Military strives to lighten the load of comms gear

There’s a scenario that is becoming all too common on the battlefield. A soldier, sweating in the unrelenting desert sun, is buried under mounds of gear, both protective and connective.

Although body armor claims the lion’s share of the bulk, the ballistic exoskeleton is far from the only necessity added on to the soldier’s  growing gear list. In addition to a Kevlar helmet, water and scopes, personal Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System (SINCGARS) devices can easily help tip the scale to more than 70 pounds in weight. And troops are finding that all that gear is making for a tight squeeze in military vehicles, which contain more communications gear that clutters dashboards and spaces needed for personnel.

However, that is all about to change.

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Boots on the ground

In the years immediately following the Korean War, the advent of long-range radio transmission of three teletype channels and one voice channel was made possible by a B-52 turbine engine mounted to a truck bed. Despite generations of technological advances, troops are still feeling tethered and weighed down by tactical communications systems.

Program Executive Office-Soldier "expends considerable effort in trying to lighten the soldier's load — developing and fielding equipment that weighs less, takes up less space, and combines functions to eliminate redundancies in equipment,” said Debi Dawson, director of strategic communications for PEO Soldier, the Army’s gear outfitting arm. “Lightening the load enhances lethality, survivability and maneuverability, making soldiers more effective in any environment.”

The story is no different for Marine Corps tactical communications systems, said Capt. John Pico, capabilities integration officer for tactical radios at the Marine Corps Combat Development Command's Combat Development and Integration Division.

“We cannot afford to overburden our dismounted Marines with heavy or bulky radio systems that reduce mobility,” Pico said. “At the same time, we need to equip the [Marine Air-Ground Task Force] with radio systems that provide the range and multimission versatility that it needs to conduct dispersed operations.”

Corps comms have undergone a transformation during the past 10 years, with the service attempting to modernize through use across multiple bands. “Units used to carry multiple radios to talk on [very-high-frequency] command and control nets, [utlra-high-frequency] ground-to-air nets, or long-range satellite communications nets," Pico said. "Now they carry one radio that can do it all; a multiband radio.”

Multiband radios now have embedded Global Positioning System and wideband networking capability, which can automatically repeat traffic from neighboring radios to extend the communications range, he said.

“Another important advantage of wideband networks is the ability to extend secure data connectivity to dismounted small unit leaders, giving them the ability to reach back to information databases, interactive maps, e-mail and tactical chat programs,” Pico said. The corps’ most recent fielded radio addition — the AN/PRC-117G — has improved the size and weight of older radios by 35 percent, which has left operating forces wanting more of them, Pico said.

Although network modernization remains a continuous endeavor, Pico said he has his eyes on the needed next step. “The next challenge is to provide more capable tactical handheld radios that retain a multiband capability but also provides access to wideband networks,” he said. However, the ultimate hurdle is paying for it. “Better equipment costs more money, and the funding looks tight in the near future,” Pico said.

Power on

Military engineers agree that conserving and improving power options for communications goes a long way toward trimming the bulk.

“Most of the systems the soldiers are carrying with them are using some kind of portable power,” said Rafael Casanova, industrial engineer and battery support team lead at the Army’s Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center. “We live in a digitized age where everything from radio to rifle, scopes — they all need some kind of power, so we use mainly batteries. And that battery has to last for a specific period of time to accomplish the mission.”

CERDEC is overseeing several battery improvement programs that involve component design optimization. “We’re focusing on taking the current battery and cutting the current volume in half without jeopardizing any of the energy density,” said Deanna Tyler, a mechanical engineer at CERDEC. “Weight is definitely an issue, so a lot of our programs are geared toward reducing weight, increasing capacity, as well as power and energy.”

That goal couldn’t come soon enough for the typical soldier who carries between seven to 11 battery types for a 72-hour mission. That battery load alone can total 70 pounds, said CERDEC electrical engineer Christopher Hurley. “And that’s just for a 72-hour mission,” he said, adding that the numbers scale up dramatically for longer missions.

“If you lighten the soldiers’ load, you help them to carry a lot more of the stuff they wouldn’t normally be able to carry, such as ammunition, food and water,” Hurley said. “All these factors will allow them to be more operationally effective and to stay out in the field longer and cut down on resupply.”

One battery in development is the conformal battery, which soldiers could use to power all their applications. “It will fit the contour of soldier’s body, and it will provide power to all their on board electronics,” Hurley said. Through a hub power manager, soldiers would be able to connect all their devices and have one centralized power source. “This is great because it allows the soldier to significantly reduce the amount of batteries they need to carry because they will have one high-power, high-energy conformal battery that will provide power to all their end items for a 72-hour mission,” he said.

