An Analysis of the Impact of Software Defined Radios on Modern Military Comms

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Software Defined Radios

As the battlespace continues to modernize, so do the communication needs of today’s warfighters. In a previous article on The Modern Battlespace, we spoke with experts from Collins Aerospace about how the defense community’s approach to communications has become more modular in an effort to adapt more quickly to unique battlespace scenarios and specific situational needs. This conversation brought to light how newer technology like software defined radios  exemplify this increasing modularity in military comms.

To learn more about software defined radios (SDRs) and their application in the battlespace, we spoke with Thomas Schamberger, Manager for Airborne Communications at Collins Aerospace, and Joseph Graf, a Fellow at Collins Aerospace. In our conversation with them, they explain the distinct differences between non-SDRs and SDRs, what advantages they bring to the table for the warfighter, and obstacles the defense community has to tackle during their implementation. Here’s what they had to say:

The Modern Battlespace (TMB) Editors: Tell us a bit about how software defined radios (SDRs) have changed military communication capabilities.

Thomas Schamberger: As opposed to “purpose-built radios” (PBRs), modern SDRs are “computers” up front with radio technology in the back. SDRs can host many different waveforms today that the warfighter may need to prosecute a specific battle or enemy, versus the old days where one radio used one waveform. With the pace of battle and extremely quick changing scenarios warfighters face today, the need for immediate switching and real-time situational awareness demands SDRs in every domain – air-ground-space-maritime – all working together as one cohesive communication capability. Having multi-functional SDRs is the “norm” for our military today and this concept and deployment is spreading to our allies and coalition partners overseas.

Joseph Graf: It’s also important to note that PBRs are designed for a very specific CONOPS (concept of operations) or mission. These cannot be changed or modified to the dynamic environments that the warfighter may encounter. That flexibility comes with SDRs, however.

TMB Editors: What are the advantages that come with adopting SDRs as a primary means of communication in the battlespace?

Schamberger: A key advantage is the ability to host multi-functional capability such as waveforms, embedded cryptology, and greater internal processing power that yields real-time communication around the battlefield. Marry this up with advanced Navigation and Precision Timing and GPS advances, and the warfighter now has the most accurate communication method available today. The ability to immediately adapt to changing battlespace needs is also a by-product of SDR radios.

TMB Editors: What challenges come with transitions from non-SDRs to SDRs? Is interoperability an option?

Schamberger: Interoperability in its fullest form is an issue at the onset, as SDRs have greater capability than non-SDRs. Additionally, the technology that supports installed SDRs such as host platform processing, antennas needs, high power amplification, diplexers, and triplexers must be assessed and dealt with during host platform planning and subsequent integration.

Graf: All that said, one key aspect of the SDR is that unless there is a proprietary waveform involved, the platform can host the legacy functionality. This means that SDRs can be formatted to interoperate with non-SDRs, but not the other way around.

TMB Editors: How have SDRs given rise to the idea of more modular approaches to military comms?

Schamberger: Open-system architecture (OSA) is the next trend in military communication systems, as OEMs are looking for modular ways to attain their communication needs. SDRs and their multi-functional characteristics have paved the way for OSA schemes for platforms like the F-35. Market trends tell us that this will continue to evolve as we enter into the 2020’s and certainly beyond.

Graf: Additionally, there are a number of hurdles that need to be addressed at the hardware layer (e.g., security boundaries, bus speeds, and overall throughput), but certainly the advent of open system software architectures, such as SCA (Software Communications Architecture), enable the distribution of waveform components across various modules in a hardware open architecture implementation.

We are excited to continue watching how the communications arena in defense continues to evolve and adapt to different challenges and technological breakthroughs. There’s no doubt that software defined radios are a great example of how the defense community is leveraging more nimble and sustainable technology to bring the best possible communications capabilities to the edge.