It’s a sad story, about how the high-priced, government approved stuff got smoked by some cheap commercial gear that got quickly cobbled together. The latest news is that the new U.S. Army JTRS (Joint Tactical Radio System) radios are starting to get to the troops, and do things the U.S. Marine Corps has been doing for seven years, with cheaper, off-the-shelf gear. It’s all about battlefield Internet and more useful battlefield radios. For nearly two decades, the army has been seeking solutions to distance and communications problem, as well as the need for battlefield Internet. They thought they had a solution in a new family of radios (JTRS) that were developed to deal with it all. But JTRS underwent one delay after another, and wasn’t available to the troops until this year. Meanwhile, for the last seven years, the marines have been using its own battlefield Internet, based on off-the-shelf equipment. Three years ago, the army tried out the marine approach, and found that it worked.
The marines came up with their solution in 2003, when they sent lots of troops into Iraq. There they quickly discovered that their radio equipment was not up to the needs of fast moving mechanized warfare. That’s understandable, as Iraq was the first time the marines ever had to advance so quickly, and so far inland, during combat. Taking this as the wave of the future, and lacking the money for a lot of expensive new communications gear, the marines came up with CONDOR (Command and Control on the Move Network, Digital Over the Horizon Relay). Basically, CONDOR equipped each marine battalion with satellite telephone and encrypted wi-fi gear, as well as networking hardware for all sorts of marine radios. The satellite link means that no battalion is ever out of range of radio or Internet communication. Most marine radios are “line of sight” (FM) and are of limited range. When units spread out too far, they lose radio contact unless they have satellite phones. The marines got satellite phones and satellite based communications gear from the army during the Iraq campaign. This proved a lifesaver.
But CONDOR went one step further by establishing wi-fi nodes throughout the battalion area, and also collects and transmits data from the EPLRS (locator transmitters) that every vehicle carries. The problem with EPLRS was that it used a line of sight signal (unlike the army Blue Force Tracker, which used satellite communications). CONDOR transmits EPLRS data to all marine units in the area, thus allowing a division commander to see where all his vehicles and troops are, even if they are hundreds of kilometers apart. CONDOR also allows any radio in the battalion to use the satellite link to call anywhere in the worldwide marine communications network.
But what really got the army’s attention was how CONDOR provided Internet connections for everyone in the battalion. EPLRS has Internet capability built into it, but troops don’t always turn it on. During the army test, the EPLRS Internet feature was heavily used, along with troposcatter radio (signals are sent straight up, and they bounce off the troposphere back to other radios) to connect EPLRS units that are not within line-of-sight of each other. As the marines discovered, this works quite well.
So EPLRS filled in until JTRS arrived. CONDOR and EPLRS are more examples of how new technology is being developed so quickly that the usual Department of Defense way of developing new gear is often overtaken by faster evolving civilian equipment. No one expected satellite phones and wi-fi to come to market as quickly as they did. But here they are, and they will fill in until the official solution, JTRS, catches up.