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07 Oct 15. How to improve air-to-ground interoperability.
Army Aviation is the maneuver commander’s principle combat multiplier, but the degree of effectiveness depends in part on air assets staying synchronized with ground maneuver forces operating over the Army’s tactical network. In other words, air-to-ground interoperability is key, especially now.
In today’s combat environment, a lot can change in a very short period of time. For example, a landing zone that was clear when a platoon departed could be teeming with enemy forces and turn into a deadly ambush. There is a risk that air-to-air and air-to-ground communications for real-time battlespace situational awareness will be limited by legacy networks incapable of handling anything beyond voice data.
Despite the importance of air-to-ground interoperability, Army Aviation faces challenges in keeping pace with network communications technology that has developed more quickly for the ground maneuver forces. Airborne radios have continued to be upgraded over the years and more recent efforts, such as Army Aviation’s participation in Network Integration Evaluations, are simply interim solutions. With the advancements made in ground tactical radios, our rotary aircraft face a capability gap for airborne troops, impacting both readiness and modernization.
Current airborne radio capabilities
Today, soldiers rely on a variety of Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System (SINCGARS) radios which were conceived and produced in the 1980’s for air-to-ground communications. These radios have proven to be an effective mission-enabler and helped to close the gap in Vietnam-era equipment the Army had been using.
Capable and rugged as these SINCGARS radios are, the Army is currently fielding the next generation of networking radios that provides voice, data and imagery to ground forces. The Mid-tier Networking Vehicular Radio (MNVR) contract was awarded last year and the Wideband Networking Waveform (WNW) network will be operational within two years. This waveform serves as a building block in the fielding of joint tactical wideband communications across Army brigade combat teams. The handheld Rifleman radio and the two-channel HMS Manpack contracts are progressing and are expected to feature the Soldier Radio Waveform (SRW), one of the primary waveforms to reach individual units in the field.
Despite all this progress, the Army’s airborne assets, including Blackhawk, Apache, Chinook, ARH and UAVs, will still primarily use voice connectivity when communicating with ground troops instead of using the more robust terrestrial network or an airborne network for increased situational awareness. The Small Airborne Networking Radio (SANR) helps close the gap between the ground and air components by providing interoperable networking communications using all available waveforms: SINCGARS, UHF SATCOM, WNW, SRW and the satellite-based waveform, Mobile User Objective System.
Budget cuts: The obstacle to modernization
While the Army continues its efforts to modernize and enable greater interoperability and synchronization between air and ground forces, budget cuts are standing in the way of ensuring that our soldiers are ready and equipped with the best technologies in a joint warfighting environment. In this case, I’m speaking of SANR, which was not spared from the budget axe in the fiscal 2015 budget.
I understand all too well the immense budgetary pressures the Army is facing and how tactical radio equipment is racked-and-stacked in terms of priority. Many times, the looming requirement for large weapons systems means smaller ticket items are pushed back. From a short-term perspective, this is an effective cost-saving measure, but in terms of this specific acquisition, the Army costs will increase by missing aircraft reset schedules and more delays may