ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND (APG), Md. (March 26, 2021) – The Army’s tactical radio program leaders are wasting no time implementing improvements to the Army’s radios following a January operational test.
The event provided an opportunity for the Army’s test community and Program Executive Office for Command, Control, Communications-Tactical (PEO C3T), which is the program office managing the effort, to collect the data required for the Army to make a full-rate production decision later this year based on the radios’ technical maturity, operational relevance and affordability.
Developers are now following a comprehensive improvement plan, which consists of short and long-term solutions to systematically refine and mitigate issues with the tested capabilities.
“We are aggressively tackling our short-term improvements now, and anticipate nearly all of them to be validated by the end of third quarter of FY21,” said Col. Garth Winterle, project manager for Tactical Radios (TR), assigned to PEO C3T. “Our longer-term efforts will occur from Q1 FY22 to Q1 FY23.”
The Handheld, Manpack, Small Form Factor (HMS) Initial Operational Test (IOT&E) held at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, featured paratroopers from the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment (1–504 PIR), 82nd Airborne Division (ABN), conducting missions using Leader radio AN/PRC-148 and AN/PRC-163 and Manpack radio AN/PRC-158 and AN/PRC-162 variants.
The improvement plan is a direct result of the HMS IOT&E Development, Security, and Operations (DevSecOps) radio development and fielding approach, which provided the baseline for the program offices, test community and N-CFT to gain real-time feedback and insert immediate and iterative solutions to the feedback.
“We addressed issues on the spot, held follow-on events immediately upon conclusion of the IOT&E, such as a power management forum, and within a month created a systematic improvement plan with many planned near-term resolutions,” said Lt. Col. Ray Yu, product manager for Handheld, Manpack, and Small Form Fit Radios, assigned to PEO C3T.
Streamlining new capabilities
Out of all of the capabilities under test, network operations (NETOPS) was pivotal to ensuring the two-channel networked Leader and Manpack radios provided Soldiers with critical networked voice, data and video communications.
While the technology performed well, Soldier feedback found complexities with some of the radio presets and subsequent configuration management tasks, which slowed down planning times.
“We have begun streamlining some of the load interfaces from two software programs down to one to allow us to incorporate mass-editing, mass-change and replication functions,” said Keith Whittaker, project lead for Network Planning, assigned to PEO C3T's PdM Tactical Cyber & Network Operations.
These modifications will assist Soldiers with modifying users, creating new networks and/or adding new equipment into the overall network plan. Soldiers will be able to share these functions with other Soldiers, who can then load them onto their respective radios, he said.
"This solution will also reduce MUOS [Mobile Objective User System] tactical SATCOM data planning cycle time by hours," Whitaker said.
During the IOT&E and subsequent Combat Training Center rotations, Soldiers successfully used MUOS tactical SATCOM to extend communication range for spread-out dismounted maneuver formations and also enhanced inter-echelon communication and disadvantaged environments.
“We will incorporate the software updates to aid our radio and MUOS capabilities, along with new training manuals and a new concept of operations in a late 3Q FY21 release,” Whittaker said.
Another short-term improvement is in the area of cable management. Soldiers found it difficult to configure the number of cables required to connect the radios to the Nett Warrior end-user devices, and the length of the cables added to the complexity of their equipment load. The PM TR team worked with vendors to refine the performance requirements for the cables, including replacing them with flat cables, to address users concerns with an expected fix by the end of 3Q FY21.
Two additional issues discovered during the IOT&E are in the areas of power management, where paratroopers reported insufficient battery power to sustain the radios throughout their missions and insufficient time for unit training.
"In response to the battery issue, PM TR teamed with PM Integrated Visual Augmentation System [formerly PM Close Combat Squad, assigned to PEO Soldier] to provide an interim solution to develop and teach a power management concept of operations and provide additional batteries, including a conformal wearable battery,” Yu said. “We also provided a larger two kilowatt generator, which will be capable of supporting the power management efforts required to sustain operations.”
Although not part of the IOT&E, this solution has successfully undergone additional validation during the 82nd ABN’s Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) rotation operating the Integrated Tactical Network (ITN), with initial battery fixes scheduled for completion this quarter.
During the event, the unit also successfully conducted airborne operations with both radios, which will support the long-term airborne safety release of the two radio variants.
To address unit training needs, PM TR trainers will conduct 40-hour operator training at each future new equipment training (NET), where they will emphasize hands-on instruction, practical exercises and multiple “reps and sets” on each radio platform.
“Our trainers successfully completed this same NET for the 173rd ABN with positive feedback from the battalion commander,” Yu said. “This ongoing effort will soon have another opportunity to validate NET activities with the 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, in April.
Longer-term fixes include but are not limited to continued simplification of NETOPS planning tools; cybersecurity patches; a simplified solution to access the TSM waveform talk group on both radios and a concept of operations refinement to integrate fires capabilities with MUOS data networks.
To address larger rucksack combat loads, PEO C3T is collaborating with PEO Soldier to redesign the current Manpack radio carrier, which will also ensure adequate heat dissipation.
PM TR has aligned IOT&E fixes with HMS production verification tests to validate capability improvements throughout the year, beginning with an event in June at the Electronic Proving Ground (EPG), Fort Huachuca, Arizona, where engineers will test the first round of short-term improvements. In late summer, users will re-test the capabilities from the EPG event, plus the remaining short-term improvements at the Maneuver Battle Lab, Fort Gordon, Georgia, followed by two more user events in FY22 to address the longer-term improvements.
“Whenever a capability is ready for evaluation, we will attempt to move it into the next scheduled evaluation event to ensure we stay true to our DevSecOps iterative development and fielding objectives,” Winterle said. “At each event, we will ensure we have the right Soldiers with the right skills to thoroughly validate tasks associated with these fixes.”
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.