— The U.S. Army is preparing to kick off a competition later this year to build its second-generation, satellite-based tracking system designed to help commanders locate and identify friendly forces on the battlefield.

The competition to provide the terminals and satellite network for the Blue Force Tracking-2 system pits incumbent Comtech Mobile Datacom of Germantown, Md., against ViaSat Inc. of
The Army hopes to field the next-generation system around 2011.

Northrop Grumman Mission Systems of Reston, Va., is the prime contractor for both the original and next-generation Blue Force Tracking systems, providing the battle management software and system integration functions. Comtech Mobile Datacom provided the terminals and satellite communications network fielded under the original system.

Mobile Datacom developed its proposed Blue Force Tracking-2 solution using its own funds; ViaSat’s competing design was developed under an Army contract. The companies will provide batches of terminals to the Army this summer for testing. The competition is likely to culminate early next year with one of the companies being chosen for a full-scale production contract potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Army and Marine Corps have been using the original Blue Force Tracking system, which provides troops and commanders with the locations of other friendly forces on the battlefield, since 2003. Each of the 60,000 deployed terminals uses a GPS receiver to determine its position and an L-band transceiver to send data back to the system via satellite. Prior to Blue Force Tracking, the military mostly relied on line-of-sight radios to relay position information.

“Success of the satellite tracking system itself has really proven to the program and the users that satellite needs to be a big component of any solution,” Daniel Wood, president of Comtech Mobile Datacom, said in an interview.

In 2006 the Army issued specifications for the Blue Force Tracking-2 system, saying the next-generation system needed to push higher volumes of data more quickly through satellite channels, while using bandwidth more efficiently. The Army is already spending more than $25 million a year on commercial satellite capacity for Blue Force Tracking and wants to add at least 150,000 more terminals, Wood said.

Management of Blue Force Tracking will change hands with the new system because the Army’s program office at
Fort Monmouth
, is closing down as a result of the military’s ongoing base realignment and closure efforts. A new Joint Battle Command Platform program office at Aberdeen Proving Ground,
, will be established with the goal of implementing a common Blue Force Tracking system for all of the services.

Mobile Datacom has been developing its next-generation terminals and communications network since 2006 with its own money. The company’s proposed solution nearly doubles the Army’s requirement for satellite downlink speeds of 130 kilobits per second and increases the terminal uplink speed by 53 percent over the current model, Wood said. One of the new design’s key improvements is the so-called Adaptive Multiuser Detection signal processing technology, which allows each satellite channel to handle more users and could halve the amount of satellite bandwidth needed for any given set of users, he said.

Mobile Datacom is in negotiations to sell 50 of the high-capacity terminals to the Army for testing at a likely cost of $7 million to $8 million, Wood said. Pending an agreement, Comtech Mobile Datacom would deliver the first batch of terminals in May, another batch in July and a final batch around October.

Meanwhile, ViaSat responded to an Army request for proposals to develop a second-generation Blue Force Tracking system and in March 2007 was awarded a $9.6 million development contract via Northrop Grumman to develop a competing terminal design and satellite network. ViaSat demonstrated its prototype in June 2008, and in January the company received a $5 million task order from the Army to deliver a batch of production models to the Army for testing, RicVanderMeulen, Viasat’s vice president for government satcom systems, said in an interview.

The Army has told both companies it will likely have a run-off between the two models prior to making a decision in the fourth quarter of this year or first quarter of 2010. With terminals priced around $2,500 apiece, an order of 150,000 units would total some $375 million.

“A more important factor [than cost of the units] is how efficiently the system sends data,” VanderMeulen said. “The reason the Army asked for a competition in March 2007 is they wanted a system that would use less capacity per message. For an equivalent number of messages, we’ll use one-eighth the capacity of the current Comtech system.”