The Army is rolling out a new tactical modem, a device that connect troops in the field to commanders for communicating orders and instructions .
The new modem supports communication in the Precision Fires-Dismounted system and Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System. To develop the latest iteration, which replaces a 19-year-old system, the Army went in house. It now owns all the intellectual property, the source code and the technical data, in a move that planners say will make the new Ultralink modem cheaper and more readily available.
“We make the cables, we make the cases, we make the boards. So now we can do repairs, we can buy just the components and do replacements as needed, which makes it an order of magnitude cheaper,” said Ben Foresta, the tactical radio branch chief for the Army’s Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center’s Space and Terrestrial Communications Directorate.
The modem takes digital data coming out of a forward observer device and converts it to a radio-friendly signal. The digitalization ensures calls for fire are transmitted accurately and speedily. But the older model has struggled in recent years over issues of cost and availability, said Lt. Col. Chris Anderson, product manager for Fire Support Command and Control (Product Manager FSC2), Project Manager Mission Command (PM MC).
The Army has relied on a single vendor since the 1990s and now pays about $5,500 per modem. The supply chain hasn’t kept pace with demand and it can take up to a year for the Army to get a new modem, should it need to replace one of the currently fielded units, Anderson said.
“The components were essentially obsolete. There’s no stockpile, they build them on demand, and they haven’t re-architected the hardware for some time. You can’t buy the components off the shelf, you have to have it built for it you, which drives up the overall cost and the time it takes to produce it,” Foresta said.
“We wanted a government-owned solution that would give us more flexibility and that we could improve over time, so we wouldn’t run into these issues again,” Anderson said.
Precision Fires-Dismounted (PF-D) provides forward observers with digital maps to send precision target coordinates and is hosted as an application on the Nett Warrior Android-enabled smartphone. The Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System (AFATDS) delivers automated support for planning and executing fires.
PM Mission Command partnered with Army’s Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) to develop the new modem. Representatives from the two groups began engineering discovery work in late 2017, and by July 2018 had prototypes ready for developmental operations with 2-77 Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson, Colorado. Then, CERDEC engineers crafted new hardware components at the Army’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, located on Aberdeen Proving Ground. From initial computer-modeled designs, they leveraged 3-D printing to develop the initial prototype.
ULTRA’s subject matter experts sought to maintain the features of the legacy system, while creating a solution that would offer interoperability between existing and emerging technologies.
“As we field new units with new equipment, they will get an Ultralink, while others will get them as their old units break. In the meantime, it’s going to be a heterogeneous fielding, so we needed to be sure that everyone could interoperate,” Foresta said.
The Army is shipping out the new modem to initial users, and should deploy the technology to all 2,200 forward observers by the end of fiscal year 2020. The cost per unit has dropped to about $1,000 and should go even lower once mass production ramps up, Anderson said.
In-house development may not be the answer to every supply-chain problem the military encounters. In this case, though, the ability to re-engineer a well-understood piece of technology and update it for current users should deliver tangible battlefield benefits.
“It will give them a steady source of supply for a widget that they use every day,” Anderson said. “That alone makes their lives easier. And from a program management perspective, if we can reduce costs by 80 percent or more, that’s pretty powerful.”