Securing the Best: Army Drives Competition for Soldier Radios

Staff Sgt. Shelby Johnson, a squad leader with the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry), observes the area around Forward Operating Base Torkham, Afghanistan, while wearing the new Capability Set 13 communications suite.

By Argie Sarantinos-Perrin, PM TR

This article was originally published in the March 2014 issue of Armor & Mobility.

As the Army works to simplify the communications tools that soldiers rely on every day, the Project Manager for Tactical Radios (PM TR) is using innovative ways to procure software-defined radios that keep the complexity “inside the box.”

“Today’s soldiers have grown up with technology that is very advanced, and they expect the radios to connect to the network quickly and be easy to operate,” said Colonel Russ Wygal, project manager for TR. “The radios that we provide must have these features to meet our soldiers’ needs.”

The process of procuring radios has evolved along with the technology itself, and the Army’s latest strategy involves a new acquisition approach that looks to industry to fill a vital role in streamlined radio development and production. Procuring Non-Developmental Item (NDI), or commercially developed products, rather than investing government development resources opens competition to industry partners that can meet government requirements. Vendors can develop radios that use already existing government-owned waveforms that are housed in the Joint Tactical Networking Center (JTNC) Information Repository, in lieu of creating new waveforms. Using non-proprietary waveforms ensures interoperability across the Services, streamlines the development process, supports competition, and promotes greater affordability.

PM TR, which reports to the Program Executive Office for Command, Control, Communications-Tactical (PEO C3T), is leveraging the NDI approach to procure radios across three product manager teams. The three teams include Product Manager Airborne Maritime Fixed Station (PdM AMF), Product Manager Handheld, Manpack and Small-form Fit (PdM HMS), and Product Manager Mid-tier Networking Vehicular Radios (PdM MNVR).

The Helicopter Link

PdM AMF oversees the development of the Small Airborne Link-16 Terminal (SALT) and Small Airborne Networking Radio (SANR). SALT and SANR, software-programmable radios with the technology to connect rotary wing aircraft with ground units, allow the transmission of data, voice and video over a wireless, secure network. By exchanging information and communicating with additional platforms, such as the Army’s aviation rotary wing fleet, soldiers gain a significant tactical advantage.

SALT uses the existing Link 16 waveform, in addition to the Soldier Radio Waveform (SRW), and is being procured for the Apache aircraft. The SANR uses three waveforms: the SRW, Wideband Networking Waveform (WNW), and the Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System (SINCGARS). The SANR is being developed for four helicopters—the Apache, Kiowa Warrior, Chinook, and Black Hawk—as well as the Gray Eagle unmanned aircraft.

Both the SALT and SANR will be procured as NDI. A draft Request for Proposal for the SALT was released in January 2014, and a Request for Information was released to industry in August 2013 for the development of the SANR.

Comms on Foot

PdM HMS is responsible for the Rifleman and Manpack Radios. Using the SRW, the handheld Rifleman Radio allows information to be transmitted up and down the chain of command, as well as into the network backbone provided by the Warfighter  Information Network-Tactical. The Rifleman Radio can also be linked to the Nett Warrior, an Android-based smartphone-like device that enables soldiers to send messages, access mission-related applications, and track one another’s locations with Global Positioning System technology.

The Rifleman Radio has been fielded to two brigade combat teams (BCTs) of the 10th Mountain Division and two more of the 101st Airborne Division as part of Capability Set (CS) 13. The 10th Mountain Division is currently using the radios in support of the U.S. advise-and-assist mission in Afghanistan, enabling small groups of soldiers to stay in contact with their higher headquarters as they spread out to assist their Afghan partners.

Both the Rifleman and Manpack radios are not dependent on fixed infrastructure or line-of-sight communications, acting as their own “routers” with networking waveforms in order to support communications for the most disadvantaged users.

The Manpack Radio is the Army’s first two-channel, software defined radio capable of supporting advanced and current force waveforms, allowing the radio to serve as a bridge in the network. By using the SRW, the Manpack creates self-forming, ad-hoc networks in any battlefield scenario. The radio is installed in tactical vehicles and can be carried by soldiers at lower echelons of the BCT.

The Manpack Radios have been fielded to the two 101st Airborne Division BCTs using CS 13, including the 2nd BCT, 101st Airborne, which deployed to Afghanistan in February 2014. By working with industry partners to simplify processes, Manpack users now update Communications Security (COMSEC) keys once, and it applies to all presets, in lieu of performing a COMSEC key update for every preset. With the new process, the time spent uploading COMSEC keys and establishing network and voice connectivity is drastically reduced.

In December 2013, the Army received permission from the Office of Secretary of Defense to increase its Low Rate Initial Production authorization for the current AN/PRC 155 Manpack Radios, which will allow the Army to continue fielding the Manpack’s dual-channel communications capabilities to meet the needs of operational units. The Army will field the LRIP radios as part of CS 14 and 15, while simultaneously executing a full and open competition for the next-generation Full Rate Production (FRP) radios.

Through a full and open competition, multi-vendor award strategy for the FRP phase of HMS, the Army will aim to drive competition at every level and maintain it over the life of the Manpack and Rifleman Radio programs, in order to reduce system costs and encourage industry innovation that will lead to a better network for soldiers with each CS.

Building a Middle Ground 

The MNVR program will procure radios to provide a new “mid tier” in the tactical network, using commercial products that can run high-bandwidth, government-owned waveforms, including WNW and SRW. By operating as “nodes” in a mobile, ad-hoc network, the radios will provide voice, data, and video across echelons from the upper tactical network at brigade and battalion to the lower tactical network at company and platoon echelons.

Following a rigorous full and open competition that included Army assessments of participating vendors’ manufacturing readiness, as well as evaluations of their hardware, the Army awarded a delivery order in the fall of 2013 for the multi-channel radios. The MNVR radio will undergo further testing at the Army’s Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) 15.1 in November 2014. NIEs, which are semi-annual field exercises, use soldier feedback to improve network systems, including radios.

Caption: Staff Sgt. Shelby Johnson, a squad leader with the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry), observes the area around Forward Operating Base Torkham, Afghanistan, while wearing the new Capability Set 13 communications suite.