Military tactical radios trends – from NDI procurement to power management
In this Q&A with Dennis Moran, vice president of U.S. DoD Business Development at Harris Corp., he discusses military tactical radio technology, the Harris acquisition of Exelis, and Department of Defense (DoD) radio procurement trends after the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) program. He also addresses the use of open architecture designs in tactical communication systems and power management for radios.
MCHALE REPORT: Please provide a brief description of your responsibility within Harris and your group’s role within the company.
MORAN: I am Vice President of the U.S. DoD Business Development at the corporate level. I am responsible for managing Harris’ strategic engagement across DoD. Prior to moving to our Corporate Global Business Development organization, I was responsible for all of DoD business development in our RF Communications Division (legacy Harris).
MCHALE REPORT: Harris recently acquired Exelis earlier this year. How has that transition gone and what did Exelis bring to the communications portfolio of Harris?
MORAN: The acquisition has brought eye-opening expertise especially in the areas of night vision technology and optics, electronic warfare (EW), and geospatial systems – all which tie together nicely with legacy Harris’ communications capability. They have a very strong portfolio on EW and geospatial technology.
From an organizational standpoint RF and Tactical Communications will still be in Rochester, New York, along with the former Exelis Geospatial Systems. The former Exelis Night Vision operation will be in Roanoke, Virginia, and Fort Wayne, Indiana. Harris headquarters will still be in Melbourne, Florida.
MCHALE REPORT: Harris was one of the first companies to deploy software-defined radios (SDRs) to the warfighter that were based on specifications from the now defunct Joint Tactical Radio Systems (JTRS) program. Please discuss the latest developments in your SDR technology.
MORAN: First, let’s do a quick history of how JTRS evolved into variety of multiple NDI, or non-developmental item, contracts. A few years ago, Under Secretary of Defense Frank Kendall changed the acquisition strategy for every component of program – Ground Mobile Radio (GMR), Handheld, Manpack and Small Form Fit (HMS), Rifleman, and the Airborne Maritime Fixed (AMF) radio.
GMR was killed and a competition was initiated between four companies for the MidTier Network Vehicular Radio (MNVR). Harris emerged as the winner. The Rifleman IDIQ contract was a full competition, awarded to Harris and Thales, with both companies’ offerings now going through customer testing. HMS Manpack is now in source selection.
The airborne component was replaced by two programs: the Small Airborne Link 16 Terminal (SALT) and the Small Airborne Network Radio (SANR) respectively. The Army will not run a traditional competition on SALT as a small number of radios, produced by ViaSat have been turned over to Boeing for test and evaluation on the Apache AH-64E. SANR is moving into a full and open competition with a request for proposals (RFP) expected in 2016. It will work with the Wideband Networking Waveform (WNW) the Soldier Radio Waveform (SRW), UHF SATCOM, Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System (SINCGARS), and the Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) waveform that is used for satellite communications.
MCHALE REPORT: What is Harris offering for these programs?
MORAN: The first example of where we met government requirements to quickly field an SDR was the Falcon III AN/PRC-117G radios, of which we sold more than 30,000 117Gs into SOCOM and the Army. We also recently won the U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) Tactical Communications (STC) program, and are providing a new integrated two-channel, handheld radio that that leverages our Falcon III tactical radio family such as the AN/PRC-117G and the AN/PRC-158 Manpack radios.
We see this trend toward NDI procurement for radios as an international market, with replacements for the Bowman radio in the United Kingdom as well as a similar program in Australia. NDI procurement is significantly less expensive for the government and we have seen this exact thing with the Rifleman Radio. The open competition typically drives the cost down and the radio producer – whether it is Harris, Rockwell Collins, Thales, etc. can spread their internal investment over multiple platforms.
NDI has also allowed us to highlight how our night vision (NV) capability integrates with the radio’s digital capability display, enabling warfighters to see what commander sees on their his heads up NV device.
MCHALE REPORT: What is the difference between NDI and COTS (commercial-off-the-shelf)?
