Manpack radios to slim down

Editor's Note: A version of this article was published in the April 2015 issue of C4ISR & Networks. Information regarding the weight of the radios as specified has been updated in this version.

The Army is moving forward with a fresh round of acquisitions for its multichannel portable Manpack radio which will call for lighter weight and greater battery life.

The Army already has purchased 5,326 handheld, small form fit Manpack radios and fielded them to two 101st Airborne Division Brigade Combat Teams. The radio serves as a network bridge, allowing lower-echelon devices to connect to the Mobile User Objective Satellite network and to the Army's network backbone through the Soldier Radio Waveform and Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System waveforms.

Under the present authorization the Army would begin fielding 60,296 Manpack radios in fiscal year 2017.

A new draft RFP, released in early April, calls for a substantially streamlined device. The threshold weight for a radio with one battery is 14.6 pounds, but a soldier on an eight-hour mission would need two batteries, raising the weight to 17.6 pounds, said a spokesman for the Army's Program Executive Office C3T. The objective requirement weight is 12 pounds.

It's a much-needed change. "In the last testing the troops weren't really pleased with them," said Brad Curran, a senior industry analyst with Frost & Sullivan. In a June 2014 memo, MG H.R. McMaster noted several performance shortfalls of the radio, including excess weight, insufficient range and battery life issues — all issues the Army intends to remedy with the next round of purchases. Prior to crafting the RFP, it polled industry to ensure the newer radios would be able to address exactly these issues.

In seeking to remedy shortcomings, the Army is simultaneously looking to create a more vigorous marketplace for contenders in the multichannel radio field.

Previously the Manpack market has been dominated by manufacturers General Dynamics , Rockwell Collins and Thales Defense. In the upcoming round, "the Army will award contracts to multiple vendors, creating a 'radio marketplace' where vendors will compete for delivery orders as needed, after they achieve technical and operational requirements," said Paul Mehney, Program Executive Office Command Control Communications-Tactical director of public communications.

The Army will award a five-year base, plus a five-year option indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contract to multiple vendors who meet technical and service requirements. "This structure enables the Army to choose from numerous technologies, and release a new contract if radio technology changes significantly after the initial five-year award. The acquisition strategy also includes on-ramp opportunities for vendors whose technologies mature after the initial competition and operational tests," Mehney said.

All this represents a "significant change" in the Army's acquisition strategy, said retired MG Dennis Moran, vice president for Government Business Development at Harris RF Communications Division.

Harris has been vying for a place in the Manpack market since the initial 2004 award. The company will be bringing a two-channel mounted and dismounted version of the radio to the new RFP, Moran said. Even if Harris doesn't make the cut this time, the new acquisition structure means that it and other manufacturers will have ongoing opportunities to prove their viability.

Against this backdrop, some questions remain regarding form factor. Specifically, analysts say the Army has been unclear as to whether it will want a single Manpack for mounted and unmounted use, or two versions. The Army hasn't given any indication as to which avenue it might pursue.

On the one hand the Army wants maximum flexibility and reliability, while at the same time keeping open the door for as many vendors as possible to put their ideas on the table.

Cross-connectivity is supposed to be at the heart of Manpack but it has also been the radio's Achilles' heel, with critics claiming Manpack has not achieved the interoperability that many had hoped.

Moran expressed confidence that industry will rise to the challenge with future Manpack iterations. "These products are able to do multiple functions, multiple waveforms, multiple spectrum allocations simultaneously; it's just a matter of how you design the radio," he said. "It is very complex, but it can be done."

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