Military Embedded Systems

Conquering SDR tactical radio market challenges


October 10, 2012

Lee Pucker

Wireless Innovation Forum

Contractors, suppliers, module providers, and value chain stakeholders in the tactical radio communications worldwide ecosystem need to understand the various possible business models for introducing SDR technologies in tactical communications programs in order to make informed decisions. The following identifies various possible business models to enable successful new generation of tactical radio programs based on examples taken from existing programs.

Software-Defined Radio (SDR) has been defined by the members of the Wireless Innovation Forum (SDR Forum version 2.0), working in cooperation with IEEE on the P1900.1 standard, as 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.1

A recent evaluation of tactical radio shipments shows that SDR has become a mainstream technology in defense communications, with more than 200,000 SDR-based tactical radios expected to ship this year alone and expected to increase annually (Figure 1).


Figure 1: SDR tactical radio shipments 2008 to 2015 (Source: Mobile Experts and the Wireless Innovation Forum, “SDR Market Size Study,” 2011)

(Click graphic to zoom by 1.8x)




The success of SDR has been largely driven by manufacturers and government agencies worldwide that saw the promise of SDR and invested early in its development. Based on this success, a number of new organizations are now exploring the adoption of SDR technology. To support this second generation of SDR tactical radio market adoption, the members of the International Tactical Radio Special Interest Group (ITR-SIG) of the Wireless Innovation Forum have undertaken a project to explore possible business models that can be adopted by value chain stakeholders introducing SDR into their tactical communications programs. By capturing trends from existing programs and leveraging them into lessons learned, the Wireless Innovation Forum’s members will provide recommendations that will reduce development cost and time to deployment in future radio-centric programs. While this report is still a work in progress and has not yet been balloted and approved for general release, portions of the report have been summarized here.

Market overview and drivers

The defense communications market is driven by an increased diversity of operations types: high-intensity conflicts, police-type operations, peacekeeping activities, disaster assistance and recovery, and so on. Through these operations, the need to participate in joint or coalition multinational forces has become imperative; these operations include combined units that are smaller, more agile, and dispersed, and use new networking waveforms that are high data rate and multiservices-capable to sustain network-centric operations transitions. This is possible for units at the tactical edge through the introduction of new C4ISR capabilities and applications.

Software-Defined Radio offers multiple technical advantages in supporting these requirements. First, the use of SDR technology allows a common multimode, multiband radio to support disparate communications requirements, providing seamless anytime, anywhere connection between various levels of deployed forces. In addition, SDR-based radios can host waveforms that are common to different nations. This has led to the emergence of coalition waveforms, such as the COALWNW, to facilitate the level of interoperability required at the international level on the battlefield. This capability can be extended to support a mix of commercial, civil, and defense waveform applications, allowing additional interoperability with the civilian communications as required.

There are a number of other advantages also accrued by defense organizations in adopting SDR technologies. Software-Defined Radio allows waveform software to be reused from platform to platform, reducing the time to deployment for new radio systems and over time lowering the overall acquisition costs. SDR-based systems also reduce the cost in upgrading a radio system to meet with evolving requirements, thus extending the life of the platform and protecting the original investment.

Current business models for SDR tactical radio programs

Given these advantages, governments and their industrial partners worldwide have been initiating SDR programs and driving innovation in SDR technologies (Figure 2). The SDR tactical radio market originated in North America, thanks to the launch of the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) program in 1999. This program is currently in transition; however, as a whole, the U.S. Armed Forces are now engaging in multiple acquisition programs utilizing developed SDR capabilities. Also in North America, Canada is launching an “Integrated Soldier System” program that may make use of SDR technologies.


Figure 2: The SDR market is growing with multiplication of new-generation tactical communications programs.

(Click graphic to zoom by 1.9x)




In Europe, the European Secure SOftware Radio (ESSOR) program was launched in 2009 by six nations (France, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Finland, and Poland) to create the normative referential architecture required for software radios in Europe. SDR-based systems are also being developed for national SDR programs in Europe that include Sweden (GTRS program), Germany (SVFuA program), France (Contact program), and Italy (Forza NEC program).