The Army has already deployed some conformal batteries to Afghanistan for research and development, and future programs are slated to further develop the chemistry that is going into these batteries.

Solar panels continue to be the darling of alternative military powering solutions, and some troops are deploying with the Rucksack Enhanced Portable Power System, which provides a power supply for small laptops and sensors. The team at CERDEC is also developing a biological battery that would use table sugar, which is already in the logistics supply chain, to fuel low-power sensors and recharge small batteries, such as AA batteries. That technology could be ready for the field in a year.

“The key to the soldiers is to have many adapters so that the soldiers can use those adapters to power their system with whatever power source he has available — AC, DC, vehicular, solar or lithium battery,” Casanova said.

Vehicle Integration

Streamlining vehicle communications through open architecture is an opportunity to battle the critical size, weight and power issues that have emerged from rapid acquisition of command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems, one Army official said.

“There is just so much coming out of the C4ISR community, a lot of it very quick reaction kinds of things, as the threat changes quickly,” said Kay Griffith-Boyle, chief of the Futures Office at the Army’s Program Executive Office for Command, Control and Communications-Tactical. “You find there’s an awful lot of redundancy. It has become a situation we can’t continue in the future.”

Inside typical military vehicles, “there’s not an awful lot of room for the soldier and his equipment,” she said. “We’ve got boxes all over the place. Not only does he have a cluttered work environment, there’s redundant equipment,” which adds to the complexity of the space. Then there are the second-order effects. The redundant systems add weight to the vehicle, which becomes a huge unanticipated power draw that has a consequence for vehicle maintenance.

Griffith-Boyle is leading the Victory initiative, or Vehicle Integration for C4ISR/EW Interoperability, which aims to change the way of doing business through common data bus Ethernet networks, shared smart displays and integrated GPS. “We’re going after an architecture owned by the government,” she said. For more than a year, a Victory standards setting body has been working with a group of industry and government representatives to develop a standard specification for all the interfaces inside military vehicles.

In late 2009, Victory achieved its proof of concept when it demonstrated experimental architecture that allowed for the display of a Boomerang shot detection sensor to be distributed throughout a Stryker as opposed to displayed on a single device. It delivered its first standard specification in July.

“One of the things that we find is there is a lot of difficulty in working with proprietary types of hardware in terms of ability to share, interfaces, the integration costs tend to be huge,” Griffith-Boyle said. However, industry is embracing the change. “I think folks recognize this is the only way we’ll be able to afford the future.”

The Victory initiative highlights a similar problem encountered years ago by car makers, said Isaac Porche, senior engineer and defense analyst at Rand. “What the Army is doing is putting in place what the automotive industry already has — an architecture that allows you to plug in new IT systems, to have your networks talking to each other, and to share data so you don’t have multiple sensors,” Porche said.

Car designers, like military planners, seek to trim down weight that could be added in other spots, he said. “It’s especially true for military vehicles because you don’t want to waste any weight on the inside on electronics when you could be using that for extra armor,” he said. “You have so many different systems, and they’re not combined into one, so every box takes up space.” On top of that, each device creates heat, which in turn creates heating ventilation and air conditioning problems.

“All the services, including the Army, would love to have enough interoperability and standards so that smaller companies could write software to carry out some of the functions.” Ideally, one box could handle computations and storage. “And when you need a new feature, it’s just a software development that plugs right in,” Porche said. “You don’t want to deal with these legacy systems that require you to have these boxes to be in your vehicle at all times, and when you want to upgrade it, it’s very difficult.”

Constricting contracting

Moving toward an open architecture will go a long way in lightening the load off the military’s shoulders through increased competition, Porche said.

The military often finds itself locked into an old system supported by a certain vendor, he said. “That’s never a good situation.” Without competition for system upgrades, the military continuously faces the problem of technological obsolescence, which can push off system improvements for years, he said, pointing to the Vietnam-era SINCGARS radio system. In the civilian world, similar devices could be switched out or upgraded as fast as personal budgets allow.

“That’s the fundamental problem that the Army, Navy and to some extent the Air Force is dealing with because they want to move at that technology refresh rate and they can’t,” Porche said. “It’s definitely expensive to have legacy equipment with few contractors who can support you, but you also pay the cost in that you don’t have the same capabilities because you can’t update your technologies as fast as the commercial world. And when you’re behind the commercial world, that’s a problem because your adversary can stay current.”

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