Making CONTACT: France’s Billion-Euro Radio Program
In June 2012, France’s DGA began the 1st installment of its EUR 1.06 billion CONTACT(COmmunications Numeriques TACtiques et de Theatre) program, which will replace many of the French armed forces’ existing vehicle and personal radios. When it’s done, France will field an array of “software-defined” radios that offer much lower upgrade costs, as the backbone of its Army’s future tactical communications architecture.
Because ESSOR already includes France, Finland, Italy, Poland, Spain, and Sweden, radios created for CONTACT will have good export potential as replacements for existing radios. A defined equipment line will also help the ESSOR standard attract new customers, much as TETRA adoption has been driven well beyond Europe’s shores in the civil sphere.
SDRs, CONTACT and The ESSOR Standard
“SDR [DID: Software-Defined Radio] defines a collection of hardware and software technologies where some or all of the radio’s operating functions (also referred to as physical layer processing) are implemented through modifiable software or firmware operating on programmable processing technologies. These devices include field programmable gate arrays (FPGA), digital signal processors (DSP), general purpose processors (GPP), programmable System on Chip (SoC) or other application specific programmable processors. The use of these technologies allows new wireless features and capabilities to be added to existing radio systems without requiring new hardware.”
In plain terms, it allows radio-builders to re-use software across multiple systems, cutting development time and costs for multi-platform radio families. For the military, it allows upgrades and bug fixes without having to take apart the radio, or the machine it’s installed into. Some can even be installed via wireless updates. That saves a lot of time and money, which in turn makes upgrades more thinkable. More upgrades and fixes mean much faster deployment for improvements, for much less money.
There is a catch. SDR is more expensive to implement, and so customers pay more up front. So far, the history of software-defined radios suggests that they’re still to expensive to become the only type of radio fielded by a country’s military. The only solution is to ensure that legacy waveforms and national requirements are also part of any national SDR program. Which, in turn, drives up costs again.
ESSOR and CONTACT
The ESSOR effort is the EU European Defence Association’s preferred Software-Defined Radio program. It currently includes Finland, France, Italy, Poland, Spain, and Sweden, and is managed by by EU’s OCCAR procurement authority. Companies involved in ESSOR include Saab AB (Sweden), Elektrobit (Finland), Indra (Spain), Radmor (Poland), Selex-Comms (Italy), and Thales (France).
France’s CONTACT program will field ESSOR-compatible radios to all branches of the French armed forces, though the higher cost of software-defined radios makes them impractical as a total replacement.
CONTACT’s 1st phase calls for equipping 2 combined arms amphibious brigades and their naval vessels, which is to say France’s 3 Mistral Class LHD ships. That will require 4,400 radios: 2,400 for vehicles and ships, and 2,000 portable radios for soldiers.
Phase 2 will focus on equipping front-line aircraft for communication with troops on the ground: fighters, transports, and surveillance planes. The actual word used is “aeronefs,” which includes both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, and would even include blimps if France deployed them.
Phase 3 will cover all aircraft, and equip full French naval task forces.
CONTACT radios will be compatible with Thales’ own PR4G radio waveform, which is currently in use by France and has been widely exported in Thales radios. That move will ensure interoperability for France, and make CONTACT family radios a natural upgrade or complement for existing PR4G and P4RGv3 F@astnet customers.
That same dynamic is often observed in civil electronics, where proprietary and public standards often interact. In this case, ESSOR offers the promise of multi-national, multi-vendor interoperability, while P4RG acts as a proprietary stepladder. That stepladder helps lock-in future customers for Thales, but it’s also likely to help spread the broader ESSOR standard.
ESSOR & Interoperability
ESSOR isn’t alone. Germany, for example, is notable by its absence from the ESSOR standard. Instead, they’re relying on their own national SVFuA program. It uses the same base American public SCA standards (SCA 2.2.2 and JTRS 1.0.3 APIs) as ESSOR, and relies on the Coalition Wideband Networking Waveform (COALWNW) for high speed voice, video, and data.
Every ESSOR country is also a member of COALWNW, as are Britain, Germany, and the USA. All can be expected to implement COALNW in their software-defined radios, but ESSOR will be defining its own parallel high-speed standard that offers its partners more control, and sidesteps potential export issues.
Over time, ESSOR hopes to offer interoperability with SVFuA and JTRS, via converged transatlantic standards. In the near term, however, Europe will continue to support 2 SDR standards and focus on interoperability, while interoperability with the more advanced US JTRS program (which is at SCA 4+) remains a longer-term goal.
Contracts & Key Events
June 21/12: CONTACT development. France’s DGA signs a contract with Thales Group to develop the CONTACT family of ESSOR-compatible software-defined radios. The overall program is set at EUR 1.06 billion, but this first tranche of development work is valued at EUR 263 million. Delivery of the first production equipment will take place from 2018.
Future CONTACT radio products will be fielded with the French Army, Air Force and Navy, and aim to provide faster transmission speeds, better security and better interoperability. Thales’ release says that ESSOR has developed its reference architecture standard, including the High Data Rate Waveform. CONTACT interoperability will also include the PR4G waveform, a software-defined system that Thales has exported to over 40 countries so far.
Dec 19/08: EUR 106.3 million contract signed between the A4ESSOR consortium and OCCAR-SA, to develop ESSOR. the program is expected to last about 4 years, and deliver standards by mid-2013. The EDA hopes that this will allow companies to field ESSOR-compatible military radios by 2015. Source.
June 5/07: The EU’s OCCAR-EA takes on management responsibility for ESSOR. Source.
- Wireless Innovation Forum – What Is SDR?
- EU’s OCCAR – ESSOR: European Secure SOftware defined Radio
- EDA – ESSOR
- NATO briefing paper – European Secure Software Radio Programme (ESSOR) [MS Word]. Note that Ericsson’s work moved over to Saab AB, when it bought part of Ericsson.
- EDA (Jan 11/12) – Towards SDR standardisation for military applications
- Armada International (Aug 1/09) – Spreading the spectrum amongst friends.
- AFCEA Signal Online (2006) – Digital Communications Enter New Markets. An early multi-company effort by Thales and Rockwell Collins, to develop the Flex-Net waveform for use in SCA 2.2 compatible software-defined radios. They were also positioned to support PR4G.
- Thales Group (June 17/02) – Thales introduces, at Eurosatory 2002, the new PR4G F@stnet