COTS radios for small units and units

I wrote about digital, software-defined radios recently, and dared to look into their potential instead of being down-to-earth, concerned about programs to replace Cold War radio hardware (or lack of such programs).

The reports and even Youtube videos from warzones in Europe and Africa so far made me believe that a certain kind of radios is wildly popular among forces which don't have a bureaucracy which would set up a 40+ personnel program office to manage the projects of specifying, selecting, purchasing and introducing digital radios over a period of 10-20 years.
Such-arguably more nimble in procurement affairs- organisations tend to favour certain equipments. Toyota pickups (Hilux nowadays, Land Cruiser in days gone by), for example. AKM, PKM and RPG weapons, too. Their radios of choice appear to be commercial digital radios, and similar to the infamous Toyota pickups there appears to be a favoured brand; Motorola.

Examples of their current portfolio:

(Just some eye candy to make it more easy and pleasant for the eye.)

Such commercial radios tend to outperform old (1980's to 1990's) military radio models by far.

I'm not enough of a radio expert to accurately judge them without much hands-on testing*, but what I figured out so far about these radios is that they are
  • apparently very reliable at least in moderate and hot climates
  • at least somewhat rugged
  • featuring digital encryption at least as option (AES and other modes)
  • featuring integrated GPS
  • quite simple in their use
  • water resistant
  • conformal to some military specification standards
  • offering couple hours operation per battery
  • using modern batteries, not 1980's or 1970's batteries
  • easily purchased off the shelf, if need be through a straw man
  • offering voice and data transmission modes
  • available in hand-held and backpack/vehicle model ranges
  • especially the handhelds are quite small and lightweight compared to analogue radios
Possible weak spots in a military context (that came to my head) may be
  • likely not prepared to deal with intentional jamming
  • likely not prepared to make triangulation difficult
  • GPS limited to civilian mode GPS
  • not the same wide radio frequency range as with many true Mil Spec radios
  • vulnerable to intrusion if the POP25 feature cannot be disabled for good
  • issues with integration (particularly data transmission) with higher level radio networks**
Such commercial off the shelf (COTS) radios may be considered a '60-70%' solution' instead of the '80-90%' solution one should strive for in regular procurement, but they face off very favourably against analogue radius which could be called a '40% solution' by now, with their weight, size, obsolete encryption/voice distortion modes, lack of data transmission mode and very inefficient use of airwaves.***

Of course, no armed bureaucracy that's not getting butt-slapped in a hot conflict due to obsolete radios would simply purchase thousands of COTS radios right away to bridge the 5-15 years till an envisaged '90% solution' is in use with at least the combat and reconnaissance troops. That's not how one does this kind of business.**** Somehow the rule of law tolerated rapid procurement for 'urgent operational requirement' items, but an arbitrarily sluggish process must be observed under any other circumstances.

I would likely have more sympathy for this if rapid procurement was noticeably more often done wrong than procurement through super-exhaustive processes, but I fail to observe any such correlation. Maybe it's about time that the media expose and criticise absence of modern equipment more than mistakes done in the procurement of modern equipment. I don't see this coming in Germany, though. The one hot spot for journalists paying attention to military procurement projects enough to do more than rewording other journalist's writings are at the Spiegel, and the culture at this publication seems to be rather critical of the concept of a military as a whole than critical of it not doing its constitutional job efficiently.*****


*: In fact, I am amongst those who have difficulties understanding voice through analogue radios, and when under stress even sometimes through digital ones. Larynx microphones don't exactly help either
**:This is a big issue if not resolved, for this may severely hamper support fires. Analogue radios failing or requiring severely coded language for operational security (with all associated problems) may prove to be much worse, though.
***: They would likely get the more ambitious project cancelled because the interim solution would largely satisfy. The typical date for such a cancellation would be when procurement projects get raided to free funds for some prestigious big ticket procurement program for supersonic fighters, new frigates, new tanks and the like.
****: Digital radio allows many more parallel two-way voice comms than analogue radio in the same limited frequency range.
*****: The latter being my attitude.

1 comment:

  1. You surely know that Americans have two modes of procurement, for several years. "Classic" and "according to the immediate need of troops". Second mode often seeks effective and relatively cheap solutions.

    On the other side, Czech Army bureaucracy abuses its "need of the troops" mode routinely - there isn`t any tender and there is usually one much favoured and well connected supplier.