The Army is positioned to have its entire tactical ground radio architecture under contract by the end of the current fiscal year, bringing unparalleled connectivity to soldiers deployed even to the most remote corners of the world.

By this time next year, the service will have soldier and vehicle mounted radios that not only allow voice communication, but data transmission so advanced that individual troops can view and manipulate digital maps and real-time, full-motion intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data piped in from aircraft.


“It’s kind of like your smart phone. You used to use it just for voice,” Aaron Brosnan, vice president for land tactical communications at Thales, said during a recent visit to the company’s manufacturing facility outside Gaithersburg, Md. “Now imagine all the things you are doing with it. Radio technology in terms of defense applications is basically following suit. Radios today do a lot more than standard voice.”

Because radio technology is now software driven rather than defined by hardware, they can perform multiple functions at once. Brosnan said Thales is developing software that would allow an individual rifleman radio to perform “tactical electronic warfare,” though he would not elaborate on what that means.

“It’s a classified program that we can’t get into, but rest assured radios are doing a lot more than just communicate,” Brosnan said. “The thing about tactical communications is it’s not the old-school. “It used to be just push-to-talk type handheld, analogue, voice. Now it’s all about networking and multifunction devices. Now we’re doing [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] video feed out to the tactical edge, so now the individual soldier out in the middle of nowhere can pick up a UAV video feed down to his device.”

Recent movement in the tactical communications acquisition world was not pre-destined, said Dennis Moran, a former Army major general who now serves as Harris’ vice president of government business development for RF communications, told Defense Daily. After years of government-led development and testing and several failed programs, Pentagon chief weapons buyer Frank Kendall refocused the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) acquisition strategy on identifying, buying and fielding commercially-available technologies, Moran said.

 “I call this the year of the tactical radio,” Moran said during an Oct. 8 interview. “There has been a lot of work that has been going on the [Defense] Department side and in industry. All of that hard work is now coming to fruition where the Army is positioned to procure the radios that it requires.”

For each element of the JTRS — Rifleman Radio, HMS Manpack, the small airborne network radio (SANR) and the mid-tier network vehicular radio (MNVR)–the Army reached out to industry to see what firms already had developed based on actual and perceived government requirements. Compliant companies then were allowed to offer bids for indefinite-delivery, indefinite quantity contracts for each device.

The initial contracts for Rifleman Radio–the single-channel walkie-talkie carried by every soldier–were awarded to Thales and Harris [HRS] in the summer. Both companies are in the customer testing phase and awaiting an OK from the Defense Department to begin full-rate production, which should come soon after the New Year, Moran said.

Low-rate initial production contracts for an initial lot of 21,000 radios went to General Dynamics [GD] and Thales. General Dynamics then declined to bid for the full-rate work. Thales and Harris together will manufacture more than 150,000 radios, but each will continually compete for more task orders after the initial five-year FRP period is up.

“For manpack and for rifleman…the prize at the end of the competition is an IDIQ and then after that individual task orders–which will probably come out on an annual basis–individual companies will compete over those task orders, which is the best way to get not only the most capable radios each time, but also the best price.”

Response to the request for proposals for the handheld, manpack and small form fit (HMS) Manpack radio were submitted on Oct. 2. The Army is currently sorting through offerings, which could include compliant products from General Dynamics, Rockwell Collins [COL], Thales and Harris.

That radio can either be mounted in a vehicle or carried by a soldier as a backpack. Like the MNVR, it operates the soldier radio waveform, but also is capable of operating legacy waveforms and will be the primary Army radio to operate on the Navy’s mobile user objective system (MUOS), a next-generation narrowband tactical satellite communications system.

“The key thing about it is the government wants to see the radios get smaller over time so there is a lot of emphasis on product improvements over the life of the program,” Moran said. Current requirements set the threshold weight at 14.6 pounds, but the Army wants and HMS radio that is closer to 8-10 pounds, he said.

For the MNVR piece, there were four competitors but a single IDIQ for 2,400 of the radios, a number small enough that a single company could shoulder the manufacturing load. Harris won a MNRV contract about a year and a half ago to build a brigade’s worth of radios for testing ahead of a low-rate initial production (LRIP) decision expected this fall. The company has completed limited user tests and should begin operational testing in late spring or early summer 2016, Moran said.

 MNVR operates the wideband networking waveform, which will give echelons from platoon and company up to battalion and brigade access to the warfighter integrated network-tactical (WIN-T).