MORAN: COTS does not equal NDI. My phone is COTS, I buy it at the store, unwrap it, and it works. NDI is a product that companies use their own money to build products compliant with government standards and requirements – not something you would buy at an electronics store. Another NDI example would be the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JTLV) program. JLTV is a truck essentially but with very specific specifications for armor systems.
Internal investment on NDI contracts has enabled us to leverage COTS processing power. We keep in eye out for the advanced processing chips being developed for the mobile phone industry for near-term development. Where possible and where it works within the customer requirements we integrate these components into our radio tech and it has an immediate impact on size and power consumption.
MCHALE REPORT: Is there a trend to leverage more open architectures and commercial components or COTS into your radio systems today?
MORAN: My personal opinion is yes, in areas where commercial tech outpaces what DoD can produce. It is an example of Better Buying Power 3.0. We have to take advantage of what the industry is doing.
That’s been a hallmark of the JTRS program. It always focused on standards and open architectures. Having standard interfaces – such as the Software Communications Architecture (SCA) – enables companies to build compliant products to meet requirements.
We are excited to be in this marketplace as this is the year of the tactical radio. The pieces are in place for the Army to modernize its network. On the acquisition side there is great value across the DoD and federal government and in the global market.
MCHALE REPORT: Reduced size, weight, and power (SWaP) requirements have become a reality in nearly every DoD program. How do you manage them in radio systems and are there tradeoffs?
MORAN: It is really a linear equation we have to solve to meet the technical standard and also satisfy the SWaP requirement. Physical interface specs are really a give and take between government and industry.
MCHALE REPORT: Have you seen a great push for commonality across radio platforms in the current budget-constrained environment?
MORAN: The DoD customer looks for commonality in communications in how a soldier operates a handheld radio, Manpack, or vehicle radio. Each needs to have menus and graphical user interfaces (GUIs) that are intuitive and don’t require a significant amount of manipulation. As much planning as possible in back office work has to go into the GUI. They need to be intuitive and simplified as much as possible before deployment so the soldier can focus on critical tasks.
We learn a lot about human factors such as this by working with the DoD programs. The Nett Warrior is one program that is really good about sharing different tool kits to operate on Nett Warrior devices. For example, we developed a soft control unit that appears on an Android device that the soldier can manipulate on Nett Warrior. [Editor’s note: Nett Warrior is an integrated dismounted situational awareness and mission command system for use during combat operations, according to the Program Executive Office (PEO) Soldier website.]
MCHALE REPORT: You served more than 30 years in the Army. How is today’s radio technology different than what you had to work with decades ago?
MORAN: I was an operator, primarily a communications officer supporting soldiers in the artillery and infantry providing communication.
What we see now is light years ahead of what I had. The flip side is that there is an expectation with this capability should always be available for soldiers – an expectation of dependence on the technology. However, that has not always been the case. We always trained for situations and environments where communication is unavailable – either the soldier is lost or doesn’t require communications. Now the focus is on how to ensure communications continue to work in these challenging environments.
The warfighters still train for those situations, but now they have to balance that with the expectations that come with such advanced communication capability. The key is that the technology – radio or otherwise – must increase lethality and survivability.
MCHALE REPORT: Many say that developing battery technology that can double or triple operating life of batteries warfighter use today is a Holy Grail for radio technology? What is Harris doing in terms of enhancing battery life in its radios?
MORAN: Nirvana will be developing a battery that will enable a warfighter to be on 24-hour missions without having to carry extra batteries. We’ve tackled the problem from a hardware and software perspective to decrease amperage on the battery, enabling longer battery life. If we can get battery life to 16-20 hours, we reduce the weight on a soldier’s back during a 24-hour mission. He can leave two or three batteries back at the base with the same level of performance.
It comes down to employing smart power management and using components and software that place fewer demands on the battery. Trust me. That’s an art. I’ve also seen a lot of work being done on the use of solar panels in to recharge batteries.
MCHALE REPORT: Aside from battery technology what will be the next game changer in military radio communications? Predict the future.
MORAN: I think it’s going to be the development and deployment of a waveform that will work in jammed radio environments. Another game breaker will be with cognitive radios.