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Dismounted Soldier Communications Developments

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Photo: © Thales

Photo: © Thales

Reliable and low burden soldier communications can improve the overall effectiveness of the dismounted force, enhancing team coordination and ultimately mission success. Good quality, secure voice communications are essential in the often dynamic environment of the dismounted soldier. Regular reporting of soldier locations with positions overlaid on a digital map is an accurate and efficient way to understand troop dispersal, rather than passing grid references by voice and plotting these on a map. The coming together of modern soldier radios and soldier Battlefield Management Applications (BMA) can now deliver low latency and reliable Blue Force Tracking (BFT) across all dismounted users. Other data services such as target locations, text messages and pictures or document exchange can also be beneficial to support dismounted commanders to plan and execute their missions.

Early soldier radios provided only voice communications but as technology has evolved, other services and capabilities such as encryption and data have become standard features of these products. New waveform methods also now allow for voice, data and location services to be delivered simultaneously so data services are not blocked or delayed by ongoing voice calls.

A key consideration for the dismounted soldier communications solution is the need to balance the radio capabilities with size, weight and power (SWAP). No other 'platform' feels the burden of a communications solution more than the dismounted soldier, so the radio needs to be reliable, easy to use, of minimal bulk and lightweight, ensuring it does not impede the dismounted soldier's mobility or add to their cognitive burden. Clearly the SWAP burden not only applies to the radio but all the aspects of the dismounted communications system - cables, hubs, batteries, etc. A radio form factor may appear attractive but if it needs an external battery, hub and cabling to achieve a typical 72hr mission, then it could be adding 1kg to the system weight and several thousand pounds to the cost.

Key Features for the Dismounted Soldier Communications

The three key services that are expected from a modern soldier radio are:

  • Clear Voice Communications - Orders and warnings can be issued and received at range to improve the squad's collective awareness. High quality audio helps to authenticate the speaker and low latency ensures prompt action.
  • Location reporting - Real time tracking of blue forces enables more co-ordinated and safer operations across squad, platoon and company level operations.
  • Data transfer - Provision of target information and other points of interest that are collected and shared across squad, platoon and company level helps commanders to co-ordinate operations using a BMA. Data requirements vary between users and specialist users may require higher data capability to view high definition video, for example to identify targets, whereas other users may just need the target location.

From a military operational point of view, all these services need to be:

  1. Secure - In order to prevent spoofing and enemy intelligence gathering, all services should be encrypted. Given the use of these radios forward in the battlespace additional security features should be employed to protect and erase keys.
  2. Discrete - Often referred to as low probability of detection, transmissions should be minimised (low power, duty cycle and bandwidth) so as not to alert the enemy to your presence or location and keep troops safer.
  3. Resilient - The waveform synchronisation should not rely on external signalling from a master radio or GNSS signal. The waveform should include features to ensure it is resilient to enemy RF attack such as jamming.

Ground Communication Challenges

Ground to ground communications is inherently challenging due to the terrain, environment and structures. These issues are compounded for the dismounted soldier who is typically moving, often hidden from line of sight, low to the ground and, with the radio worn on the body. The antenna can also be shielded by the soldier's bulk.

Thales has been working with dismounted military users for many years and recognises the particular challenges of the dismounted soldier environment. From this experience, Thales is able to apply the most appropriate technology solutions to provide dismounted soldiers with the right mix of capabilities, performance and packaging. For example, technologies such as MANET networking can provide multiple simultaneous communications routes increasing resilience in difficult RF environments such as on-board ships or in buildings. However, unlike other MANET radios, Thales uses a technique that provides MANET services with a minimal on-air signature and low power consumption. MANET networking solutions are typically wideband transmissions in order to accommodate the multiple slots needed for the relay mechanism within the waveform structure - the more services or relays required, the wider the bandwidth needed to support these services.

