LEADING THE FIELD: Soldiers assigned to 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division (3/25 ID) operate two-channel leader radios at Kahuku Training Area, Hawaii, on Aug. 22. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Alan Brutus, 3/25 ID)
Modern waveforms will enhance secure communications in future conflicts.
by Dr. Sayeed Hasan, Herald Beljour and Kathryn Bailey
One of the most critical weapons in today’s military arsenal is invisible, silent and operates in the air above the battlefield. This critical capability is the military waveform, which is the software that carries clear, uninterrupted voice and data transmissions across the force. Unfortunately, waveforms are vulnerable to multiple impediments vying to degrade their performance when traveling from Point A to Point B.
Currently, congested and contested waveform pathways are one of the most troublesome conditions facing commanders and military planners. Transmissions, which are the broadcasting of electromagnetic waves from one location to another, must fight for space within a crowded electromagnetic spectrum while also evading sophisticated adversarial signal interference. Even unintentional, non-adversarial interference is becoming increasingly prevalent, as signals must extend further than ever before to prepare for multinational, multidomain operations.
To respond to these electromagnetic challenges, the Army is reaching out to commercial organizations using multiple contracting methods and incentives—and even prize money—to give a modern twist to its go-to waveforms.
Government-developed waveforms are derived from military requirements, where the government can be the designer and developer of the product, or can provide the requirements to vendors to port onto their radios. A commercial waveform is developed by a commercial company, which owns the intellectual property associated with the waveform, and that company is responsible for software updates, bug fixes and initial testing. To ensure commercial waveforms meet its stringent security protocols, the Army frequently partners with industry to integrate National Security Agency (NSA)-approved encryption into commercial waveforms and radios.
One of the Army’s current government waveforms is the legacy Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System (SINCGARS) waveform. The SINCGARS waveform provides secure line-of-sight transmissions and runs on multiple hardware radio platforms, such as the single-channel RT-1523 VHF SINCGARs radio, which is currently undergoing a modernization effort called the Combat Net Radio. It also runs on the more modern two-channel, software-defined radio variants such as the AN/PRC-148D and the AN/PRC 163 Leader radios and the AN/PRC-158 and AN/PRC-162 Manpack Radios. The benefit to two-channel, software-defined radios is twofold: They can run SINCGARS on one channel and a different waveform on another, depending on the mission.
To support the NSA and DOD’s cryptographic modernization effort, which is modernizing and transforming U.S. information assurance capabilities to prepare for mid- to long-term threats, the Army is currently looking to modernize the legacy SINCGARS waveform.
Improvements include enhancements to both electronic warfare protection and voice quality. To identify all requirements for a modernized SINCGARS waveform, Product Manager Waveforms is collaborating with multiple Army organizations, including the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s C5ISR Center, the Army’s Network Cross-Functional Team, and the intelligence community to solidify requirements before reaching out to industry to innovate the best solution for this mission-critical waveform.
“Modernization is the key to our mission success and our ability to defeat threats from near-peer adversaries,” said Lt. Col. Sherida Whindleton, the Waveforms product manager for Project Manager Tactical Radios (PM TR), within the Program Executive Office for Command, Control, Communications – Tactical (PEO C3T).
EXPANDING WAVEFORM CAPABILITIES
Commercial waveforms may not start out with obvious applications for military operations, but they provide capabilities the Army needs, and fast. As an example, when the Army was looking for scalability and range for radio communications, it identified the commercial TSM waveform as a potential candidate instead of the government’s older, non-scalable Soldier Radio Waveform, to meet the Army’s network modernization initiative. As of this writing, the Army procures TSM (tactical scalable MANET [mobile ad hoc networking]) through radio manufacturers. TSM is a modernized mesh networking waveform, i.e., comprising a group of devices that act as a single Wi-Fi network, that supports data and voice simultaneously. It runs on the Manpack and Leader Radio two-channel variants, so it can operate in multiple bands, allowing the user to switch frequencies, and multiple channel bandwidth modes, allowing the user to switch from 1.2 MHz up to as much as 10NHz, with support for up to 32 voice groups. Even though TSM is a line-of-sight terrestrial waveform, it allows every node to transmit, receive and relay data and location information simultaneously. For example, Soldier A positioned in a valley can connect to Soldier B on a mountaintop, who from the mountaintop can connect to Soldier C on the other side of the mountain. These capabilities have provided an integral capability within the Integrated Tactical Network (ITN) Capability Set 21, which is now fielded to four infantry brigade combat teams and partially fielded to one Stryker brigade combat team.
“I’m a huge fan of the ITN network, specifically the TSM waveform,” said Lt. Col. Andy Harris, commander for 1st Battalion, 504 Parachute Infantry Regiment, part of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division. “The clarity of the communication,… that is just an outstanding capability that allows [me] at the battalion command level to speak at echelon, to speak with echelons at the brigade and divisional level, and then… my companies have that capability as well.”
For transmissions classified Secret or below, Soldiers are using the Warrior Robust Enhanced Network (WREN) TSM waveform, which provides all of the same functions of TSM but is security hardened with NSA Type 1 cryptography for government use. Porting WREN TSM’s advanced commercial waveform into the Army’s tactical radios gives Soldiers the option to run both sensitive but unclassified (SBU) and secret communications on different channels, or one at a time, while maintaining complete data and voice isolation among the different security classification levels.
