This story was first published at 6:56 p.m. on Feb. 26. Correction: Due to incorrect information provided, the story misidentified the MUOS satellite constellation as geostationary. It is geosynchronous.
WASHINGTON — General Dynamics, Rockwell Collins and Harris Corporation have received awards from the Army to build Manpack radios that can be mounted on a vehicle or carried in a rucksack.
The procurement plans for new Manpack radios will mirror how the Army has procured new handheld Rifleman radios. The Army last year awarded contracts to Harris Corporation and Thales Defense and Security Incorporated to produce 50 radios for testing. If the vendor fails to meet the system requirements, it will be off-ramped from building more radios. If the radios make it through testing, vendors will field radios for a five-year period.
The contracts to procure the Army's first networking radio, that provides two channels for communications, were awarded Friday, Paul Mehney, a spokesman for Program Executive Office Command, Control Communications-Tactical (PEO C3T), told Defense News.
Each vendor will have 60 days from the contract award to provide 30 radios for Army qualification testing this summer to determine if threshold requirements are met. If requirements aren't met, vendors will be off-ramped, Mehney said. The radios that pass the initial testing will then go into the next phase of Army-run testing. Following the testing, the Army plans to procure 60 Manpack radios from each company in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2016. Full-rate Production (FRP) will begin in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2017.
The vendors that make it through testing are contracted to build radios over a five-year period. The Army has an option to extend the contracts for another five years unless new or more mature technology comes along that would prompt the service to decide to hold a new competition allowing opportunities for new vendors, Mehney said.
The contracts could be worth up to $12.7 billion combined. The total reflects not just the unit cost of the Manpack radio but hardware, services, warranties and test support as well, Mehney noted.
The fiscal 2017 president's budget request asks for $229.9 million for Manpack radios, which includes $114.9 million to procure 1,470 radios under FRP. The remaining balance funds non-recurring engineering, systems engineering and fielding efforts.
"We have worked closely with industry to refine requirements for the Manpack radio, seeking ways to deliver a smaller, lighter, and more powerful radio that will continue to improve as commercial technology continues to mature," Lt. Col. Rayfus Gary, HMS product manager, said.
The radios are required to support a variety of networking and legacy waveforms including the Soldier Radio Waveform, Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System, Ultra High Frequency Satellite Communications (UHF SATCOM) and Mobile User Objective System (MUOS).
GD makes the current low-rate initial production Manpack radios for the Army, which weigh 19.33 pounds to include gear such as antennas and batteries, but the goal is to reduce the weight in the next phase of the procurement plan to 16 pounds. Ultimately, the radios are expected to be reduced to 14 pounds by fiscal 2025.
The Army is authorized to purchase 60,296 Manpack radios over the course of the program.
The service has already purchased 5,326 Manpack radios from GD through LRIP. The Army has fielded around 3,000 Manpack radios and another 1,700 are scheduled to be fielded to three brigades of the 82nd Airborne Division and three brigades of the 101st Airborne Division. The remaining radios will be used for exercises and testing, according to Col. James Ross, project manager for Tactical Radios.
Building Better, Faster Connectivity
One of the important threshold requirements for the new lot of radios is to connect to the Navy's MUOS satellite constellation.
MUOS is a network — comprised of four geosynchronous satellites and ground stations in Hawaii, Virginia, Italy and Australia — that uses cell phone technology to connect tactical communications around the world. The Manpack will be the ground link to the MUOS satellite, sending messages that can travel in less than half a second over 100,000 miles.
The Army will first field the MUOS capability on the GD-made LRIP radios scheduled to be provided to brigades in the 82nd and 101st using a applique kit and a high powered amplifier to bring the capability to the radios, Ross said.
However, the Army is waiting for the Navy to bring the Lockheed Martin-built MUOS system to full operational status, which is expected to happen later this year, Ross said. The last satellite in the constellation is expected to launch in the spring.
The new Manpack radios must have MUOS capability by the third quarter of fiscal 2017, Ross added.
But while there are plans for Manpack radios to be MUOS capable, US Army Pacific Command leadership is itching to get it faster.
The Pacific region presents a "unique challenge" for communication, Ross explained, because of the vast distances over water. "Soldiers could be spread over several thousands of miles that need to communicate," he said.
On Feb. 18, an exercise in Hawaii demonstrated how Manpack and MUOS can keep soldiers connected, greatly extend the radio's range and enhance situational awareness, according to Ross. Army Pacific Command Commander Gen. Vincent Brooks attended the exercise.
The Army positioned soldiers with Manpack radios at several different locations: on the main island, Oahu and on Army Logistics Support Vessels (LSV). These vessels transport equipment such as tanks and trucks from location to location throughout the Pacific, Ross said.
"We demonstrated a real live exercise where [Brooks] heard communications between all those stations and he saw position location information that was traversed through the Joint Battle Command Platform," Ross said. The JBCP is the Army's friendly force tracking system that uses the Blue Force Tracking satellite system.
Normally the BFT covers about 50 percent of the Pacific Ocean between Japan and the West Coast of the US, "so you can imagine there is a case where ships, in the case of LSVs can go into areas where they are dark, you don't track them anymore," Ross said. The MUOS constellation "covers the whole theater so no matter where a person or a ship may go you will be able to track them and you will be able to talk to them as well," he added.
"General Brooks was very happy to see that," Ross said. "He mentioned that he totally understood the capability, he wants more of it, he wanted to know what the schedule is for the future. He's going to talk to other Army leadership about looking to get some increased capability possibly in the Pacific theater," he added, but noted that fielding decisions are between Army leadership and the combatant commanders.
"Obviously this is a capability that showed what can be done in just even a small exercise, but what it can mean in the future in terms of communications for the Army," Ross said.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.