Late September, U.S. Army leaders in charge of tactical communications sat before the House Armed Services Committee and presented a new plan for the Army network. The proposed way forward involved some bold steps to stop programs and move funds to deliver what the war fighters need: reliable and secure communications that perform in the fight today and are capable and adaptable for use against emerging threats in the future.
While it was not part of the exchange between lawmakers and officers, the Army remains in a exposed position on the ridgeline, largely because of change. Emerging threats, new capabilities and tactics, and evolutions (or revolutions) in technology are just a few of the dynamic factors that impede progress and frustrate all parties involved: lawmakers, Army leadership, industry and, of course, those who rely on technology for their mission — the war fighters.
Change is not easy and what the Army has been undertaking with its network strategy — fundamentally a migration from narrowband to advanced and highly capable wideband technology — can best be described as a paradigm shift. The fact remains, however, that the capabilities currently provided by wideband radios are a game changer that enhances our fighting forces. It’s for good reason that we should sprint — not walk — forward to put this capability in the hands of the war fighter.
That’s a statement the Army and members of Congress (not to mention war fighters) can agree with, but the questions are how and why aren’t we closer to success? The answers to both: change.
Change as a barrier to progress
Looking at the “why” question, just when the Army appears close to fielding a technology that meets operational requirements, something happens that necessitates changing those requirements. A good example of this dynamic is the Mid-Tier Networking Vehicular Radio (MNVR) program, which was one of the proposed programs the Army pegged to be halted. The MNVR system met or exceeded program requirements, but one of the designated MNVR waveforms did not address emerging operational requirements that can be met by the HMS Manpack radio still in procurement.
So here’s a radio system that is fully developed, tested and ready for fielding — that because of changes in requirements is no longer sufficient for the Army’s current needs. Sensibly, the funding for that program may being shifted to the HMS Manpack program, which has a vehicle-configuration variant that can more than meet the MNVR mission need.
The ability to change is key
But while change is disruptive and challenging to manage, particularly when developing technology that must work every time, the technology itself offers solutions that put us all closer to success than we might think. A viable and “ready now” answer to the “how” question is another paradigm shift: the software-defined radio (SDR).
I’ve talked about SDR technology before, noting that its architecture makes radios quickly and far more easily adaptable and upgradeable, often done remotely and without the logistical burden of hardware changes. The move from narrowband SINCGARS to SDR wideband two-channel radios represents a massive upgrade in capabilities that fundamentally changes how our war fighters fight — and that change could not have happened were it not for the development of the software defined core architecture.
When we consider that software-defined radios enable war fighters to exploit feeds from unmanned aerial vehicles, transmit data (images and video) to aircraft, and use SATCOM and SIGINT capabilities, there’s a lot of change to consider as the actual adoption of that technology into doctrine — tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs). This requires an iterative process and that takes time.
To date, the Army has been making progress on building out the technology components of the modern battlefield network in a methodical fashion. For more than six years, the Army Network Modernization strategy has evolved, advancing the over-arching network capability and adding key lower-tier technologies, some of which have drawn praise from the war fighters accustomed to SINCGARS. These latter elements include the multichannel handheld (Rifleman Radio) and the HMS Manpack, which are now in various stages of procurement.
The HMS Manpack has proven its effectiveness through multiple tests, offering huge improvements over currently fielded radios in all areas: weight, range, battery life and capability. Because the HMS Manpack SDR technology is mature, refinements and adding new capabilities — like incorporating the WNW mid-tier waveform — do not require major surgery. In other words, tackling the technology challenges are less daunting and lower risk for the Army, thus the process for getting the radio through the testing gauntlet can and should be streamlined. Already, at least one major Coalition partner nation has procured the same radios that the U.S. Army is evaluating for the HMS Manpack program.
Let’s get going
What’s perhaps unappreciated, but should be noted, is that the technology and industry have become far more adaptable over the last decade, and those factors will combine to help the Army work through its network challenges.
In addition to advancements in technology, one of the positive changes that has also occurred over the last decade is the way that some in industry approach the changing market with a willingness to invest company dollars on R&D in order to shorten the cycles between the development and fielding of new capabilities. The maturity of breakthroughs like software defined technology was possible, in large part, due to the investment by industry to continuously evolve the technology.
Speaking from experience, shifting to a new model for development is hard work and takes commitment by industry and the customer to see it through. Adding to this challenge is the dynamic of sprinting forward on a development program only to have requirements change as war fighters’ needs and threats evolve. But that ability to pay and then pivot is what the customer needs and we’ve delivered.
While this fact may have been lost in the recent hearing, there’s a lot to the technology that works today and is adaptable for tomorrow. Let’s now get to work on getting this needed capability into formation.
Maj. Gen. Dennis Moran (ret.) is the vice president of Government Business Development for Harris Corporation.