Tactical battlefield communications are a critical component of any military operation, and when the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) introduced the Bowman solution, expectations ran high. Having entered service in 2004 and being fully rolled out by late 2008, this family of tactical radios was designed to transform military communications, exploiting the latest developments in radio and computer technology to meet the changing needs of British troops.

Bowman had been in the offing since as early as 1989, when the MoD began to seek a replacement for the Clansman series of radios. This aging analogue system had been used since the 1970s and was already deemed insufficient. It was speculated that, as the forces moved into the 21st century, they would need an integrated digital network capable of providing army commanders with voice and data communications at the highest level of security.

Today, Bowman systems are fitted on to more than 15,000 military vehicles, along with the entire Royal Navy fleet and a number of helicopters. Designed to provide an interface with higher-level networks such as ISDN, Skynet V, Cormorant and FALCON, the radios include an integrated GPS system and enhanced communication security features.

Not fit for purpose

Unfortunately, the procurement process was beset with difficulties and delays, and delivery occurred about four years later than expected. In 2007, a damning report by the Commons Public Accounts Committee claimed that "programme governance arrangements were not fit for purpose", "initial decisions were not well informed", "through life costs were not rigorously assessed" and "operational benefits are limited".

What’s more, the deployment was more complex than originally foreseen. Phased in over several years, with modifications along the way, it was met with reservations by a number of officers and received a barrage of complaints.

Early users reported that, as well as being heavier than the Clansman radio sets, the Bowman systems had a short battery life, inadequate ruggedisation and were subject to operational failures on the field. These faults, along with many others, led to the bacronym "Better off with map and Nokia". Bowman was withdrawn from the Territorial Army only months after the roll-out was complete.

As Lieutenant Colonel Ian Blower, then requirements manager of Bowman and Tactical CIS DT at the MoD, told the publication Soldier Modernisation in 2014, "The existing infantry radio, the 354, is a big, heavy radio. The battery doesn’t last a very long time, the range isn’t particularly good. It was state-of-the-art when it was introduced, but now it’s 15 years old, and in CIS technology, that’s a lifetime."

General Dynamics UK, the primary contractor, has taken these controversies on board. Over the past decade it has delivered a number of upgrades and advancements, working hard with its subcontractors to provide maintenance and service support for troops. In May 2014, it was awarded a £364-million contract to design, engineer and provide logistic support for the Bowman radio system over a period of five years.

This came hot on the heels of a £45-million contract to provide maintenance in Afghanistan. Speaking about the deal, Philip Dunne, the UK minister for defence equipment, support and technology, said Bowman was a "key communications asset, used by all three services across the globe, enabling greater situational awareness and critically providing a secure system for information sharing and communications".

A need to renew

"The MORPHEUS programme is ambitious in scope. It aims to establish a viable and cost-efficient system that will support military operations for the next 30 years."

Still, while the system is slated to remain in service until about 2026, the case for something new is overwhelming. A replacement process, christened LE TacCIS (Land Environment Tactical Communications and Information Systems) is currently under way. It is being overseen by the Battlefield and Tactical Communications and Information Systems (BATCIS) delivery team, and the main vehicle for its procurement is called MORPHEUS.

Set up to deliver the next generation of tactical CIS capability across land, air and sea, the MORPHEUS (Le TacCIS Systems House) programme is ambitious in scope. It aims to establish a viable and cost-efficient system that will support military operations for the next 30 years.

Because its underlying architecture is intended to facilitate regular technology upgrades – thereby addressing system obsolescence – it will always be up to date, even in the face of technical developments and new operational demands. This will be achieved by applying strong systems engineering practices, incorporating emergent commercial technologies and creating a viable supplier base.

The project began with a pre-assessment stage, culminating in April 2013 when the maritime and risk management consultancy BMT Group announced it had delivered a programme of technical support to the BATCIS team. Specifically, it had provided an assessment framework, which enabled the evaluation of different business models and designs.

David Bright, managing director at BMT Hi-Q Sigma, said: "This project demonstrates how bringing together some of the key industry players can support UK defence in its quest to deliver new capability to our armed forces."

At the end of 2013, the assessment phase itself got under way, with a Systems House contract finalised in January 2015. This was awarded to NEO, a consortium led by PA Consulting, with input from Qinetic, Roke Manor Research, CGI and Polaris Consulting. The team is being supported by military personnel and acquisition specialists, who will engage with academia and industry to explore the best new design solutions.

Andrew Creber of PA Consulting said: "All the members of the NEO Team are excited about this opportunity to work with the MoD on this key programme. We are committed to being impartial, have exceptional complementary skills, and are determined to identify technical architectures and cost-effective commercial constructs that will facilitate the exploitation of innovative technologies throughout the life of the programme."

Steve Smart, UK vice-president of Space, Defence, National and Cyber Security at CGI, added: "We are delighted to be part of this important programme for the MoD, which will identify the best communications technologies and information services needed to support our armed forces. Across CGI, we work with a wide range of government and commercial sector clients, and we seek to bring this experience and innovation into the military environment."

Building on user requirements

"This [MORPHEUS] project demonstrates how bringing together some of the key industry players can support UK defence in its quest to deliver new capability to our armed forces."

There is one key question – will the team sustain the current Bowman system, develop it, or start again with a different approach? Following a combined operational effectiveness and investment appraisal, they will assess the merits of each option before coming to a final investment decision.

Importantly, they are not planning to develop a new solution from scratch. Instead, they plan to explore what is already on the market: presenting their user requirements to the industry, and asking potential suppliers what kind of commercial options they might be able to adapt.

In doing so, they will engage with delivery partners, original equipment manufacturers, small and medium-sized enterprises, technologists and many more, to capture their views, and assess the merits of each solution from a technical and financial perspective. They will look at performance, cost, time and risk data, and conduct requirement impact assessments, ultimately amassing enough evidence to justify making an investment.

Whatever the team decides, there is a great deal hanging in the balance. Their decision needs to be highly sustainable, capable of taking the British Armed Forces into the next few decades and beyond.

According to Lieutenant Colonel Ian Blower, the challenges are the same as they always are when engineering a tactical communications system. Designers must focus on size, weight and power – minimising the first two, and maximising the latter.

"Beyond that, we’ve added more requirements and the scope is much bigger," he said. "The cost of the equipment has gone up, as has its complexity, so maybe we won’t be able to afford it all. There are some big decisions to make. The last thing is a change in uncertain context. I’m not going to be in charge of this in the next 18 or 20 years – in fact, hardly anyone in the decision-making process now will still be around then. So whatever we decide today, we need to make sure it’s robust and good enough to be carried on."

Since budgets are limited, this is largely a matter of determining what the MoD wishes to emphasise: what will be its strategic priorities in the future? When making that call, it is safe to say all parties will be keen to learn from the mistakes of the past?

In the words of Brigadier Richard Spencer, director of BATCIS, the next phase of the programme will enable the defence sector to truly understand the options available for vital tactical communications capability, on operations and at home.

"We will have a detailed understanding of current, near-horizon, and emerging information and communications technology, and importantly an opportunity to engage with industry to deliver the best kit possible for our troops in the future," he said. "It is this quest that drives us, and we are excited to embark on this journey."