The US Military’s DTCS “Netted Iridium” Program
In June 2009, Iridium Government Services in Tempe, AZ received a contract to begin providing Netted Iridium satellite communication system to front line Marines. The program was developed to enable Marines deployed inland to communicate back to their ships, and moved on to Phase 2 as the Distributed Tactical Communications System (DTCS). A number of important improvements are underway, and the program is now in Phase 3.
Iridium is still most famous as Motorola’s spectacular global venture failure, but it was bought for pennies on the dollar and has become a thriving low-bandwidth communications provider. Commenting on the problem that the Netted Iridium program was designed to solve, Brigadier General Mark Bowman, of US Central Command J6, said:
“Since Desert Storm, we’ve had an unsatisfied requirement for C2 OTM (command and control on-the-move) and no material solution to date has had such great potential in filling that requirement across such a broad spectrum as Netted Iridium does…In my opinion, Netted Iridium will be the most significant tactical communications improvement developed and fielded during the Global War on Terror.”
The Distributed Tactical Communications System (DTCS) is an extension of “Netted Iridium,” a push-to-talk voice and data service that’s similar to Nextel’s commercial wireless system. It was developed under an industry-funded Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) between Iridium and the USMC Warfighting Lab, and aims to provide a rapidly deployable, over-the-horizon, on-the-move communications solution for U.S. troops in remote locations.
Phase I of the program began deployment of 18-20 handsets in Afghanistan in 2008, according to Scott Scheimreif, vice president for government programs at Iridium. That number is expected to climb to 1,000 by the end of 2009.
Expected to be operational in 2010, Phase II of the DTCS program will
enhance Iridium’s satellite network through on-orbit software upgrades, ground infrastructure enhancements, and development of a ruggedized Iridium tactical radio. Boeing operates the Iridium constellation, and they will be responsible for the on-orbit upgrades, system integration, and testing. ITT Corporation is leading the effort to design, develop and produce the DTCS tactical radio, and DTCS ground-based management system.
Front-line improvements will include:
- Expanding coverage from 100 miles to 250 miles.
- Expanding the number of “user nets” – groups of soldiers able to communicate simultaneously using handsets – from 250 to 2,000;
- Enabling soldiers to send data as well as voice;
- Increasing the capacity of the network; and
- Making the network more secure
In addition to push-to-talk voice calls, the devices can transmit real-time position location information, providing a common tactical and operational picture for all users on the network.
Phase 3, launched in 2011, begins to include “theater-wide” or Global Reach nets, and make infrastructure improvements that allow greater efficiency, higher capacity and improved quality of service. Iridium itself sees Phase 3 as a strategic investment phase, now that more limited proofs of concept have become an important part of the tactical communications toolkit.
Phase 3 implementation will support up to 30x higher volume of reporting devices on a real-time basis, thanks to efficiency improvements. That changes what it can be used for, opening up opportunities for real-time data distribution across sensors, vehicles, op centers and dismounted personnel.
Contracts and Key Events
March 14/11: The U.S. Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren begins implementing Phase 3 of Netted iridium, using a $13.4 million follow-on task order.
Iridium offers some details regarding Phase 3, noted above, and adds that there are currently 5,600 active Netted Iridium radios, supporting operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) is deploying the Distributed Tactical Communications System (DTCS) radios through its Enhanced Mobile Satellite Services (EMSS) program management office. Iridium Communications.
Dec 2/09: Iridium Communications Inc. and ITT Corporation announce a contract from the U.S. Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) Dahlgren Division to supply 1,450 Iridium-based Distributed Tactical Communications Systems – Radio Only (DTCS-RO) transceivers for use by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The DTCS-RO handheld push-to-talk radios are part of “netted Iridium” Phase II, but this purchase is a direct government purchase from ITT rather than a sub-contract from Iridium. It is separate from and in addition to the $21.7 million June 2009 contract.
June 4/09: Iridium Government Services in Tempe, AZ receives a $21.7 million indefinite-delivery/ indefinite-quantity cost type contract to provide Phase II of the Netted Iridium satellite communication system to the U.S. Marine Corps.
Iridium will perform the Phase II work in Bethesda, MD (75%) and Tempe, AZ (25%), and expects to complete it by May 2014. Contract funds in the amount of $200,000 will expire at the end of the current fiscal year. This contract was not competitively procured by the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, VA (N00178-09-D-3007). See also Iridium press release.