During the Handheld, Manpack Small Form-Fit operational test at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and the Joint Readiness Test Command rotation in Fort Polk, Louisiana, both in 2021, Soldiers with the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division successfully experimented with WREN TSM on Manpacks as part of the Integrated Tactical Network. By having WREN TSM integrated with the Android tactical assault kit device, Soldiers could transport critical location information and voice and free text on either classification level, all to enhance situational awareness. The Army plans to field WREN TSM with Capability Set 23.
“The critical need for SBU [transmission] cannot be overemphasized because it provides Soldiers with a secure form of communicating data in an unclassified environment,” said Lt. Col. Raymond Yu, product manager for the Handheld, Manpack Small Form-Fit. “Coupling secret-and-below and SBU enables support for secure data transmission to U.S. and coalition forces at both classification levels.”
The newest WREN capability, called the WREN-Narrowband (NB), goes a step further. It adds extended communications, including air-to-ground, air-to-air and electronic warfare resiliency protection, and supports anti-jamming and low probability of intercept capabilities. WREN-NB is planned to field with Capability Set 25.
DESIGNED FOR FUTURE CONFLICTS
The Army’s greatest challenges to waveform enhancement and integration lie in the areas of low probability of detection (LPD), low probability of intercept (LPI), low probability of geolocation (LPG), and anti-jam capabilities that can outpace adversary threat capabilities.
Anti-jam capabilities either evade interference using frequency-hopping technologies or by using spread-spectrum technologies to reduce the effects of interference. LPI and LPD capabilities minimize the spectral presence of the waveform to avoid detection and interference, while balancing throughput and range.
To equip the Army with LPI-, LPD- and LPG-capable waveforms, Product Manager Waveforms is currently working with DOD research and development agencies, the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense, Army test centers and commercial industry. The team is assessing and evaluating state-of-the-art waveforms and advanced capabilities that have uninterrupted, nondegradable networks in a congested and contested electromagnetic environment. The team conducted an initial evaluation of candidate commercial waveforms that assess LPI, LPD and electronic warfare in a congested and contested electromagnetic environment. Following that, Product Manager Waveforms developed large-scale radio network capability, which addressed congested electromagnetic environment under sophisticated threat scenarios anticipated from near-peer adversaries.
Evaluation of electronic warfare resiliency, range, scalability and bandwidth with respect to LPI/LPD are in line with Network Cross-Functional Team’s Capability Set 27 goals.
PRIZE MONEY OPENS THE GATE
While partnerships with traditional radio waveform vendors are accelerating modernization, the Army also must consider how it can expedite the process for porting new waveform technologies into radios. One main deterrent to timely integration is the restriction created by industry using their proprietary waveforms. To help identify a solution, PEO C3T turned to the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology xTechSearch competition, which targets nontraditional, nondefense-related small businesses to create innovative solutions for the Army’s most critical modernization challenges. From within this program, Product Manager Waveforms established the xTech Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Waveform Challenge.
The competition required small businesses to identify hardware, software or a combination of the two, to provide an open architecture to enable third-party, or non-original equipment, manufacturers, to easily develop and integrate new waveforms onto software-defined radios. Out of the original 32 white paper submissions, 10 companies received prize money and an opportunity to pitch their technologies to the Army. The resulting five winners received additional prize money and will receive direct Phase II SBIR contracts to mature their proposed solutions into prototype capabilities that potentially could be integrated into program of record systems.
“XTech with SBIR competitions are invaluable to the Army discovering innovative and niche technologies,” Whindleton said. “My hope is identifying these unique technological solutions will aid in the advancement in our waveform capabilities. These competitions also open opportunities for small businesses to collaborate and potentially partner with traditional defense industries to offer innovative products.”
Future battles will rely on a multitude of sophisticated weapons, yet with the lives of U.S. forces at risk, none will be as critical as the waveforms transmitting mission-critical communications across the battlefield. The race to ensure military waveforms respond to contested and congested waveform interference is on.
To keep a pulse on up-and-coming technologies, the Waveforms team consistently monitors nondevelopmental items, which are products developed exclusively for governmental purposes, and commercial off-the-shelf products. From requests for information, to vendor demonstrations at government facilities, small business opportunities like xTech with SBIR competitions, and Soldier experimentation and feedback, the Army’s industry partnerships will help drive innovation to meet emerging threats to the electromagnetic spectrum.
Industry partners must do their part by staying engaged and communicating regularly with the Army Futures Command and PEO C3T to understand operational and technical requirements, so they can leverage their state-of-the-art technologies to advance tactical Army communications systems.
“We foster open communications to provide the vendor with feedback to help them refine their capabilities and stay relevant in the Army’s push for modernization,” Whindleton said.
SAYEED HASAN is the chief engineer for Product Manager Waveforms, within Project Manager Tactical Radios at PEO C3T. He holds a Ph.D. in applied mechanics and engineering from the University of Connecticut and a Master of Engineering from Manhattan College. He is a member of the Army Acquisition Corps and is Level III certified in engineering.
HERALD BELJOUR is the assistant product manager for the WREN and TSM waveforms at Project Manager Tactical Radios, PEO C3T. He holds an M.S. and a B.S. in electrical engineering and applied mathematics from the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He is a member of the Army Acquisition Corps and is Level III certified in engineering.
KATHRYN BAILEY is a public communications specialist for Bowhead Business and Technologies Solutions, assigned to PEO C3T. She holds a B.A. in communications studies from the University of Maryland University College.
CONTRIBUTOR: Brian Crow, principal engineer for the MITRE Corp.