ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (Sept. 13, 2018) -- In support of modernization and readiness initiatives, the Army has developed a tactical modem that will significantly reduce lifecycle costs while creating benefits through ownership of intellectual property rights.
As the Army's Project Manager Mission Command progresses through significant upgrades for two fires systems, product office team members determined the cost of the legacy digital modem had increased to unsustainable levels. Because the current modem, which has been fielded for 19 years, is a proprietary item tied to one vendor, the Army has been unable to modify it as complementary fires systems' software and hardware have evolved.
In response to these issues, the Army, through internal research and development, engineered a replacement in the past nine months that will provide an anticipated cost avoidance of about $40 million over two years.
The new modem, known as Ultralink, will support the Precision Fires-Dismounted system and Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System. PF-D, which is hosted as an application on the Nett Warrior Android-enabled smartphone, provides forward observers with digital maps to send precision target coordinates. AFATDS provides fully automated support for planning, coordinating, controlling and executing fires for the Army, Marine Corps and Navy.
ARMY R&D EXPERTISE
PM Mission Command turned to the expertise of in-house Army software, electrical and computer engineers to conceive, develop, build and test a modernized version. Lt. Col. Chris Anderson, product manager for Fire Support Command and Control, said the partnership with the Army's Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center at APG has been essential for delivering a successful product quickly.
CERDEC began engineering discovery work in late 2017, and prototypes were ready in July 2018 for developmental operations with 2-77 Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson, Colorado.
"Working with CERDEC, we've been able to come up with a low-cost, high-quality, government-developed replacement for a proprietary system," Anderson said. "We've created tremendous synergy across the acquisition enterprise."
Subject-matter experts in CERDEC's Unified Laboratory for Tactical Radios-Army, known as ULTRA, worked for about eight months to fully understand the legacy system. Then, they developed a solution while maintaining complete interoperability with fielded modems' specifications, said Ben Foresta, ULTRA branch chief. The new modem must be compliant with the existing vendor's implementation of hardware and software.
As the ULTRA team worked on the software, a CERDEC engineer designed and fabricated new hardware at the Army's Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, also located on APG. The team created initial designs through computer modeling and then used additive manufacturing, commonly known as 3-D printing, at the prototype integration facility.
Based on feedback, engineers and machinists made incremental changes until a final design was formalized. Now, the Army has identified and qualified vendors to produce each component of the Ultralink in order to reduce cost. A parts list and assembly instructions for production and repair have been composed, and every piece is designed to be replaceable.
Anderson said working with the two organizations on APG has enabled a better end result for Soldiers.
"Because it's internal Army personnel, our SMEs can work together to understand all the systems, and vice versa. The PIF engineers and machinists can capture lessons learned from the prototyping runs. They can feed that information back to us right away," Anderson said.
TRANSITION TO OPEN ARCHITECUTRE
As a result of the Ultralink project, the Army will now own the intellectual property, source code and technical data packages for the new modems. The Army's push toward open architecture and non-proprietary solutions will lead to a number of benefits.
After the ECBC PIF completes the initial low-rate production run in fiscal year 2019, PM Mission Command plans to open up competition in FY 2020 among vendors in order to reduce costs. PM Mission Command will have the ability to work with an Army depot for repairs, maintenance and sustainment of the Ultralinks; in turn, this would support the organic industrial base. In addition, because the Ultralink is government-owned and open source, the underlying technology behind the software and hardware can be provided to program offices across the Army and sister services, many of which currently use legacy modems.
The Ultralink cost reduction will pay greater dividends as PM Mission Command looks to produce Ultralinks in large quantities for PF-D and AFATDS. This includes new fieldings as well as replacing modems already in the field across the joint fires community.
The Army will field about 2,200 new PF-D systems in the next two years with the Ultralink. Over the next five years, all existing legacy AFATDS modems will be pulled from the field and replaced with Ultralinks.
The Army, USMC and Navy currently have more than 5,500 AFATDS systems in the field, each with two legacy modems per unit. The Ultralink will replace those legacy products with a single two-channel modem per AFATDS. When Ultralinks are fielded with PF-D and AFATDS systems across the joint force, the estimated cost avoidance will expand to about $165 million.
"We're delivering a modernized product with cost savings by teaming with our engineering and prototyping partners," Anderson said.
The U.S. Army Program Executive Office Command, Control and Communications-Tactical develops, acquires, fields and supports the Army's mission command network to ensure force readiness. This critical Army modernization priority delivers tactical communications so commanders and Soldiers can stay connected and informed at all times, even in the most austere and hostile environments. PEO C3T is delivering the network to regions around the globe, enabling high-speed, high-capacity voice, data and video communications to a user base that includes the Army's joint, coalition and other mission partners.