Bandwidth impacts range, particularly in the ground-to-ground environment - the wider the bandwidth, the less range for a given output power. Thales also recognises that network hops are not a substitute for point to point range in a dynamic dismounted environment as this relies on there being sufficient radios in the right locations to relay the communications to the wider network. Thales employs a waveform technique to provide MANET networking in a narrowband transmission. This narrower band transmission has several advantages. Most importantly, it provides greater point to point range. But, this is achieved with lower output power, which translates to longer mission life, fewer batteries to carry and a further reduction of the on-air signature.

Photo: © Thales

Photo: © Thales

Use of 4/5G Infrastructure for Soldier Communications

Military users see 4/5G technology with its wide bandwidth and low cost as an attractive solution for some military applications, including dismounted soldier communications. 4/5G solutions rely on fixed infrastructure, either commercial or private, which limits their use for all military operations as it is not always possible to pre-empt operations to install appropriate infrastructure or assure the availability and security of existing commercial infrastructure. Commercial waveforms such as 4/5G have limited resilience and are not designed to perform in the presence of directed jamming or other communications denial radio frequency attacks.

Exploiting public 4G/5G networks for military use comes with additional risks, in addition to the inherent risks of using any radio system. These additional risks are the exposure of the identities, location, traffic and traffic patterns of the user. These risks are not only associated with hostile forces with radio surveillance capabilities, but also hostile actors within the public network.

Even in more benign military operations such as peacekeeping or disaster relief, there are often malign actors at play, seeking to disrupt and corrupt other nations' efforts. 4/5G is not designed to withstand any jamming or detection and there are a number of intercept techniques and solutions available, and proliferating, that will detect, locate and deny 4/5G services.


Lessons from ongoing conflicts are changing the narrative around tactical communications. Major conflicts are a reminder of the realities of warfighting and where we see conflict involving peer nations, it reinforces the need for dedicated military capabilities. Having not had to deal with a peer conflict for decades, arguably some of the battlefield communication constraints with regard to RF signature management, frequency contention, and waveform hardening were less of a priority. Commercial communications systems and waveforms offer cheaper, high capacity links and have been adopted for military applications more widely in recent years. These systems, however, are vulnerable to detection, intercept, spoofing, disruption and targeting. Despite this, many commercial communications solutions are being used fairly widely in peer engagements when there is an absence of other more resilient and secure communications and no choice but to accept the associated risks. Fixed and commercial infrastructure is fragile and when it is seen to be giving the opposition a benefit, we can expect it will be destroyed.

Inevitably in any large conflict, technological evolution becomes a key focus. Commercial communications infrastructure that may initially have been useful can be attacked or degraded to the point where its utility is lost. Evolution of commercial communications is not always possible and limited by the fixed commercial standards. Any adaptations within the standard may function for a time until counter measures are developed for all modes within the standard.

The possibility of future peer conflict has brought a renewed focus on military waveforms and the unique techniques they employ to specifically minimise detection and increase resilience to deliberate jamming attacks. As always, there will be trade-offs and these techniques are typically less effective for wideband transmissions, so users will need the flexibility to choose communications modes depending on threat level. They will have to accept that some wideband services may be limited in higher threat areas or at times when there is a specific threat. Ongoing conflicts will undoubtedly continue to influence future military communications doctrine, tactics and equipment.

Military Waveform Development

Thales' family of military handheld radio products, with dedicated military waveforms, deliver the secure voice and data services required by the dismounted soldier, but also have specialist modes to deal with difficult terrain and minimise the possibility of detection. Modern software defined military radios are capable of supporting additional and new waveforms, offering an ever-greening capability. This means that radio or additional functionality can be injected during the operation life to address any new threats and add new capabilities. Historically, the risk, cost and time required to undertake and field waveform changes was seen as prohibitive. However, new, more flexible hardware and software architecture approaches are making waveform 'ever-greening' a reality and Thales is delivering bespoke waveforms to meet their customers' specific evolving challenges. The flexibility to update radio waveforms and software is becoming increasingly important as adversaries are developing dedicated techniques to detect, deny and disrupt current and existing radio communications. Radios with a flexible architecture can be adapted through life, reducing the need to purchase entirely new radios in order to maintain pace with new technology or threats on the battlefield. Recent waveform and radio software adaptions by Thales include:

  • A secure over-the-air command to silence all radios on the network radios.
  • A dedicated data feed to support soldier health and usage monitoring systems.
  • A waveform to provide more resilient communications to counter electronic warfare threats.

