New radios face legacy, commercial hurdles

The military's goal of software-programmable radios is closer than ever to becoming reality. But Defense Department officials must determine how the radios will fit with legacy systems and commercial standards, according to vendors involved in developing the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS).

JTRS uses software-defined radios that can search for available frequencies and waveforms and adapt on-the-fly to ensure constant connectivity. The radios serve as command and control devices, and can provide data communications and situational awareness to users or anyone on the network.

Speaking at the Military Communications Conference 2003 in Boston, senior scientists and research directors from four participating companies outlined the challenges still ahead for JTRS.

"There is still going to be significant overlap between JTRS and software- defined radios and legacy radios," said Peter Camana, director of advanced systems at ViaSat Inc. "We must support both simultaneously, and then the deployment plan is going to be very important. The logistics costs could double if we simply deploy two radios — [one JTRS and one legacy] — at a time."

The first adopters of the technology will not only have to pay more for the radios, but may not be able to take full advantage of the system's capabilities because they will be so far ahead of existing systems, Camana said.

"We can't overburden ourselves with a large infrastructure," he said, referring to the commercial practice of developing an infrastructure and then populating it with devices or nodes. "We can't build an infrastructure and then add on the end units. In the military, the drive is to have everyone be a node on the net to handle a dynamic battlefield."

JTRS is a new arena that is continually evolving, according to John Fidden, senior scientist at Harris Corp. The path forward, he said, includes a dichotomy between military and commercial standards.

"Since we're [mostly] adopting commercial standards, we are bringing into the JTRS environment the vulnerabilities in those standards," he said.

Those standards, he added, can be a double-edged sword because they constantly evolve, and the pace of that change often determines success or failure. If the evolution is too slow, the technology outpaces the standards; too fast and the technology cannot keep pace with it. Planning the next-generation battle space will bring more challenges than ever, due in large part to the myriad technology available to Defense officials, said Dave Lofquist, director of emerging systems at Boeing Co.

Add to the mix a dynamic device such as JTRS, and a number of concerns will have to be continuously monitored. Does the waveform or frequency interfere or conflict with existing forms in the theater of operations? Are there too many technical options for battlefield commanders?

"We are making the model work as we speak," said Jeff Bard, president of Space Coast Communications in Melbourne, Fla. "It's an ongoing process and it's an undefined model as of yet."

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