Sophisticated radios for military maneuvers are one product driving revenue at Viasat Inc. past the $2 billion mark.
“This remains a growth business for us,” said Andy Kessler, a former fighter pilot who is now vice president overseeing next-generation tactical data links for the Carlsbad company.
The radios include the BATS-D handheld radio and the Small Tactical Terminal, which tap into the U.S. military’s Link-16 radio system. More than just a voice radio, Link-16 keeps everyone on the system updated with the positions of friendly forces and adversaries.
By now, Viasat has delivered almost 2,500 BATS-D radios. The initials stand for Battlefield Awareness Targeting System – Dismounted.
A Tool for Situational Awareness
BATS-D is the handheld Link-16 radio, though the adjective is a bit of misnomer. “No one actually holds it,” Kessler said.
The object has roughly the same form factor as a walkie-talkie from the 1970s. It is small enough to carry in one hand, but at 2 pounds, picking it up is more like picking up a brick than a contemporary smartphone. An airman, soldier or sailor working special operations wears the BATS-D radio in a harness strapped to the chest and back. He keeps a hardened Android smartphone close to his chest. The latter displays a map of the battlefield, with markings indicating the blue forces and red forces (or if you prefer, good guys and bad guys).
Acting as a forward air controller, that special forces member can use the BATS-D radio to call in an airstrike on a position. Kessler said the process previously took 45 minutes “on a good day.” With BATS-D, he said, the process can take as little as 30 seconds.
Miniaturization has brought such electronics down to a portable size. In the 1990s, a systems integrator had to pack a half-ton of electronics into a space the size of a refrigerator, Kessler said. In the early 2000s, it was 75 pounds of electronics in the space of a microwave oven.
Today Viasat builds Link-16 Small Tactical Terminals for aircraft. They are about the size of a bread loaf and weigh 15 pounds.
In January, the U.S. Air Force awarded Viasat a contract for BATS-D radios with a $90 million ceiling. The deal also covers training.
Viasat approached the challenge of developing BATS-D as in the manner of a commercial electronics maker rather than as a defense contractor, said Kessler.
The design was reputedly sketched on a bar napkin and developed over 18 months. It was first tested in a military scenario in 2016.
Viasat does the engineering work on its own dime rather than as part of a formal government program, run with government money (often called a program of record). As a result, Viasat keeps the intellectual property and the government client gets advanced electronics.
“Everybody wins,” said Kessler, who is vice president and business area director for Next Generation Tactical Data Link Systems in Viasat’s Government Systems business unit.
What comes next? There will likely be software and firmware upgrades, as well as “future proofing,” Kessler said.