Infantry and Special Forces alike have long needed tactical communications-on-the-move manpack terminals that are flexible and quickly deployable to provide ground-based situational awareness.
Used since just before World War II, tactical radios have evolved with advances in size, weight and performance, as well as expanding waveforms to support network-centric warfare. Key breakthroughs include the introduction of software defined radio and embedded cryptography. Extended battery life remains a challenge, as well as issues of security and heat dissipation as systems rely on commercial technology and become smaller in size.
Today, militaries are extending the use and reach of manpacks to more soldiers, with systems beginning to support communications to the last tactical mile, or to the most forward units and individual soldiers. What advances in networking have enabled this leap, and what are the hurdles that still need to be overcome for manpacks and even smaller form factors to realize their full potential?
In 2010, the industry spent $734.5 million on manpack radios, estimates analyst firm Frost & Sullivan. Brad Curran, industry analyst, Frost & Sullivan, expects that number to grow 2 percent to 3 percent per year in the next five years.
“I think the market is going to be fairly stable,” he says, pointing to one upside — the fact that the table of equipment for individual soldiers is on the rise even as defense budget cuts promise a smaller fighting force in the future.
The growing demand for manpacks by its military customers prompted U.K.-based Astrium Satcom Systems & Solutions back into the manpack market with two models: the MPS450 suitcase manpack, which features single button operation and is targeted at infantry soldiers; and the lighter-weight MPS650, which targets Special Forces with its higher throughput of two megabits a second over X-band.
“The requirements we are seeing are for a very small, lightweight backpack, and a slighter larger, more automated terminal,” says Paul Tarby, head of products and systems engineering at Astrium Secure Satcom Systems.
Minimizing size and weight are essential for making manpacks more soldier-friendly. As the military has adopted more commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) technology, it is achieving greater form-factor gains, industry watchers say. The equipment has gone from about four times thicker than a laptop to systems today that are the size of a brick or even smaller. “The goal is an iPhone or Android,” notes Curran.
There are always trade-offs when it comes to driving down the size. Getting the maximum throughput in a small package for Special Forces customers prompted Windmill International, a New Hampshire-based veteran-owned solutions provider, to begin developing a receive-only system instead of a two-way system with funding from the Air Force Research Lab 11 years ago.
Its Ka10 terminal is 32 pounds and operates off the GBS system. The unit is in wide use by the Joint Communication Support Element that is first into theater. A key feature of the system is its huge data pipe, which can receive 45 megabits per second with auto-acquire capability. More than 200 systems have been fielded to date, says Laura Dion, vice president of Specialty Products at Windmill. “Some of our systems are being used as a video backbone in Afghanistan,” she adds.
Windmill now is seeking to get a smaller version of its manpack, the Ka20, approved as a program of record with the Air Force GBS Joint Program Office. The terminal’s development was funded with a Warfighter Rapid Acquisition Award to get it down to 20 pounds. Dion says the company expects to receive program approval next year with the system generally available beginning in 2013.