Could the UK's own SquadNet Soldier radio be the answer for the UK's long standing DSA programme?
Purchasing military equipment is never easy as there are always competing priorities and trade-offs are inevitable whether that is price, capability, delivery, sovereignty etc. This is the case with the DSA programme which will deliver a dismounted capability to the British Army addressing their requirements neatly summarised with the 4 questions of ‘where am I?’, ‘where are my friends?’, ‘where is the enemy?’ and ‘what are my orders?’.
Capability is a key part of the trade-off but also in an increasingly uncertain world, that equipment procured needs to operate effectively against emerging threats that are more sophisticated and not act as a beacon that attracts surveillance or bombardment. In addition, the solution must not pose a disproportional burden to the soldiers whether that is in operation, carriage or logistics. As with all soldier worn communications solutions, user approval or perception of success will be established based on practical metrics including range, size, weight, ease of use, reliable performance and battery life. Alongside these operational and user aspects the indispensable programme factors such as delivery schedule, value for money, through-life support and ongoing enhancements need to be robustly considered and assured. Another set of factors to include, adding to this already complex decision-making environment, are those published in the Land Industrial Strategy.
This strategy puts more formal emphasis on sovereignty, and increased compliance with it will support the overall success of the programme and the UK as a whole.
This paper describes how and why the UK’s own SquadNet Soldier Radio could provide the best balanced solution in that it:
- Meets the DSA key requirements (4 key questions)
- Meets modern soldiers’ needs without being a burden
- Supports a flat company wide communications network
- Is easily configurable to support tiered network configurations without compromising range as it minimises reliance on node density or positioning
- Has inherent LPD/LPI capabilities modes for use when faced with more sophisticated adversaries and the ability to evolve these features to say ahead
- Is designed, built and maintained in the UK providing highly skilled jobs, wider social value and export revenue
- Provides sovereign capability ensuring secure operational independence, freedom of action and sustained advantage for the UK MoD
- Is the best option for fulfilling the British Army’s future requirements for a Soldier Radio also delivering the wider UK sovereign, industrial and through-life benefits.
Meeting the fundamental DSA requirements
The fundaments of the DSA requirements have long been summarized as four pithy, but crucial, questions. Answering these questions with the current fielded capabilities is a time consuming exercise requiring the use of paper maps, reliance on individual navigational skills, detailed communications network planning, radio voice procedures and multiple voice transmissions. Moving forward with DSA and the adoption of digital technology should enable these questions to be addressed quickly, continuously, more accurately with minimal input from the users.
Moving forward with DSA and the adoption of digital technology should enable these questions to be addressed quickly, continuously, more accurately with minimal input from the users. The SquadNet Soldier Radio provides all the communications services need to address these questions and the interfaces to support the MoD’s selected audio and data ancillaries.
Operational Question and Appropriate SquadNet Capability
Q: 'Where am I?'
A: Built in multi-constellation GNSS receiver with on screen location readout.
Q: ‘Where are my friends?’
A: All net user locations are reported over the network regularly and securely. The Blue Force locations are overlaid on a digital map on an End Used Device (EUD) for ease of viewing. SquadNet has a simple interface to enable information on all network users to be extracted from any radio in the network. SquadNet is compatible with various Battlefield Management Applications including TAK.
Q: ‘Where is the enemy?’
A: Enemy locations (and other points of interest) gathered from laser range finder or pined on a digital map are transmitted over the network and overlaid on the digital map for all users to view on their EUDs.
Q: ‘What are my orders?’
A: High quality, encrypted voice communications multi-layered and segregated for the command structure. Typically dual voice net for commanders for independent up and down voice nets. Full net transmission of data (texts, files, pictures etc.) to support distribution of orders and mission management.
Minimising the User and Support Burden
Soldier should be confident that their communications solution will provide the range, reliability, services and autonomy they need for the mission. The radio should be easy to use and flexible to cover various missions with minimal operational constraints. The soldier should not have to worry every time they transmit that their message may not be received because they are out of range, or the radio configuration is not suitable for the terrain, or the relaying radios are not in the right locations or their transmissions will give away their location. SquadNet has a unique low probability of detection, narrowband MANET waveform providing soldiers voice communication, PLI and data over the ranges that sections, platoons and companies operate. The narrowband SquadNet waveform consistently achieves longer communications ranges than radios with ten times the power output. In the majority of environments, SquadNet achieves point-to-point communications without the need for MANET relay. The MANET capability provides alternative routes adding redundancy or relay radios can be pre-positioned to provide exceptional range extension.
As well as its exceptional range, SquadNet is well known for its small size, low weight and ease of use. These are all important attributes for the user but this is not the whole story as SquadNet has a significantly lower burden from a support and logistical point of view.
Spare rechargeable batteries are lightweight and low bulk, each providing a further 24 hours of operations. A SquadNet radio including 3 batteries will provide 72 hours mission life and a total weight of under 450g. Of equal importance, SquadNet’s long-life battery significantly decreases the charging burden on a deployed company. Other radios typically require 3 batteries to operate for a 24 hour period so not only does the user need to purchase/carry 3 times as many batteries they will need 3 times as many chargers and associated generators, workspace etc.
SquadNet is designed to be USB charging compatible so can be used with a wide range of commercial USB power packs and charging solutions. SquadNet can also use AA batteries. The unrivalled 24 hour battery life, flexible battery options and charging solutions minimise the logistic tail or enables users to operate more autonomously where logistic resupply is challenging or unreliable.
