Marines build bridge to new radio system

Marine Corps officials are developing technology that will bridge the gap between existing radio systems and the future software-based Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS).

The technology, called Command and Control on the Move Network, Digital Over the Horizon Relay (CONDOR), is designed to use legacy radios to provide network access for warfighters. CONDOR will allow troops on the ground to become accustomed to JTRS, which will use software-programmable radio technology to provide real-time communications through voice, data and video across the military services, before it becomes mandatory.

At the same time, the technology will provide command and control on the move and eliminate beyond-line-of-sight barriers that have plagued battlefield communications.

"This is an interim communications architecture approach that allows us to provide Marines with the solutions to issues on the battlefield now, while evolving our equipment, tactics, techniques, procedures and doctrine at the same time," said Marine Lt. Col. J.D. Wilson, a program manager for command, control, communications, computers and intelligence at Marine Corps Systems Command.

The CONDOR program evolved out of lessons learned from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, according to Marine Lt. Col. Debra Beutel of the command and control integration branch of the Expeditionary Force Development Center at Marine Corps Combat Development Command.

The Marines' maneuver units — frontline troops and the mobile groups that support them — often had problems maintaining the desired level of command and control, Beutel said. Although they were able to maintain command and control, it was often over narrower bandwidth and at slower speeds than commanders would have liked.

CONDOR "is a process to address those shortfalls," Beutel said. "This is an architecture built from the bottom up."

The military owns more than 750,000 radios of 25 makes and models, many of which cannot talk to each other. Military officials hope the new systems will decrease those numbers and increase radio functionality. JTRS devices will be defined largely by software, which should make updates easier for new applications and allow radio casings to be reused.

"We still have [the same] 20,000 radios out there that I had when I was a second lieutenant 33 years ago," said Army Lt. Gen. Steven Boutelle, testifying Feb. 11 before a House Armed Services Committee subcommittee. Unfortunately, the full rollout of the program is still a decade or more away.

CONDOR will rely on a mix of existing radio technology and JTRS waveforms, software applications that translate various signals. The Marines will establish points of presence on the battlefield that will be able to relay data beyond the line of sight using tactical or Inmarsat satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles or any other node on the network. The points of presence serve as nodes that connect the frontline troops to the network without stopping an advance, setting up a satellite dish, finding an available satellite and establishing a connection.

"When JTRS does come along, we can drop it straight into this system and move on without skipping a beat," Wilson said.

Peter Camana, director of advanced systems at ViaSat Inc., a satellite communications company in Carlsbad, Calif., said in October that first adopters of JTRS may not be able to take full advantage of the system's capabilities because it will outpace legacy systems.

"There is still going to be significant overlap between JTRS and

software-defined radios and legacy radios," Camana said. "We must support both simultaneously, and then the deployment plan is going to be very important."

Wilson said he hopes to field-test units by the end of the calendar year, and current plans call for rapid procurement of CONDOR in 2006.

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