Interoperability in communications has long vexed military, public safety and law enforcement organizations. The ever-expanding landscape of equipment unable to reliably and securely communicate with each other impacts situational awareness and more consequentially, mission success.

Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, then-commander of U.S. Army Europe, noted three years ago that field radios used by U.S. troops and NATO allies “cannot even talk to each other securely.” More recently, Army Futures Command leaders acknowledged still that “tactical radio communications with coalition partners is one of the key problems we have been trying to solve.”

Government and industry innovation are enabling DoD organizations to make tangible gains in radio communications interoperability in tactical environments. Understanding the core challenges and how emerging approaches and solutions can solve them will go a long way in advancing military efforts in the months and years ahead.

Radio interoperability challenges

DoD organizations tap numerous types of communications equipment — including handheld radios, desktop phones, laptops, and intercom systems — for which interoperability can be a hurdle. As a result, a warfighter or operator in the field might not be able to connect to someone in a command post, on a vehicle, or in headquarters, unless they have matching equipment.

Further impeding seamless communication, these varied handheld radios use different waveforms or frequencies. Even if the devices and frequencies align, each organization might use different channels to communicate within their own groups, so internal groups and teams can’t communicate with each other. Lastly, different radios have different range limitations that need to be factored into the equation.

Conventional approaches historically focused on fielding systems providing radio interoperability and radio-over-IP (RoIP) — many of which were large, not rugged, and not well-integrated. The lack of small form factor systems that were proven in ruggedized environments has slowed interoperability efforts. At the same time, interoperability solutions have often left DoD to mix-and-match from different vendors, and absorb the full burden of trying to integrate them.

Meeting the challenge

The speed at which technology innovation can reach warfighters is critical to mission success. But as is the case in any industry, more products and services introduce complexity. For the DoD, rapidly fielding new communications hardware and software complicates interoperability. New types of software defined radios, MANET radios, handheld Link 16 radios, and soon, 5G solutions, will make this interoperability problem tougher, not easier. At the same time, it is not cost-feasible to replace all existing legacy radios every time a new version comes along, so interoperability must also be established between new and old radio technologies.

Adapting popular radio types, phone types, and intercom systems into a common communications format — that is, Internet Protocol (IP), and mixing and distributing the communications back out to all users — is key. Further, providing this adaptation to multiple systems at the same time — so that many systems, even from different organizations, can work together simultaneously — must be a focus as well. Using IP allows for transmission over any variety of long-haul systems, including Beyond Line of Sight systems, or SATCOM, to enable worldwide transmission.

Systems must also be integrated, rugged, small enough to be transported by hand or mounted on vehicles, and be power-efficient enough to run on batteries in order to meet needs across organizations. Finally, these systems and related technology will benefit from a rich feature set, user interface and APIs that are interoperable above the communications layer.

When DoD organizations can’t communicate easily and in real-time, they can’t succeed. And interoperability can’t be narrowly defined as enabling converged voice communications between like organizations, staff and vehicles. It must extend across otherwise incompatible or non-interoperable systems such as dismounted units, FOBs, command posts, ground vehicles, and aircraft, as well as in upper echelons — for military, intelligence, law enforcement, and Homeland Security use.

Charlie Kawasaki is the chief technology officer at PacStar.

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