Are new communications technologies battlefield ready?
- By Barry Rosenberg
- Oct 17, 2011
Brig. Gen. Michael Williamson became joint program executive officer for the Joint Tactical Radio System in March. Before that, he was the deputy program manager at the Army’s Program Executive Office for Integration, and he also previously served as director of systems integration at the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology.
He spoke with Defense Systems Editor-in-Chief Barry Rosenberg about the latest developments for the JTRS radios and waveforms, specifically lessons learned from this past summer’s Network Integration Exercise at Fort Bliss, Texas, and White Sands Missile Range, N.M., in addition to near-term technical challenges.
DS: What are your thoughts on how the JTRS radios performed at this summer’s NIE, specifically the Ground Mobile Radio; Handheld, Manpack and Small Form Fit radios; and Rifleman radios? And how did the Soldier Radio Waveform (SRW) and Wideband Networking Waveform perform?
Williamson: My assessment is this that this event actually did all the things that we were looking for. We’re very excited about the performance of both the waveforms on the GMR, both the mounted and the dismounted version, and also on the HMS radios. I spoke to a number of soldiers while I was out there, and they were very impressed with the amount of data that you could move with WNW. They gave some very specific examples.
Army puts tactical network through its paces
I was with the fires guys, and where they were moving [Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System] graphics and fire support data in 45 seconds, where normally under their current configuration it would take four or five minutes to be able to move that file. It made a difference in their workflow and their process and the types of information they could move when ordering [fires].
It’s also important that some of the feedback we got from the soldiers was related to things like keeping the radios cool [in a desert environment]. The radios ended up in a dismounted configuration, as we had done something fairly quickly to accommodate the soldiers’ desire to pull it off the platform.
So the radios were put in shipping containers and sent to the [tactical operations center]. We found that the radios got really hot in the shipping container, and in some cases, [the heat] forced them to shut down. So that was one area that they weren’t happy with. We’ve got the team now looking at how to keep those boxes cooled much better.
DS: This was the first time a significant number of soldiers got their hands on JTRS radios in a mounted and dismounted configuration in a tactical exercise. How did they like them?
Williamson: The GMR radio has multiple waveforms running on it, and the soldiers came at it from the view of the legacy radio, which is, literally, click the button and you start talking, because it doesn’t have the same level of sophistication and the same level of capability. So I’m not sure we did a great job of sensitizing the organization to the changes between legacy radios and the new JTRS radios. So we’ve got to do something there in terms of the training.
Another thing that we saw was that even though we had done some work on things like start-up time of the GMR as it runs through all the security checks and initiates the waveforms, we have to go back and figure out if there are ways to bring the radio up much faster. That’s not just because there was a complaint about how long it took, but it’s also because of safety. In the field, there might be a critical message that you need to send. So we really want to address that concern.
I don’t want to focus too much on the negative pieces, but those were two that we have to make sure we address.
But on the positive side: Do you remember the terrain that you were in around Mountain Village, [a simulated Afghan village in the mountains above White Sands used for training]? They made a big move up north towards the end of the exercise. And one of the things they were able to do is with WNW and the aerial tier was to launch an aerostat that had a GMR on it. They showed ranges of around 153 km with the WNW. (Defense Systems visited Fort Bliss and White Sands in May before the NIE.)
So we’re very excited about what we’re seeing out of the [mobile ad hoc network], the waveforms and the ability to really extend range.
DS: What are your biggest technical challenges at the moment?
Williamson: I would classify them in three broad categories: interoperability, mobile user objective system (MUOS) development and testing, and spectrum availability.
First, as the various vendors of the different JTRS programs of record have ported the waveforms out of our information repository, they have to make decisions as the waveform is implemented on their particular target hardware. Testing at Fort Bliss has identified a few areas where those individual decisions have manifested in some interoperability disconnects between various products, as an example between GMR and Rifleman Radio using SRW. These are exactly the kinds of issues we want to identify and resolve as early as possible.
We are also conducting interoperability quick looks with the various programs of record and nonprogram of record vendors to ferret these issues out early. As we move to greater numbers of potential vendors through even greater competition, these kinds of problems will become potentially more challenging. The key is to have the gold standard reference waveform to serve as a forcing function for interoperability testing, our own JTRS Test and Evaluation Laboratory, and to leverage our cooperation with Joint Interoperability Test Command. Our model of developing nonproprietary waveforms that are then available to industry makes this challenge much more manageable and less costly than the model where the government would generate a Mil-Std and each industry partner would develop their own waveform and attempt to achieve compliance and interoperability to others with the same standard.
Second, the MUOS system of systems is a challenging one to bring to the field. To begin with, there are numerous government and industry stakeholders involved, each building a critical component of the overall system of systems, from the space segment and ground systems, to the black side of the waveform to the red side of the waveform, to the tactical radios themselves. Each of these components is on their own development schedule and has their own unique pressures. Keeping all of those aligned such that we can deliver this game-changing capability to the warfighter is a significant challenge requiring constant focus and dynamic response, as changes to one component have a ripple effect through the rest of the system of systems.
Our response to this challenge is to incrementalize the delivery of the complete capability such that we can have the programs tracking toward aligned milestones along the path toward the complete MUOS system capability. This will reduce our risk and enable us to get initial MUOS capability to the warfighter as rapidly as possible.
Third, as the demand for wireless data grows exponentially both for military and civilian applications, the frequency spectrum available is under constant pressure. As a result, even as we deliver our first systems to the warfighter today, we are working on how to be more efficient with the spectrum we have. Some of this may require changes to our existing hardware designs, but we are also pursuing a number of innovative efforts that seek to improve our efficiency in usage of the spectrum. Our goal is to do as much or more with less spectrum than we previously had access.