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Wartime comms innovation gets more funds

Wars always raise questions about which novel equipment will outlive the fighting that spawned them, and among the survivors of the war in Afghanistan could be the Iridium satellite radios rushed there starting in 2010.

ITT Exelis' Iridium radio. (Credit: U.S. Navy)

ITT Exelis received a $5 million contract from the Defense Information Systems Agency last month to show how the Iridium-based Distributed Tactical Communications System -- also known as Netted Iridium -- could be expanded globally and with a shorter voice latency.

Iridium is best known as a satellite telephone service for rich yachters, but when troops and operatives in Afghanistan needed to talk in rugged terrain, the Pentagon was desperate. ITT – now ITT Exelis – was hired to manufacture simple, push-to-talk radios that could communicate over the commercial Iridium constellation.

Today, DTCS radio networks can be set up regionally to provide communications out to ranges of 250 to 500 miles. The first networks were set up in Afghanistan, but the radios have also been used in Africa and the Pacific Command area.

By reprogramming the radios, ITT Exelis thinks it can give users global reach and open the door to lots of new applications. Unattended ground sensors could be linked to data networks; GPS locations could be transmitted to track supplies; the locations of DTCS users could be displayed to commanders or intelligence managers thousands of miles away, because the radios have GPS receivers in them.

The company will have a chance to prove at least some of those capabilities in a series of demonstrations next year at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Va. The dates for the demos are to-be-decided, DISA said in prepared statement that did not spell out what would be done in the demos.

If all goes as planned, users in remote locations -- say, somewhere in the Pacific Command region –- could communicate with their bosses back in the continental U.S. “They can reach out, they can talk. They would be netted,” said Dario Valli, a retired Marine and business development manager for specialty applications at ITT Exelis Electronic Systems in Dulles, Va.

Then there's the latency issue. Right now, someone pushes a button and speaks into a DTCS radio, and the user on the other end hears the voice about 1.5 seconds later. ITT Exelis wants to get that down to a second or less.

DTCS was rushed to the field as a quick answer to a joint urgent operational needs request from commanders in Afghanistan. Leaders of small military units and intelligence operatives were frustrated they couldn't communicate reliably in the remote places they were doing their counter-insurgency work. Mountains or structures blocked terrestrial radio signals, and the Taliban made it all but suicidal to stand on a ridge pointing an antenna at a geosynchronous satellite parked high over the equator.

Iridium’s satellites are easier to connect with. Sixty-six of them circle from pole to pole in low-Earth orbit. “Now it’s the satellites that are moving around (users) as they maneuver and operate in a variety of environments,” Valli explained. Comms will be there "as long as they have a view to the sky," he said.

Engineers had to figure out how to make one Iridium satellite hand-off radio voice comms to the next as they moved across the sky. That was possible because the satellites already have communications crosslinks.

ITT Exelis has made about 8,000 of the radios at a cost of about $4,500 each. If the demonstration goes well, new software would be installed in these radios in the field to give them global connectivity.

Exelis calls the devices RO Radios, which is short for Radio Only. Valli said that’s an anachronism given that the radios also feed position locations to the military’s force tracking network.

Other changes could also be in store. DISA has insisted on open standards going forward, which means multiple companies could end up making handsets or other kinds of devices. “There’s a host of applications beyond just the tactical radio that can take advantage of this architecture that DISA is developing,” Valli said.

DTCS can't do everything. It isn’t meant for broadband communications, and it wouldn't be an alternative to the constellation of Mobile User Objective System geosynchronous satellites the Navy is setting up for the military services and the intelligence community. Neither would it supplant smartphones and deployable cell networks on the battlefield.

It’s main purpose is a specific one: To let users venture deep into the field with nothing more than what’s on their backs: “You can plan your operations only as far as you can command and control,” Valli said.

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