Pentagon acquisition chief Ashton Carter has approved two high-tech military radios for production that will thoroughly revolutionize the way in which U.S. soldiers and other warfighters operate on future battlefields. The radios are compact, “software-reconfigurable” communications devices developed by a General Dynamics team under the Joint Tactical Radio System program. One is a handheld device for individual soldiers that weighs a mere two pounds and can transmit both voice and data through a resilient wireless network despite the best efforts of enemies to defeat it. The other is a more capable “manpack” radio designed to serve as the link between the local network and more distant networks such as those supported by satellites.
It is hard to exaggerate how different the new radios are from what came before. Traditionally, the introduction of new signals and media required additional communications hardware that quickly became unwieldy on the battlefield. But the radios Secretary Carter approved last week substitute easily-downloaded software for hardware, enabling gains in functionality without additional weight or complexity. The radios will speed the military migration to internet-style communications in which every node is part of a continuously adapting network that readily conveys transmissions around obstacles such as mountains and buildings. The handheld versions not only will serve as personal communications devices providing ten to a hundred times more bandwidth than existing handheld radios, but they also will act as relays for other radios in the battlefield network.
Many civilians now enjoy easy access to robust, versatile communications on the go due to the introduction of smart phones. Smart phones actually are digital radios that typically operate using internet transmission standards, but they aren’t much use in war zones if cell towers and other fixed infrastructure have been destroyed. What Secretary Carter’s June 17 acquisition decision memorandum means is that soldiers in the field will soon have the same kind of connectivity and resources afforded by a smart phone, and thus be able to better defend themselves in life-threatening situations.
The handheld radio GD’s team has developed and tested enables a leap forward in communications options in a package that is actually smaller than existing handheld radios. The manpack radio is so much better than anything used by other militaries that it belongs to a different generation of technology, like the first solid-state radio that followed vacuum tubes. Both radios are true breakthroughs, and policymakers should not allow them to be sidetracked by promises from companies offering inferior solutions at bargain-basement prices. As anyone stuck with a 2G cell phone today knows, in digital communications you get what you pay for.
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