The More Things Change

We asked our correspondent, a former Marine radio operator in Vietnam, to assess the Army’s top procurement priority—its battlefield network.

The Army’s new tactical network, which is expected to zap data around the battlefield at megabit speeds, comes down to something I’m all too familiar with from my days as a Marine Corps radio operator almost 50 years ago—a heavy load carried on a strong back, one step at a time, mile after mile.

In Vietnam, a Marine Corps Forward Air Control team attached to an infantry company grunted along under the burden of three radios that, with extra batteries, weighed in at more than 200 pounds. One of these radios—the behemoth AN/PRC-47 single sideband set—came in at more than 90 pounds with assorted cables, antennas and spare batteries. The load was split between two Marines. 

I sometimes toted an AN/PRC-41 ground-to-air radio that weighed 40 pounds, the attached battery another 14 pounds and a spare for a total radio load of 68 pounds. I strapped this load onto a frame that also carried C-rations, a poncho, smoke grenades, a small pack and a cartridge belt that held a pistol and three canteens of water—another 40 to 50 pounds of gear. I also wore a 9-pound flak jacket and topped off the entire ensemble with a 5-pound steel helmet.

The total weight of this load? Just shy of 125 pounds, strapped on to my very thin 125-pound frame.

Thanks to the invention of the transistor and the computer chip, Harris Corp. has managed to stuff the functionality of all the radios a Marine FAC team carried into its AN/PRC-117G wideband tactical radio, which the Army plans to field to brigade combat teams slated to deploy to Afghanistan next year.

The Army also plans to start fielding the manpack version of the Joint Tactical Radio System developed by General Dynamics. It operates over the same frequencies, including satellite links, intended to serve as the network bridge between platoons and company headquarters, and from company to battalion level with a data rate as high as 2 megabits per second.

Compared to Vietnam-era radios, the Harris and General Dynamics radios are featherweights—12 pounds and 14 pounds, respectively. But add in extra batteries and factor in the weight of improved body armor and the average grunt radio operator today will heft a load well over 100 pounds.

In Vietnam, infantry squads were equipped with the AN/PRC-6 radio, the original Korean War-era walkie-talkie, a clunker with a range not much better than a loud shout. Grunts solved this problem by asking their families to send them CB radios, which were much more power- ful and had a longer range than the AN/PRC-6. 

Today’s troops take an updated approach to the lack of radios in Afghanistan and buy their own smartphones that run on local cellphone networks, a do-it-yourself approach with inherent security risks acknowledged by Paul Mehney, spokesman for the Army’s System of Systems Integration Directorate, the outfit responsible for making these things work on the battlefield.

Mehney says the Army will plug communications gaps by equipping roughly half the troops in brigade combat teams slated for deployment to Afghanistan next year with the General
Dynamics Rifleman Radio, which weighs just under 2 pounds. He says 775 soldiers will be equipped with bare-bones radios that can transmit voice and location data from Global Positioning Systems; another 639 soldiers will be furnished with the radio and a smartphone-type display.

At its heart, Mehney agrees, the Army’s new battlefield network is a modernized radio network with key nodes carried on a strong back, one step at a time, mile after mile.

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