Thales PRC-148 JEM: The First Tactically Deployed JTRS Radio?
The AN/PRC-148 MBITR is the hand-held radio for USSOCOM, the most widely fielded multi-band portable radio in the US armed services, and is also in use by many NATO Special Forces. Special Operations Technology has described the 31-ounce PRC-148 multiband inter/intra team radio (MBITR) as “one of the many communications marvels that made the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq possible” thanks to its small size, software-based structure, and virtually complete interoperability with other military radios and commercial systems. With lithium ion batteries, the user can reportedly expect about 8-10 hours of life. In addition, they note, “More than one Pentagon official has singled out the MBITR for praise during recent operations in Afghanistan.”
Now Thales Communications has received a $43 million order for AN/PRC-148 JTRS Enhanced MBITR, or JEM radios. They may represent the first radios to be fielded for tactical use under the US military’s transformational JTRS program; it’s a close and sometimes confusing race with Harris’ AN/PRC-152(C). DID explains how the PRC-148 became so popular, and offers a glimpse into the development model that made them first out of the gate with a tactically-deployed, (partly) JTRS-compliant product…
PRC-148: How a Combat Success Came to Be
Thales Communications has worked with US SOCOM as a communications supplier for many years, was involved in the early stages of the JTRS program, and remains part of a number of JTRS-related projects. Unlike the “big bang” approach that was taken in other areas of JTRS, Thales Communications and SOCOM have both focused on incremental improvements to a flexible base platform, in order to deliver new capabilities quickly and with less risk. For instance, an October 2004 article in Special Operations Technology quotes Hugh Stallworth, USSOCOM program manager of JTRS Cluster 2, as saying that the goal with JEM was to establish the best near-term interim solution for a handheld radio based on the existing AN/PRC-148.
That goal appears to have been achieved with the December 2006 order.
This approach has been a hallmark of the AN/PRC-148 program since its inception. Lt. Col. David M. Fielder (ret.) had this to say in a June 2005 issue of Army Communicator, as he traced the genesis of the PRC-148 system, and explains how it came to be a de facto US military handheld standard:
“During the 80s and 90s several attempts were made to standardize hand-held radio requirements that resulted in the procurement of good equipment [that had notable drawbacks and so never became popular]… By the late 1990s into this tactical communications jumble stepped the U.S. Special Operations Command whose communicators woke up and saw the value of handheld tactical radio communications that could operate across all frequency bands, modulation modes, and waveforms being used in the DoD. SOCOM had long rejected the “big” Army’s requirements and material development process so they went forward to develop a handheld radio using their own requirements and procurement methods. The result of this effort was the development of a new and unique handheld radio named the AN/PRC-148 or Multiband Inter/ Intra Team Radio. MBITR went into full production in FY-2000.
With the advent of the Transformation Army, the Stryker Brigade Combat Teams and the deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq the “big” Army was forced to confront its lack of critically needed secure, broad frequency band, handheld radio communications head on just like SOCOM had done a few years before. Very fortunately for the Army, the SOF community had already completed the engineering development and competitive procurement of the AN/PRC-148 just when the post 9/11 Army most required this capability. Even more fortunately, SOF contracting officials were smart enough to include large numbers of radios as options on the basic AN/ PRC-148 procurement contract thus throwing the door open for mass procurement by the “big” Army…”
As their site reminds us, however, “This item is not available for online purchase.” This is, of course, due to the US Type 1 encryption capabilities included in all versions of the PRC-148. A version called the AN/PRC-6809 MBITR Clear is available without encryption, for use by militaries that would find ITAR export approval in this sensitive area difficult. It’s also an option for public safety workers like police, firefighters, et. al., who either do not require encryption or are satisfied with the PRC-6809’s Level III DES option.
Thales Communications’ FAQ says that the PRC-148 is compatible with: “AN/PRC-68, AN/PRC-117, AN/PRC-77, AN/VRC-12, AN/PRC-113, AN/PRC-139, AN/PRC-119, AN/PSC-5, Motorola LST-5B/C: (225.000-399.995 MHz), Motorola MX300 Series, Motorola Saber, Motorola XTS 3000, and Motorola XTS 5000.”
The AN/PRC-148 (both MBITR and JEM configurations) is part of a larger radio family, including a Vehicle Adapter with a cable-free rapid radio dismount capability; dual radio AN/VRC-111 Vehicle Adapter Amplifier; a Base Station for fixed applications in command posts et. al.; a Tactical Repeater for range extension; and compact, rugged Man Portable Systems for dismounted operations requiring higher power output. All of these systems work with, and in many cases use, the MBITR/JEM handsets.
As of the end of February 2007, there were more than 80,000 AN/PRC-148 MBITRs fielded, approximately 31,000 of which were in use by the US Army.
