FORT BRAGG, N.C. (April 28, 2022) – The soft sound of boots crushing pine needles abruptly gave way to rapid small arms fire, radio transmissions and the commander’s orders to take cover.
While this was only a training event, the realistic scenario unfolded during the Handheld, Manpack, and Small Form Fit (HMS) Soldier Touch Point (STP) at Fort Bragg, last week. The Army conducted the STP to evaluate additional iterative enhancements made to the HMS radio products since the Initial Operational Test (IOT&E) in January 2021 and full rate production decision.
"We've made major improvements over the last year, especially in better cabling and ease of operational use,” said Col. Garth Winterle, project manager for Tactical Radios (PM TR), assigned to the Program Executive Office Command Control Communications-Tactical. “Our mesh networking waveform, TSM, has been proven to be effective at the company-level and has been providing primary voice and data in some really tough terrain.”
TSM is an advanced commercial networking waveform that provides enhanced throughput.
As part of the Army’s Capability Set 21, the HMS Manpack and Leader radios are already fielded to the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division (1/82 ABN); 173rd Airborne Brigade; 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division (25 ID) and the Third Brigade Combat Team, 82 ABN. The radios are currently being fielded to the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 25 ID.
Other items under evaluation at the STP include upgraded prototype radio carrier rucksacks and a range extending antenna.
“Our iterative operational assessment strategy is proving to be invaluable in not only verifying improvements to our radios and accessories, but we are also able to get continuous feedback for future improvements,” Winterle said.
Soldiers with the 2nd Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment (2-501 PIR), assigned to the 1/82 ABN are evaluating the AN/PRC-163 Leader radio, AN/PRC-158 and AN/PRC-162 Manpacks, along with the Nett Warrior end user device and associated components, which were the radios under test at the IOT&E.
New to the product line is the next increment of the AN/PRC-148C Leader radio and the AN/PRC-148D, boasting product improvements including the new Warrior Robust Enhanced Network (WREN) TSM capability and associated Nett Warrior. Soldiers are using the WREN TSM waveform for transmissions classified Secret or below, which provides all of the same functions of TSM, but is security hardened with National Security Agency Type 1 cryptography for government use.
“The exercise involves establishing a defense by dispersing the platoons in two different directions,” said Capt. Kevin Stevens, company commander of C Company, 2-501 PIR. “We want to see if we're able to maintain communications from being at such far distances away, up to six kilometers, while on the move, and under a canopy of trees, all of which adds a layer of complexity.”
The commander, his radio operator, and squad leader for the 60 millimeter mortar section - who established a mortar firing point several kilometers away - relied on TSM for their respective missions, using the waveform on both the Manpack and Leader radios in conjunction with the Nett Warrior end user device.
“The work we’re doing to continue to perfect this [technology] and how we are bringing that to the battlefield will be a huge force multiplier for us in our ability to share info, be more aware of what’s going on across the battlefield and ultimately be more lethal by bringing fires and combat power against what our Soldiers are seeing on the battlefield,” said Lt. Col. Eli Myers, 2-501 PIR commander.
The forested area of operations also provided the perfect setting for the 2-501’s C Company to test the new cabling management system connecting the radios and system components, which was initially evaluated by the 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division during jungle training.
“The current cables are flat, which is a huge improvement over the original round cables, and by being closer to our bodies don’t become entangled in the woods,” said 1st Lt. Keo Simonson, 2-501 PIR platoon leader, in charge of testing the Manpack radios.
Soldiers also evaluated recent improvements to the Leader radio’s power capabilities, following IOT&E feedback, which conveyed that the radios did not retain sufficient power in the field. To increase power, PM TR engineers and vendors inserted a commercial power wedge between the radio and its battery to harness the full potential of the radio and Nett Warrior system, exponentially increasing operational run time to the radio, end user device and headsets.
“It works very well with the Leader radio to allow the conformal battery to function as a reserve,” Simonson said.
These iterative improvements have extended beyond hardware and software capabilities to focus on prototype rucksack designs for ergonomic and radio-carrying functionality. The product office recruited a C5ISR Human System Integration engineer to support a comprehensive evaluation based on Soldier feedback, with additional tests for heat dissipation and durability being planned to make a final selection, said Derek Harberts, deputy product manager for HMS.
“I’ve tried out three rucksacks this week, and the one I’m using now is serving me well,” Thames said. “It is more compact and allows me to easily reach for my radio and everything else I need.”
Test personnel from the Maneuver Battle Lab (MBL) at Fort Benning, Georgia, and the Army Test and Evaluation Command, at APG, Maryland, tag-teamed with Soldiers across the operational environment to capture data throughout the STP. The organizations will combine previously generated data gathered from verification and validation events at the Electronic Proving Ground (EPG) in Arizona to assess the status of IOT&E improvements.
Another evaluation event is scheduled for October at EPG, followed by another event at MBL in first quarter fiscal year 2023.
“What I’m seeing with advances in HMS will close the gap, provide situational awareness across the entire echelon and give leaders significant advantage over any of the adversaries we are likely to face on the battlefield,” Myers said. “We are excited and honored to be able to be part of this effort on behalf of the Army, to really test this equipment, and make incremental improvements over the next couple of weeks to help deliver a better and more useful product to the Army.”
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.