All these updates were delivered through software changes. Thales is continually developing new waveforms and software functionality for its military radios to provide new or enhanced capabilities that allow their customers to meet their operational requirements in an effective, timely and efficient way.

Flexible Architecture to Support Integration and Evolution

Different users require different capabilities from their communications and there is no one single radio or waveform solution that can provide this flexibility without introducing unacceptable trade-offs, whether that is in terms of range, complexity, cost, endurance, burden, resilience, detectability or cost. It is clear that all users need some basic services such as secure voice and BFT. Dismounted commanders require more data to improve their situational awareness to enable tactical planning. UXV operators require even more bandwidth to view high definition video feeds and other specialist users may require specific waveforms to enable direct interoperability with air platforms for example.

Architectural design decisions need to accommodate the necessary use of a variety of different communications capabilities which potentially mix commercial and military solutions and mean that it is not possible to have a ubiquitous battlefield waveform. The communications architecture needs to be flexible to accommodate the different radios and waveforms, payloads, data formats etc. and convert these for onward transmission over different bearer networks as required. As noted above, some services such as voice and BFT will be common to all users while specialist services such as drone control, apply only to a small number of users. The dismounted communications architecture needs to recognise the different user requirements so that necessary information is shared, without overburdening users with equipment and capabilities they do not need for their role, while ensuring logistic support and spectrum demand are minimised.

Battlefield Logistics for Communications Systems

The challenges of battlefield logistics are easily underestimated and the proliferation of drones to observe and attack targets behind the front lines further complicates the logisitical resupply situation. Minimising the support burden is essential and particularly for any widely deployed frontline comms solutions such as soldier radios. Batteries, battery charging and logistics associated with batteries will be by far the largest element of the logistic burden (and through-life cost) for a soldier radio. It is, therefore, important to choose a solution with minimum power consumption and a reduced need for spare batteries. It is also important to have maximum flexibility when it comes to recharging or scavaging power using something like USB standard charging and ideally the ability to use primary batteries where it is simply not possible to recharge or resupply regularly.


Maintaining dismounted soldier communication and staying ahead of the threat requires an architecture and equipment that can evolve as the technology and operational situation changes. Initial fielded capability can anticipate some degree of evolution but we should expect multiple waveform evolutions and integration of other radio bearers to ensure the capability can endure.

Capabilities such as low probability of detection and low probability of intercept are no longer confined to peer conflicts. The proliferation and employment of equipment to detect, locate and interfere with military communications has become more widespread and is being employed against military communications across the spectrum of military missions, even on peacekeeping operations.

Commercial communications are attractive in terms of cost and bandwidth but their ongoing availability in a conflict cannot be assured. Peer adversaries could gain valuable information from these commercial systems but ultimately, should a commercial communication solution be perceived as giving advantage, it can be more easily targeted, either by an electronic warfare attack as the waveforms are not hardened, or kinetic attack of the fixed site infrastructure.

Architecturally, a waveform approach is required that provides every soldier with core voice and BFT services that can be assured in even the most challenging environments. The architecture also needs to enable integration with additional communications and the processing capability necessary for specialist roles.

Successfully fielding dismounted communications solutions includes wider consideration beyond the equipment capability. Burden is a key issue for the dismounted soldier, which requires reliable, easy to use, non-intrusive solutions so as not to add to the cognitive burden or disrupt mobility. In addition, recent experiences have brought into sharp focus the vulnerability of support services and resupply in the forward area of the battlefield and the impact this has on an army's ability to conduct operations. Part of the solution has to be to minimise the logistical support required for frontline troops and to provide alternative solutions, particularly for battery recharging and power scavenging for dismounted soldier equipment.

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