Thales has begun delivery on a $37 million order for a tactical radio that the Army says will significantly improve how soldiers communicate in the field.

The Army inked a contract in December for the company’s dual-channel AN/PRC-148C Improved Multiband Inter-Intra Team Radio (IMBITR), a two-pound handheld radio that provides voice and data capability for both the dismounted user and mounted vehicle configurations.

“This suite of radios will provide SFAB [security force assistance brigades] combat advisor teams with inter-team and reach back communications and data situational awareness capability as they perform their missions,” said Paul D. Mehney, a spokesman for U.S. Army Program Executive Office – Command, Control, Communications and Tactical.

The Army is trying to break through certain limitations in its Soldier Radio Waveform, or SRW, which is the present go-to format for tactical communications.

By its nature, SRW can only scale up for use by 30 or 40 individuals in a user group, said Gary Kidwell, Thales Defense & Security business development director. This in turn puts the squeeze on available spectra. Because a brigade operation may need dozens of SRW devices to support its operations, users may be limited to voice and a very small amount of data throughput.

This means a platoon might be able to convey basic location information, for example, but richer data including imagery and video wouldn’t make it through. That puts a crimp on ISR capabilities.

Thales in 2012 introduced its two-channel handheld for simultaneous connectivity to legacy networks as well as the SRW network. The company says it has put the device through five years of testing and feedback, including participation in Army’s Network Integration Evaluation, the Maneuver Fires Integration Exercise, and the Bold Quest coalition demonstration.

The Army now appears to see promise in this dual-channel approach. “Combat advising teams can use the radio suite to share position locational and situational understanding information, enable the ability to chat and send text information and also transmit images if needed,” Mehney said.

Thales says it has overcome some of the constraints around SRW by introducing a new wave form capability, TSM, developed by TrellisWare Technologies. By utilizing this approach, “the solution can now scale to 200-plus nodes per network, thus preventing the spectrum challenges that were associated with SRW, while also ensuring that the voice and data channel can further support position location information, chat functionality and streaming video,” Kidwell said.

Unlike the Soldier Radio Waveform, TSM uses a “Barrage Relay” technique as a means to push information across the network. This eliminates routing and thus minimizes network overhead. According to TrellisWare, the Barrage Relay approach allows for multiple video transmissions, faster position locations, and simplified configurations for grab-and-go deployments.

This has direct battlefield implications.

Sharing information more widely

With Barrage Relay, “the waveform allows users to operate in much more challenged environments. It means you can have larger networks that provide voice, video and data in all environments including urban environments, caves and tunnels, and in buildings,” Kidwell said.

Moreover, the wider user base should make it possible to share critical battlefield information more widely, giving warfighters greater insight into their surroundings and commanders better visibility into their troop disposition.

“In current environments, someone deployed with an SRW may only have 30 personnel in that network. I could only have visibility with 30 other users,” Kidwell said. “In this network I can have situational awareness of not just my platoon but my entire battalion or brigade. Now I have the ability to digitally communicate with them and pass on critical mission data.”

As a dual-channel device, the IMBITR also helps the Army to overcome a key migration challenge. Military leaders want to move away from more limited legacy solutions, but need to do so in such as way as to ensure that those with older devices can still talk to troops equipped with upgraded radios.

By embracing a dual-channel approach, the service can move away from the constrained SRW environment while still enabling connectivity as newer devices as phased in across user groups.

“It’s all about enabling that end user to make critical decisions in real time,” Kidwell said.