In India, the Indian Armed Forces have started several network-centric operation programs that are expected to utilize SDR capabilities in their associated communication applications. SDR programs are also underway in many other countries around the world, including South Korea, Japan, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates.

Investment models followed by these programs separate into acquisition of the waveforms, acquisition of the radio platform, and integration of the waveform onto the platform for deployment. The models followed in each of these areas generally fall into one of three types:

  • Development funded by the government: Under this model, the government procurement authority defines the requirements, selects a vendor to meet those requirements, and then takes the risk that the final products provided by that vendor fully meet operational needs.
  • Industry development of Military Off-the-Shelf (MOTS) solutions: This model follows a commercial development cycle, with products developed at industry expense to address the requirements defined by the government. This model places most of the risk on the radio manufacturer, and this risk is compounded by the fact that the commercial model assumes that there are many customers and that vendors compete for market share; however, in the tactical radio market there might only be a single customer for a given product.
  • Shared government/industry development: In this model, government and industry coinvest in development, allowing the risk to be shared between both parties. Many variations of this model exist. For example, in one model the government funds an independent waveform development program, with waveforms kept in a repository as Government Off-the-Shelf (GOTS) products to be ported to industry-developed radio platforms supplied separately.

Multiple other aspects are also influencing the SDR business model implementation in different markets. For example, the desire to port the same waveform onto multiple and different radio platforms leads to the requirement for standards that lower costs and reduce efforts inherent in waveform porting. Porting a common waveform into multiple and different platforms also leads to the requirement to establish over-the-air waveform interoperability centers. Finally, access to Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) is often required to ensure waveform porting onto multiple and different radio platforms. For new waveforms, this can be managed from the beginning of the development program, but the issue is problematic for legacy waveforms that are typically owned by the radio manufacturer.

Another key consideration in the business model implementation that varies across markets is security. Security and information assurance requirements in the military domain differ from country to country, which leads to complications in the business model and often restricts the accessible market. In addition, the access to SDR and waveform standards could be restricted to a nation or an international organization (such as NATO), which could further limit the accessible market.

Applying existing models for new market entrants

In evaluating these programs, some business models have emerged that appear to be providing some clear benefit in the SDR tactical radio market:

  • Sharing the cost of development among different nations or different suppliers: This is particularly important with waveform and radio platform development costs with a near-stable total addressable market.
  • Transitioning from complex and long-development, government-funded programs: This means going toward a more pragmatic, “good enough” approach taking advantage of some MOTS, or near MOTS, solutions together with a focus on the importance of networking waveforms owned by the government; this will ease the porting of this interoperable WF into different supplied platforms from different vendors.
  • Encouraging competition by permitting multiple radio platform suppliers: This could result in product innovations with a reduced time to market.

As with any new defense program, national sovereignty issues may also come into play in defining the business model, with countries choosing to ramp up a native SDR industry. Such decisions need to take into account the cost and lead time required to acquire the necessary technical skills to be successful.

Choosing the best model

In reviewing the existing tactical radio market, current business models, and possible emerging model characteristics, it becomes clear that interoperability is a key driver for SDR, and that achieving the required interoperability has a cost. The business model has to absorb this cost, either through some competition gain, through government funding, or by access to volume markets. The ITR-SIG of the Wireless Innovation Forum is evaluating how variations on existing business models can be used by new entrants into the SDR tactical radio market to address these cost issues and will publish its findings in a publically available report. The ITR-SIG encourages feedback on this important topic, as well as participation by the broader international tactical radio community.

1. Wireless Innovation Forum, “Cognitive Radio Definitions,”

Lee Pucker is CEO of the Wireless Innovation Forum (SDR Forum Version 2.0), a nonprofit “mutual benefit corporation” dedicated to driving the future of radio communications and systems worldwide. Lee holds a BSEE from the University of Illinois and a Master of Science Degree from The Johns Hopkins University. Contact him at [email protected].

Wireless Innovation Forum 604-828-9846

David Renaudeau leads product line management for Software-Defined Radio tactical communications at Thales. During his 15-year tenure in the mobile communications industry, he also worked at Alcatel-Lucent leading product management activities for GSM, UMTS, and later participating in the creation of WiMAX activity there. Contact him at [email protected].

Thales 33 1 46 13 33 40


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