Making CONTACT: France’s Billion-Euro Radio Program
In June 2012, the French DGA launched the first installment of its CONTACT program (COMmunications Numeriques TACtiques et de Theater) worth € 1.06 billion, which will replace many of the existing vehicles and personal radios of the French Armed Forces. When completed, France will introduce a range of “software-defined” radio stations that offer much lower upgrades, as the backbone of its army’s future tactical communications architecture.
As ESSOR already includes France, Finland, Italy, Poland, Spain and Sweden, the radio stations set up for CONTACT will have good export potential as a substitute for existing radio stations. A certain line of equipment will also help the ESSOR standard attract new customers as well TETRA adoption has taken place far beyond European shores the civil sphere.
SDR, CONTACT and the ESSOR standard
„SPT [DID: Software-Defined Radio] defines a set of hardware and software technologies in which some or all of the radio’s operational functions (also called physical layer processing) are performed by modified software or firmware operating with programmable processing technologies. These devices include programmable port arrays (FPGAs), digital signal processors (DSPs), general purpose processors (GPPs), programmable chip systems (SoCs), or other programmable processors for specific applications. Using these technologies allows new wireless features and capabilities to be added to existing radio systems without requiring new hardware.
Simply put, this allows radio manufacturers to reuse software across multiple systems, reducing development time and costs for multi-platform radio families. For the military, it allows upgrades and bug fixes without having to disassemble the radio or the machine in which it is installed. Some can even be installed via wireless updates. This saves a lot of time and money, which in turn makes upgrades more conceivable. More upgrades and fixes mean much faster implementation for improvements, for much less money.
There is a trick. SDR is more expensive to implement and therefore customers pay more in advance. So far, the history of software-defined radios suggests that they are still too expensive to become the only type of radio station introduced by a country’s army. The only solution is to ensure that inherited waveforms and national requirements are also part of any national SDR program. Which in turn increases costs again.
ESSOR and CONTACT
ESSOR’s efforts are the preferred software-defined radio program of the European Defense Association of the EU. It currently includes Finland, France, Italy, Poland, Spain and Sweden and is managed by the EU public procurement body OCCAR. The companies participating in ESSOR include Saab AB (Sweden), Elektrobit (Finland), Indra (Spain), Radmor (Poland), Selex-Comms (Italy) and Thales (France).
France’s CONTACT program will provide all branches of the French Armed Forces with ESSOR-compatible radios, although the higher cost of software-defined radios makes them impractical as a complete replacement.
The first phase of CONTACT provides for the equipment of 2 combined landing brigades and their naval ships, ie 3 of France Mistral LHD class ships. This will require 4,400 radios: 2,400 for vehicles and ships and 2,000 portable radios for soldiers.
Phase 2 will focus on equipping frontline aircraft to communicate with ground troops: fighter jets, transport aircraft and surveillance aircraft. The actual word used is ‘aeronefs’, which includes both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters and would even include airships if France deployed them.
Phase 3 will cover all aircraft and equip the full force of the French navy.
CONTACT radios will be compatible with Thales’ own PR4G waveform, which is currently used by France and is widely exported to Thales radios. This move will ensure interoperability for France and will make the CONTACT family radios a natural upgrade or addition to the existing PR4G and P4RGv3 F @ astnet customers.
The same dynamic is often observed in civil electronics, where patented and public standards often interact. In this case, ESSOR offers the promise of multinational interoperability with multiple providers, while P4RG acts as its own ladder. This ladder helps lock future customers to Thales, but will also likely help spread the broader ESSOR standard.
ESSOR and interoperability
ESSOR is not alone. Germany, for example, is notable for its ESSOR standard. Instead, they rely on their own national SVFuA program. It uses the same basic US public SCA standards (SCA 2.2.2 and JTRS 1.0.3 API) as ESSOR and relies on the Coalition Wideband Networking Waveform (COALWNW) for high-speed voice, video and data.
Each ESSOR country is also a member of COALWNW, as are the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States. Everyone can be expected to implement COALNW in their software-defined radios, but ESSOR will define its own parallel high-speed standard, which offers its partners more control and avoids potential export problems.
Over time, ESSOR hopes to offer interoperability with SVFuA and JTRS through convergent transatlantic standards. In the short term, however, Europe will continue to support the 2 SDR standards and focus on interoperability, while interoperability with the more modern US JTRS program (which is on SCA 4+) remains a long-term goal.
Contracts and key events
June 21/12: development of CONTACT. The French DGA has signed a contract with Thales Group to develop the CONTACT family of ESSOR-compatible software-defined radios. The overall program is set at 1.06 billion euros, but this first tranche of development is estimated at 263 million euros. The delivery of the first production equipment will take place from 2018.
Future CONTACT radio products will be introduced in the French army, air force and navy and will aim to provide faster transmission speeds, better security and better interoperability. Thales’ statement said ESSOR had developed its standard for a reference architecture, including a high-speed Waveform. CONTACT interoperability will also include the PR4G waveform, a software-defined system that Thales has exported to more than 40 countries so far.
December 19/08: EUR 106.3 million contract signed between the A4ESSOR consortium and OCCAR-SA for the development of ESSOR. The program is expected to last about 4 years and provide standards by mid-2013. The EDA hopes this will allow companies to launch ESSOR-compliant military radios by 2015. Source.
June 5/07: The EU OCCAR-EA assumes responsibility for the management of ESSOR. Source.