Other solider radios have a battery life closer to 8 hours, which means 9 batteries are required for a typical 72 hour mission, significantly increasing the bulk and weight that the user has to accommodate. Other radios require an external battery solution such as a body worn conformal battery. This can be a beneficial solution for a user with multiple electronic devices, although it does introduce single points of failure with the battery, cable and hub or power distribution unit. For users with a single electronic device such as just a radio, the need for an external battery reduces flexibility while adding weight, bulk, snag hazards and cost.
Flexible Network Configurations to support integration and Ready for Peer Conflict
The SquadNet radio can support various network architectures including tiered or flat networks. Tiered networks are an effective solution to provide full situational awareness between dismounted and mounted troops which has arguably been the most significant cause of combat fratricide. In contrast to SquadNet’s approach to networking, other radios typically only support a single network architecture due to their limited range or need for a minimum node density to achieve reliable communications.
SquadNet uses a unique combination of waveform techniques to support multiple independent voice nets without the need for wideband transmissions. The technique enables multiple independent voice nets to be active simultaneously running within a long-range narrow band transmission mechanism. Thales UK has previously demonstrated that this technique enables 120 radios to be spread over a 20km2 area, with 16 independent, simultaneous voice nets, an all informed BFT net and data communications passing text messages, enemy locations etc.
The high data rates available in some radios are tempting, but they come at a price in terms of short range and high power consumption. For peer engagements, a wideband RF signature can be easily found and targeted by adversaries limiting your ability to conduct operations discretely, effectively and safely. In contrast, SquadNet’s low power, frequency hopping, narrowband, low duty cycle waveform is much less obvious on air. In addition to the 4 key questions that DSA needs to answer there is an increasingly relevant supplementary question – what is the risk of providing these services when engaged in a peer conflict where the spectrum is contested and RF detection methods are deployed to support targeting?
An initial LPD/LPI capability is not enough and an important part of addressing the peer conflict challenge in the future will be the ability to stay ahead of the threat by updating the communications waveforms with new techniques. This requires a flexible radio platform that can be updated, and an in-country team with the right level of clearances to work with UK MoD in detail to develop, test and implement new techniques in a responsive and timely manner.
Sovereign capability that supports the UK Prosperity Agenda
SquadNet is already in use in export customers so it is sustained by a global demand which helps supports Thales’ UK based competency. This means that our world leading radio engineering design and manufacturing is in place when the MoD needs it to be scaled at pace, and is still there when the UK is not calling on it so heavily. Our product roadmaps and support commitment have a long life as we are serving many customers.
The key benefit of a modern software defined radio like SquadNet is that new functionality can be added through-life with new software. Need to add a dedicated data feed to support soldier HUMS? Need an over the air command to silence all the radios? Want to adapt the waveform to cut through a new EW threat? Do you need a new frequency hopping mode to reduce probability of detection? Do you need to optimise your networking solution or run different networking solutions for different services or voice nets? All these developments can be (and have been) done with software changes.
Much of the current UK MoD capability was purchased from overseas suppliers and is decades old with little or no evolution over its lifetime. Imagine being able to work directly with the engineering team who actually design and develop the radio in the UK to solve real operational issues rapidly and bring new capability to the front line when it is needed. No delays, no complications from ITAR or foreign export control restrictions, open discussions creating the opportunity to deliver and evolve a capability that is unique to the UK and fully utilise the SDR platforms.
Thales UK already work closely with UK Government research organisations and can incorporate our own or other compatible sovereign 3rd party novel technology straight into the radio system. The ability to react quickly to new challenges and threats is an essential capability to enable operational advantage. It’s hard to do this when your goals can easily be thwarted by the complications of foreign export controls, security aspects, other national interests, policies and priorities.
Buying a UK designed and manufactured product supports high-value and high-skilled jobs supporting the MoD's commitment to the UK prosperity agenda. In turn this will support a company with a long term commitment to the UK and which is committed to contributing to a safer, greener, more inclusive and prosperous society. More information on Thales’ programmes that deliver a positive contribution to its communities, the environment and society at large, can be found by searching for “corporate social responsibility at Thales in the UK”.
Because SquadNet is a UK product, it is designed with UK security standards in mind and the crypto keys can be fully UK sovereign, aligned with UK standards and fully implemented by UK nationals. In addition, if further assurance is required, we can provide full access to information on our security design and crypto algorithms to NCSC. There’s no better way to support UK national interests than to use a UK designed and built product.
SquadNet is designed and built in the UK so you have guaranteed access to the Design Authorities that design and develop SquadNet and have continued access to the design knowledge and IPR in the radio. We invest our own funds in development, but we also work on UK research projects so can easily take UK sovereign and novel concepts through to reality.
SquadNet has been designed by a wholly UK Sovereign team to meet the requirements of the modern soldier, taking account of the range requirements in the likely environments, services needed, user burden and likely enemy action regarding the RF spectrum usage.
Trade-offs are inevitable, but Thales has prioritised the safety and wellbeing of the soldier, providing a communications solution in SquadNet that is inherently difficult to detect, has class leading range yet provides the essential voice, BFT and data services all in the lowest SWaP package available.
As a UK developed product, support and ongoing development are assured. Thales UK has been building customer specified waveforms for SquadNet for several years so can offer this service to UK MoD to ensure the product remains at the forefront of capability.
The purchase of SquadNet not only is good for UK MoD but will help the UK defence communications industry to continue its rejuvenation at this critical time where software defined solutions will provide the flexibility and configurability to maintain an advantage in peer conflicts while supporting and developing the UK as a centre of excellence for these systems.
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