The U.S. Army has been trying for nearly a decade to develop a lightweight, affordable radio that can connect individual soldiers to its tactical information network. Once that connection is established, the fog of war will be lifted and the resources available to each warfighter for achieving success on the battlefield will be multiplied. But finding and fielding the right technology has been a long march through difficult terrain. Now, as the result of a memorandum signed on July 11 by Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall, the final destination is coming into view.
The memorandum sets in motion the process for achieving full-rate production of the handheld Rifleman radio, a rugged device hosting a “soldier radio waveform” that can move voice and data communications around the battlefield in a flexible, adaptable network. The vulnerable nodes and unwieldy equipment associated with tactical communications in the past will be gone, replaced by a system offering services similar to a civilian smart phone (smart phones are actually radios). If that sounds like no big deal, then bear in mind that the network has to keep functioning despite continuous enemy fire and an absence of any fixed telecommunications infrastructure like cables or towers.
Rifleman is part of a family of so-called “software reconfigurable” communications devices begun during the Bush years under the Joint Tactical Radio System program. Software reconfigurability means that instead of adding costly, inflexible hardware every time a new communications function is needed, the system’s computer code is modified to deliver the added functionality. Software upgrades can be ported into the radios in much the same way that new applications are downloaded onto computers, albeit with greater safeguards to assure security. Under the original concept, all of the military services eventually would have had such radios in their aircraft, warships and ground vehicles, sharing a common software architecture enabling quick and versatile communication across the force.
Much of this plan has had to be restructured, but Rifleman — the most basic building block in the system — has chugged along steadily to a point where a full-rate production decision is now within sight. The radio has performed well in operational tests, and soldiers are looking forward to the fielding of 193,000 radios. The program is succeeding despite the efforts of some industry players to dumb-down the performance requirements of the radio as a way of preserving their product franchises. The Army has wisely resisted these efforts; there will be a full and open competition for the production program, but bidders who can’t satisfy all of the program’s “key performance parameters” will be out of the money.
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