Small is beautiful: Manpack Technology Offers More with Less

By | April 1, 2012 | Feature, Government

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. 
 

Smaller 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.

The Lessons of JTRS

Tactical radios have come a long way since the early days of the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) program. In 2000, the U.S. Army embarked on its vision to bring a single architecture that could connect all radios in the Army arsenal. JTRS’ intent — to build so-called universal radios that would enable cost-efficiencies and interoperability across platforms — would greatly simplify communications and free up combat units to communicate while on-the-move. Lags in development and cost overruns, however, have plagued the program.

Harris RF Communications, which was not part of the initial JTRS Cluster 1 program, decided to develop its own handheld and manpack built around JTRS’s Software Communications Architecture. Since the military’s wideband networking waveform was not yet ready, Harris developed its own, calling it ANW2, or Adaptive Networking Wideband Waveform.

“We weren’t supplanting government waveforms; we just needed something to run in our radio,” recalls Bill Beamish, director of Product Line Management for the Falcon 3 Manpack radio. 

Harris applied lessons learned incrementally while gaining experience with its radio in the field. Today, the RF systems provider has close to 20,000 Falcon 3 manpacks and another 160,000 of its handheld version, the AN/PRC-152(C), deployed worldwide.

The company’s AN/PRC-117G manpack radio, weighing 12 pounds with a battery, is the first radio to provide both secure wideband and narrowband voice and data capability. It allows the mobile warfighter access to secure IP data at on-air rates up to 3 megabits per second, and features mobile ad-hoc networking. The ad-hoc networking capability enables connectivity across greater distances by moving traffic through intermediate nodes to take advantage of the overall network. The AN/PRC-117G is now the only radio certified for a Type-1 implementation of the JTRS Soldier Radio Waveform, or SRW.

“It makes a difference when you have a brigade or squad — where the units may deploy 15 or 20 nodes and any one of those nodes can be used to extend the network,” explains Beamish.

The Army, like other branches of the U.S. military, is in the process of changing its model to focus less on hardware, and more on waveforms and interoperability — a promising sign to many commercial players.

“They’re trying to figure out how to get more for less sooner. They’re transitioning more to an enterprise business model,” notes Beamish. “From our perspective, it’s a move in the right direction and that ultimately will get the government more capability sooner.” 

Late last year, Harris introduced a wideband handheld radio — the AN/PRC-152A. This radio provides simultaneous voice and high-speed data services on-the-move. It also incorporates interoperability with traditional narrowband LOS and SATCOM waveforms such as SINCGARS, Havequick 2 and VHF/UHF AM and FM in the 30-512 MHz range. 

That focus on waveforms is most evident with JTRS’ new Rifleman Radio, part of its HMS family. General Dynamics C4 Systems and Thales, the first company to deliver a JTRS-certified radio, jointly developed the Rifleman. Thales has roughly 200,000 manpack units deployed worldwide. Its handheld version, the PRC-148, weighing only two pounds, is the smallest tactical radio on the market. Satcom IW, the next-generation of the UHF Satcom waveform, is the newest waveform to be certified on Thales’ handheld. 

“The advantage of going to IW is you can use the existing satellite and double the channel capacity,” says Walt Hepker, vice president of business development for Thales Communications, Inc. 

Momentum Builds for Rifleman Radio with Smartphone Display  

The U.S. Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment in Afghanistan is now using the Rifleman, combined with the GD300, a smartphone-like, ruggedized leader display.  

“Two platoons had those radios in December and they are still using them now in theater,” Col. John Zavarelli, the HMS program manager, said in January at a soldier technology conference in Arlington, Va. “They did not have networking radios out there previously.”

The combination of a radio in a handheld smartphone form factor allows soldiers to share text messages, situation reports and other information in urban environments. Soldiers can display their position-location information among all other warfighters operating in the network.

"Traditionally, satcom has been the domain of the manpack. Now you really have that powerful capability in the handheld radio," says Hepker.

Marine Corps Technology

The Army isn’t the only service looking at smartphone technology. This past winter, the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., began testing handheld devices and new lightweight radios for uplink connectivity with Navy units off the Atlantic coast. The experiment will drive decisions on the form factor of future military smartphones, as well as guide how the Corps will integrate these devices with existing gear and networks. 

“When all is said and done, everybody is going to be connected,” predicted Maj. Nathan Cahoon, the C4 branch head at the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab (MCWL).

Cap. W.J. Matkins, C4 branch project officer, says the experiment, called Bold Alligator 2012, leverages two radios — a Distributed Tactical Communications System (DTCS) radio and a one-and-a-half pound Mobile Adhoc Networking (MANET) radio. The MANET radio is capable of simultaneous voice and data, multiple hops and passively relaying other radios’ traffic. The lab has installed the MANET radio on two ScanEagle Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, to extend the network and provide an ISR feed over the radio network for use by troops on the ground. 

Matkins explains that the smartphones are actually data devices tethered to the radios to allow dismounted forces to have capabilities like text, chat and obtaining a common tactical picture via position-location information.

“The radio is still the most critical factor — improving a radio’s data throughput is more important than the actual tethered data device,” says Matkins.

Even with the growing research and development interest in smartphone technology by military services, commercial industry officials differ on the degree to which smartphones will affect future systems. Most agree, however, that smartphones will drive the evolution of manpacks and handhelds, especially from a user-experience perspective.

Kevin Kane, division president for Australia-based Codan Radio Communications, is looking to add elements of smartphone usability — or how information is displayed to users — to current and future generations of his company’s manpack, the 2110 series.  Codan entered the manpack market five years ago, and today its high-frequency radio systems are broadly fielded by NGOs such as the United Nations and other government agencies that do humanitarian missions in emerging markets in Southeast Asia, Central Asia and Africa — regions that need easy-to-use systems that can operate in places without reliable communications infrastructure.
 

Smaller, More Versatile COTS

The military will certainly continue to focus on fielding systems quickly using COTS but ruggedized for military applications. According to Astrium, military customers like the U.K. Ministry of Defence are increasingly embracing COTS technology instead of military-only systems to drive more value.

“Requirements for man-portables, manpacks and communications-on-the-move will continue post current operations (in Afghanistan),” predicts Tarby. He adds that budget reductions will emphasize the need for value, and may drive greater acceptance of COTS-based solutions with just enough military adaptation rather than full-milspec solutions.

Harris officials agree, noting that the Pentagon and international defense departments are focused on answering one question, “How can I get the smallest, lightest, most inexpensive platform I can to get the job done?”

Dion says that her Special Forces customers are seeking lighter, lower profile stealth devices. She asserts that even as the number of deployed forces decreases in the next five years, the United States will continue to rely on manpacks to support Special Forces missions worldwide.

However, tactical radio capabilities now available to Special Forces soldiers will become more commonplace for every soldier in the future. With the convergence of radios and data devices with wideband networking, the sky is the limit for how connected and battlefield-ready future mobile fighting forces will be.

Related Stories

Live chat by BoldChat