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS). Now called the Joint Tactical Networks program, it provides secure, networking waveforms capable of operating in a variety of hardware systems.

The JTNC’s approach emerged out of the formal end of the JTRS program, which began in 1997 as a way to standardize networks across the armed services and was done in by its high cost, performance issues and the inability to keep up with rapidly evolving communications technologies.

“I think that’s a positive step the department has made,” said retired MG Dennis Moran, vice president of Defense Department business development for Harris RF Communications.

Harris is one of several contractors offering mobile tactical radios for wideband battlefield networks. The company recently announced that its AN/PRC-117G Falcon III man-portable radio had been certified by JTNC as JTRS-compliant and had received $5.6 million in orders from U.S. military and international customers.

The Falcon III adds wideband data capabilities to the traditional voice communications function of a man-portable radio, giving soldiers on the ground better access to timely information, Moran said. The company says the Falcon III offers data rates that are 10 times faster than current high-frequency man-portable radios while weighing 20 percent less and operating on a single battery.

The Army also has purchased smaller AN/PRC-154 Rifleman radios from General Dynamics and Thales Communications, giving soldiers mobile voice, video and data communications capabilities similar to those provided by smart phones. The radio completed its initial operational testing and evaluation earlier this year as part of the Army’s Network Integration Evaluation process at Fort Bliss, Texas, and its makers are currently preparing for a full-rate production decision.

The service also is testing commercial smart phones in the Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) process, seeking a way to securely include devices many soldiers already are carrying into military networks. The NIE is another response to the rapid evolution of technology, designed to speed the process of getting useful innovations to troops in the field.

Meanwhile, JTNS is soliciting proposals for a larger system, the Mid-Tier Networking Vehicular Radio to fill some of the requirements of the now-canceled Ground Mobile Radio program. Evaluation of mid-tier radio waveforms is part of NIE 13.1, scheduled for October and November.

Moran said the cancellation of much of the JTRS hardware programs has not eliminated the need for networking solutions on the battlefield.

“There is absolute demand for this kind of modern communication, right down to the soldier level,” he said. “The whole market is changing for tactical radios right now.”

He said that despite the increasing use of smart phones on the battlefield, tactical radios specifically designed for military use “are going to continue to be valid.”

About the Author

Charles Hoskinson is a contributing writer for Defense Systems.

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