You know that cell phone that you can’t live without — the one that has an annoying way of chirping smooth jazz right after the boss has asked everyone in the room to quiet down? It’s actually a low-power radio equipped with processors and software for sending voice and text messages. If you’ve got a really spiffy one, you can also use it to send pictures and access the internet. Thirty years ago, you would have needed an entire room full of equipment to do the things that little eight-ounce appliance on your belt can do. It’s a technological marvel that has revolutionized commerce and culture.
But now imagine that your Verizon cell phone couldn’t talk to anyone using Sprint or Cingular. How useful would it be then? Well, you don’t have to imagine such a situation, because the U.S. military lives with it everyday. Each of the military services has worked hard to equip its personnel with the latest communications technology, and as a result it’s becoming easier for soldiers or airmen to communicate up and down their chains of command. But if a cornered soldier needs an airman to drop some smart bombs, or an airman needs electronic jamming from a carrier-based plane, communication gets a lot harder. You see, the services aren’t very good at talking to each other — their communications equipment often isn’t compatible.
It doesn’t take a genius to see how dangerous this might be in wartime. It’s not just that the enemy might kill you before the airman gets the message to drop his bombs — with the current, fragmented communications system, he might drop the bombs on you! The only way to prevent such mistakes is to carry a raft of different radios so you can cover every conceivable frequency. As a result, some C-130 cargo planes are equipped with a dozen different radios. Multiply the cost of all those radios by hundreds or thousands of aircraft (not to mention ships and ground vehicles), and it becomes a very pricey way to wage war. Not to mention the technicians you need to operate your grab-bag of radios, and the weight penalties for carrying around so many radios, and the cost of repairing them… well, you get the point.
There’s a way out of this dilemma. The defense department is funding a Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS, or “Jitters”) that would provide all the services with “software reconfigurable” radios, meaning radios that could be instantly switched between different frequencies and waveforms. Frequency refers to the number of times a signal vibrates per second, while waveform refers to more complex characteristics of the signal — both features are crucial in determining the suitability of a signal for specific missions. What makes JTRS different from earlier radios is that instead of using different pieces of hardware to generate different types of signals, the same radio can be programmed to talk to a wide range of devices. Barriers to communication between soldiers and sailors, airmen and marines would largely disappear.
And the radio wouldn’t just enable talk — it would also send data and video across an ad hoc, self-healing network in which all members of the joint force could participate. So instead of the military communications system looking like the electromagnetic equivalent of former Yugoslavia, it would be truly unified, truly integrated. This should have been done long ago, but the technical challenge of designing software that can talk to all those legacy radios — which in some cases will remain in the force for decades to come — is quite imposing. The change needs to be made now though, because it’s crazy to send forces into places like Iraq that can’t talk to each other when they need to. It’s bad enough that U.S. forces can’t communicate with most Arabs; they should at least be able to talk to each other.
Find Archived Articles: