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Colonel: Bowman army comms 'astonishingly bad'

Battery life & range crap - but at least it's heavy

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The long-bedevilled Bowman digital comms infrastructure for the British army is continuing to enrage and frustrate its users - a British commander in Afghanistan has described Bowman as "broken" and "astonishingly bad". Bowman was finally forced through acceptance trials in 2004, after a nightmare 14-year gestation period.

The Telegraph reports today that Lt-Col Nick Borton, who commands a Scots infantry battalion fighting in Helmand province, made damning remarks during a visit by General Sir David Richards, second most senior officer in the British Army.

"The coverage on VHF is just a few hundred metres," said Colonel Borton.

"We use HF or UHF but that only gives us five kilometres. In some cases we cannot even get coverage from one side of the base to the other."

The colonel made these remarks when asked by General Richards, in front of reporters, what problems his battalion was facing. He added that "the only way to tell how much power a battery has left is to remove it from the radio – that's a serious design fault ... my section commanders only have their radios working when they are in contact [in a firefight]. As far as I am concerned, Bowman is astonishingly bad; it is a broken system."

This heaps further criticism on one of the most reviled parts of Bowman, the section-level radio which is carried by footsoldier corporals in charge of seven other men. Even stripped of its optional data-terminal interface, this radio is extremely bulky and heavy, with an almost comically tall antenna. Even carrying the barest minimum of other gear, the Bowman radio pushes the corporal's personal load well over the Army guideline limit. And now it appears that this amazingly hefty and inconvenient machine still has to be kept turned off most of the time so that it will still have power when a fight begins - and that in any case it has only a few km of range at best.

Bowman's defenders argue that it is, at last, encrypted (British troops transmitted messages in clear until 2004, making them as easy to eavesdrop upon as the analogue mobile-phone users of yesteryear). Bowman also provides integrated satnav, which could be hugely useful - enormous amounts of military voice traffic consist of people telling each other where they are. Most Bowman nodes above the infantry corporal are vehicle-mounted, and are said to perform acceptably - though they are so heavy and power-hungry that ordinary Land Rovers struggle to carry them, and there have been problems even on much heavier vehicles.

As Colonel Borton pointed out, too, Bowman is supposed to provide effectively unlimited range by self-generating a "radio cloud". Ordinary British troops seldom operate very far from their fellows, and Bowman radios are supposed to be able to relay a message from node to node until it gets where it's going. Most Bowman radios certainly weigh a lot more than the pico/microcell boxes which would allow commercial-grade phone networks to do this kind of thing.

But it's hard to generate a "radio cloud" if most of your radios have to be kept switched off due to crap battery life. It's hard to get a useable data network when you seemingly can't use whole blocks of prime spectrum.

It appears that Blighty's hard-pressed infantrymen may have to suffer inadequate comms for a few more years yet, until some new project finally hooks them up to the Bowman network properly. It won't matter that taxpayers have already paid for this to be done several times over, and that the Bowman project has now been underway for eighteen years and counting.

Meanwhile, as Colonel Borton has bluntly and publicly contradicted the establishment line on Bowman, his career will no doubt suffer. Which is a real shame; the British armed forces could use a few more officers with the guts to tell their superiors unpalatable truths.

Read the Telegraph report here. ®

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