JEM is based on the software-defined AN/PRC-148 MBITR, and has successfully gone through government testing, evaluation, and certification. It’s important to note, however, that it is not compatible with all aspects of JTRS. Rather, the AN/PRC-148 JEM is more like a stepping stone to a JTRS compliant system.
In order to take this step under an Engineering Change Proposal per SOCOM’s desired incremental approach, Thales replaced two existing hardware assemblies (front panel and COMSEC control assemblies) and modernized its security module of the AN/PRC-148 MBITR. Result: the AN/PRC-148 JTRS Enhanced MBITR (JEM) version. The JEM’s JTRS-compliant digital structure and software programmability has been extended to waveform elements of the existing and future JTRS software library, including trunking and other options across the current RF band of the radio (30-512MHz).
While these features and its programmability will allow the JEM to function relatively well in a JTRS world, JEM doesn’t include all the parameters defined in the full ORD which will be in the JTRS HMS Handheld.
The JTRS HMS project is currently underway, with an expected production date of 2010. General Dynamics is the prime contractor, with Thales Communications in clarksburg, MD as a strategic sub. The JTRS HMS team also includes BAE Systems in Wayne, NJ and Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, IA.
HMS stands for “Handheld, Manpack and Small form-fit,” and is part of the JTRS Ground domain. This domain encompasses ground mobile radios for vehicles, formerly in Cluster 1 and still led by Boeing; and the HMS radios that were formerly in Cluster 5.
JTRS HMS is seen as being targeted primarily at the Army’s Future Combat Systems program. It also has strong relevance for SOCOM, however, as program developments spiral out to their members through future software updates and/or additional incremental hardware upgrades.
As JEM orders make the updatable AN/PRC-148 a more and more widely deployed JTRS stepping-stone, and software-based updates are deployed to the field as JTRS develops, a larger and larger base is created, setting expectations and requiring compatibility. Now add the incremental development model that has brought SOCOM and Thales Communications so much success thus far. These factors all increase the odds that the PRC-148 MBITR family’s influence on US military communications will remain strong for many years.
Just one more reason that these small radios merited such a large helping of your, and our, attention.
Thales Communications vs. Harris RF: Who’s On First?
Shortly after this article was published, Harris Corporation wrote us to say that their AN/PRC-152-C was actually the first:
“We announced our NSA [DID: cryptographic] certification on Aug. 24, 2005, followed by contract wins on Sept. 16, 2005 ($37.8 million); July 5, 2006 ($169 million); and Oct. 10, 2006 ($1.9 million.) We currently have about 10,000 Falcon III radios in use. As the story notes, Thales’s contract was not awarded until Dec. 2006.”
In response, Thales Communications writes:
“I don’t envy you in having to collect, assimilate, and validate all of these dates and milestones! I can offer a few clarifications: I didn’t see a mention of when Harris received SCA certification. I think that wasn’t until July 2006, and I don’t believe they were recognized and endorsed by the JPEO until January 2007. I need to correct the date I gave you for our NSA interim certification. It was December 2005, not January 2006. The JEM received full certification in February 2007.”
DID’s take? Depending on how you choose to measure it, it seems that either manufacturer could make a case for being first.
In the end, of course, the bragging rights matter less than performance in the field. We wish both manufacturers every good fortune on that front.
Key Contracts and Events
Unless otherwise specified, all contracts are issued to Thales Communications Inc. in Clarksburg, MD.
Note that the US Type 1 encryption/ security requirements for its products have forced Thales Communications to set up a structure as a proxy-regulated company, with an arm’s length relationship to its parent firm. That way, it can be deemed “free of foreign ownership, control, and influence,” and considered to be a 100% American company by the U.S. Government.
Aug 28/07: Thales Communications, Inc. announces the manufacture and delivery of the 100,000th AN/PRC-148 MBITR radio. In a ceremony held on July 30/07, Thales Communications CEO Mitch Herbets presented the 100,000th MBITR to Steven Kundrat, Program Executive Officer for Intelligence and Information Systems, Center for Acquisition and Logistics, U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). Rep. Roscoe Bartlett [R-MD] was also honored for his role in promoting the program. See Thales Communications release.
June 18/07: The US military issues $9+ billion in contracts for hand-held and vehicular radios. Harris and Thales Communications are the 2 winners; DID details the contracts and the offerings. Future acquisitions will be made under this vehicle, and so future DID acquisition coverage will be found under that article.
