How portable communications safeguard warfighters

The next-generation warfighter will tap consumer innovations for battlefield communications

How portable communications safeguard warfighters

The military may tap into the commercial computer marketplace for peace-time communications. (Source iStock)

By Brett Kitchens, Contributor

The U.S. military is rebalancing, warfighting tactics are evolving and soldiers are embarking on a new mission. But through these strategic adjustments, one military axiom remains the same: Dynamic and field-tested communications technology is vital to protecting U.S. soldiers and enabling them to achieve the mission.

Since World War II, portable communications equipment has been an important force multiplier that helps keep soldiers safe. But to borrow from a popular saying, today’s sophisticated IP-based networked device isn’t your grandfather’s walkie-talkie radio.

Instead, today’s portable communications have  advanced features that deliver full tactical and data capabilities with secure encryption in order to support assignments around the world that happen at a moment’s notice.

Within today’s battlefield and installation environments, soldiers also need efficient and interoperable communications technology. In fact, just a few months ago, U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Raymond T. Odierno called for a more effective military communications system.

“I can sit here in my chair and pull out my smartphone and talk to every continent in the world with one little smartphone,” General Odierno said publicly. “[But when it comes to battlefield communications] I have to bring 50 trucks and 300 soldiers. Why is that? We cannot do that anymore. Our command and control systems are too heavy today.”    

Furthermore, General Odierno said that the challenge for the Army is to determine how we leverage the technologies that are out there.

“How do we leverage our ability to reduce our footprint to have better communications to secure data,” he asked.

Rebalance and Refocus Capabilities

This is indeed a challenge. With the end of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Department of Defense (DOD) must rebalance and refocus its capabilities – including the ways its soldiers talk to one another. DOD’s priority to invest in communications technology is loud and clear. As it repositions itself to reflect a new defense strategy outlined in the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), DOD will need to ensure its soldiers are outfitted with the right devices to meet their new mission requirements and the new priorities of the U.S. military.

The QDR, released in March, outlined top U.S. strategic priorities by emphasizing three pillars: protect the homeland to deter and defeat attacks on the U.S. and to support civil authorities in mitigating the effects of potential attacks and natural disasters; build security globally in order to preserve regional stability, deter adversaries, support allies and partners, and cooperate with others to address common security challenges; and project power and win decisively to defeat aggression, disrupt and destroy terrorist networks, and provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

A key element in aligning U.S. military communications capabilities with its new mission will be considering interoperable technology that’s on the right side of the cost curve. As an example, the Marines are using Project 25 (P25) systems that also provide military-focused tactical features such as secure encrypted voice, individual location information, radio inhibit, Over-the-Air-Programming and Rekeying, bio-monitoring of the user’s health, night vision compatibility, and spectral efficiency. These systems are also backward compatible for operating across previous generations of portable radios.

Commercial Device Implementation

Another method to enhancing the military’s communications technology will be to tap into the commercial marketplace, especially when it comes to mobile devices. Recognizing this need, the DOD announced a new commercial device implementation plan last year.

The plan calls for the integration of commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) devices, which means software or hardware that is commercially made and available for sale, lease, or license to a government agency that requires little or no unique government modifications to meet the requirements. Greater use of COTS communications devices will allow for the DOD to provide each soldier with a device quickly and at a lower cost than government-funded development.

In addition to interoperable communications technology and COTS devices, the DOD should consider expanding its push-to-talk (PTT) technology. The ability to immediately reach others at the push of a button is crucial for any solider. Whether used for instantaneous one-to-one or one-to-many conversations, PTT is a communication backbone abroad, in the field, and back home on base.

Today, breakthrough, easy-to-use technology has extended PTT functionality to smartphones and even tablets. Now, any mobile device user can communicate with radio users by pressing a single button.

Additional security is provided when PTT is used on devices with end-to-end AES 256/NSA Suite B for encrypted voice services. This seamless integration of mobile and radio technology will bolster military communications, especially as forces shift from remote battlefield regions to military installations, where they will need to interact closely with civilian public safety and government agencies.

As the mission of U.S. armed forces changes, so will the military’s communications systems. Cumbersome and ad-hoc solutions developed on the ground – such as the “50 trucks and 300 soldiers” that General Odierno discussed – are inefficient. Today, the world’s most advanced military must leverage the world’s most advanced communications technology, such as interoperability, COTS devices, and PTT.

Brett Kitchens is senior director of Business Development and Tactical Systems, U.S. Federal Government, for Motorola Solutions.