Electronic Weapons: Rifleman Radios Go Wide

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September 3, 2012: In August the U.S. Army ordered another 13,000 AN/PRC-154 Rifleman Radios (RR) for about $4,150 each. These are lightweight (1 kg/2.2 pound) voice/data radios for individual infantrymen. RR includes GPS and a battery good for over ten hours of use. The RR has been undergoing tests for the last two years. For most of this year U.S. Army Rangers have been using them in Afghanistan.

By itself, the two watt RR has a range of up to two kilometers. But it can also automatically form a mesh network, where all RRs within range of each other can pass on voice or data information. During the field tests this was done to a range of up to 50 kilometers. The RR can also make use of an aerostat, UAV, or aircraft overhead carrying a RR to act as a communications booster (to other RRs or other networks). The mesh network enables troops to sometimes eliminate carrying a longer range (and heavier) platoon radio for the platoon leader.

The RR entered production two years ago, mainly to produce 6,000 units needed for field tests. Since the two years of testing was a success, the army will gradually equip all combat brigades with RRs, with priority going to units headed for Afghanistan or other combat zones.

In the next 5-10 years, the mesh and data (pictures, maps, at about ten times the speed of dial up Internet) capability will be phased in. During field tests company commanders were able to take a video feed from a UAV, extract a single frame (basically showing where the enemy was), and transmit this to troops using RRs.

This all began a decade ago, when American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan bought and used civilian walkie-talkies (often the one watt Motorola Talkabout) in order to have better communication for individual infantrymen. Six years ago, the U.S. Marine Corps arranged for Motorola to produce 60,000 militarized versions, at a cost of $1,300 each. That's more than three times what the civilian versions cost, but is competitive with most other military grade radios of this type. The main cause of the higher price is the addition of encryption, so that the enemy can't listen in.

Eight years ago the marines bought a thousand Personal Role Radios (PRR) used by British troops since early 2002. These were quickly sent to marines in combat zones. The $670 radio set allows infantry to communicate with each other up to 500 meters (or three floors inside a building). The earpiece and microphone are built to fit comfortably into the combat helmet. The radio set itself, about the size and weight of a portable cassette player, hangs off the webbing gear on the chest. Two AA batteries power the radio for 24 hours. The users have 16 channels to choose from and a form of frequency hopping is used to make it very difficult to listen in on transmissions. A small, wireless, "talk" button is affixed to the soldiers weapon so that operation of the radio is hands free. The British have since adopted an improved, and more expensive, version.

Marines have been asking for such personal radios for over a decade and this need was documented in several studies. The appearance, and excellent performance, of the British PRR contributed to marines and army soldiers buying their own Motorola radios. That finally pushed the Department of Defense to give the troops the same capability they have long had in the video games they often play when off duty. The Motorola Integrated Intra Squad Radios (IISR) will have similar capabilities to the British PRR, and many are still in use. The PRR (and commercial walkie-talkies) have less range, security, and additional features (like MESH) than RR.

The idea of a radio for each infantryman was part of the plan for the futuristic 21st century combat uniforms. These were to be ready in another decade or so but the war speed that up. The future system was also to include a computer link (like wi-fi for laptops and PDAs). The RR infantry radio will handle this and, as many expected, was developed and deployed once the PRR and IISR demonstrated how useful and popular they were.

 


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