May 14/07: Jane’s International Defence Review reports that “proposals were due in at the end of April to the US Navy Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center – San Diego (SPAWAR), which hosts the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) Joint Program Executive Office (JPEO), for software-defined radios able to fulfil a new joint-service Consolidated Interim Single-Channel Handheld Radio (CISCHR) requirement. The latter is planned to involve the supply of an estimated 220,610 multiband, multimode radios under five-year indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity (ID/IQ) contracts, for use by all the US armed services in handheld and vehicular roles.”
March 1/07: General Dynamics Delivers JTRS HMS Prototype Radios to the U.S. Government. The release touts the incremental delivery model, adding that the JTRS HMS team included an early version of the “SLICE 1.04p”/ Soldier Radio Waveform – the newest JTRS HMS networking waveform.
Dec 27/06: Thales Communications Inc. in Clarksburg, MD (near Hartford), received a $43.6 million modification to a firm-fixed-price contract for Enhanced Multi Band Inter/Intra Team Radio Handheld Radios Urban Version, accessories and warranties to existing radios. Bids were solicited via the world wide web on Nov. 29, 2006, and 1 bid was received by the U.S. Army Research, Development, and Engineering Command at Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD (W91CRB-05-F-0077).
Discussions with Thales Communications revealed that this order is for about 5,000 AN/PRC-148 JTRS Enhanced MBITR, or JEM radios. See Thales Communications’ Feb 26/07 release.
Jan 3/05: Thales Communications Inc. in Clarksburg, MD received an $8.2 million firm-fixed-price, indefinite-delivery/ indefinite-quantity contract for multi-band inter/intra team radios, also known as the tactical Hand Held Radio or PRC 148 and associated maintenance. This contract contains options, which if exercised will bring the cumulative value of this contract to a maximum of $75 million.
Work will be performed in Clarksburg, MD and is expected to be complete December 2009. This contract is a sole source award to Thales Communications, Inc. as they are the sole manufacturer of the PRC 148. The Marine Corps Systems Command in Quantico, VA issued the contract (M67854-05-D-7013).
Additional Readings & Sources
- Thales Communications, Inc. – AN/PRC-148 Multiband Inter/Intra Team Radio (MBITR)
- Thales Communications, Inc. – JTRS Enhanced MBITR (JEM): AN/PRC-148(V)3(C) – AN/PRC-148(V)4(C)
- Thales Communications – FAQ. Covers several aspects of the PRC-148 JEM.
- Harris RF Communications – NSA-certified AN/PRC-152(C)
- General Dynamics C4 Systems (March 1/07) – General Dynamics Delivers JTRS HMS Prototype Radios to the U.S. Government.
- National Defense Magazine (Feb 2007) – Delays in ‘joint tactical radio’ program cast doubts on future. This excerpt sums it up: “Army officials would like to have the advanced JTRS radios, but they have to wait so long to get them that they prefer to buy proven legacy technology or commercially developed software radios. But the more money that goes into these alternatives to JTRS, the less likely that the program will get off the ground. Troops on the ground in Iraq, meanwhile, remain encumbered by the lack of radio interoperability between services – a problem that JTRS was expected to solve.”
- Military Information Technology (Dec 20/06) – Radio Executive: Interview with Dennis M. Bauman [of JPEO JTRS]. See esp. his comments re: JEM and the Harris PRC-152.
- Harris RF Communications (Dec 11/06) – Harris Corporation’s Widely Fielded Falcon III AN/PRC-152(C) Receives SCA-Certification from the JTRS Joint Program Executive Office. As with MBITR, it was certified with waivers.
- Special Operations Technology (Nov 19/06) – Can You Hear Me Now?
- Thales Communications, Inc. (Nov 16/06) – Thales’ AN/PRC-148 JEM Becomes the First Government Approved Joint Tactical Radio System Radio in Production
- Harris RF Communications (Oct 9/06) – Harris Corporation Introduces Falcon III Multiband Manpack Radio
- Microwave Journal – Harris Corp. Receives $169 M Contract for Multi-band Vehicular Systems
- DID (July 28/06) – JTRS Program to Continue After Restructuring
- Army Communicator (June 22/05) – MBITR communications = power in your pocket (Multiband Inter/Intra Team Radio). An excellent overview of the PRC-148’s capabilities from a front-line perspective. Also includes an excellent recent history of Army procurement efforts in this area, and issues/dangers in the present day.
- DID (April 28/05) – Jittery Over JTRS, Pentagon Puts Boeing on Notice. Covers what used to be “JTRS Cluster 1.” The vehicle radios from Cluster 1 and the Handheld, Manpack & Small (HMS) radios from Cluster 5 are now under the JTRS Ground Domain program. This article includes links to all other JTRS-related articles here on DID.
- Special Operations Technology (Oct 21/04) – JITR Takes the Stage. DID cannot find any reference to JITR or equivalent products in Harris’ current product literature.