back to article Colonel: Bowman army comms 'astonishingly bad'

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 …


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  1. Anonymous Coward

    Well Named

    Not for nothing did the troops assigned to test Bowman decide that the name stood for Better Off With Map And Nokia...

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    Procurement inadequacies

    Having worked as a software engineer in defence for 7 years, I have to say I sympathise hugely with the end users who have to deal with these frankly appalling systems. It is all down to our ridiculous procurement process. The people with the money are far too detached from the users, and likewise the system providers have far too little obligation to the bean counters than the end users.

    If our country's procurement process was organised better we'd have a far better chance of obtaining systems that do useful stuff for a sensible budget. There are plenty of good software and systems engineers (and companies) in this country, but programmes are rarely designed to make good use of them!

    I would love to see the government bite the bullet and acknowledge how crap some of these IT programmes are, rather than declaring everything a 'success' and then repeating the performance.

  3. Bill Gould
    Gates Halo

    Kudos the Lt Col for telling it like it is. The General did ask him after all.

  4. Anonymous Coward

    Unpalatable Truths

    > "the British armed forces could use a few more officers with the guts to tell their superiors unpalatable truths".

    Yes, indeed. I tried that on several occasions (honour, integrity and all that) but it didn't do me any good. Senior managers, whether uniformed or civilian, do not appreciate being told something that could make them look bad ... and they have a nasty habit of having a quiet chat with their peers on the subject of removing pesky trouble makers.

    Needless to say, I am now in another line of work.

  5. Tom

    Speaking in clear?

    Not when i were a lad, and we were using Clansman. Anything sensiitive or potentially useful to an eavesdropper had to be manually encoded, a laborious and complex task using Batco sheets, before transmission. The only time clear was used was during a contact.

    I really feel for the squaddies who are saddled with Bowman, they have a hard enough job to do wthout being lumbered with crap kit.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    over engineered

    If it's encrypted radio they want I could put together a Cizitzens Band Radio with A-D conversion on the front end, stick in a linear feedback shift register inside an FPG to garble the data stream, put it in a steel box and hey presto, all for a fraction of the price and it'd work too with a decent battery life.

    Sounds like they're making the classic mistake, of trying to be too ambitious, too much clever technology when all they really need is an encrypted radio.

    Trying to cram too much functionality and cleverness into something that a) is supposed to be portable, b)battery powered, both of which are demanding design objectives.

    I bet they've got Shark DSPs doing tons of signal processing, modulation, frequency hopping all running from a battery, because it sure ain't the FM transmitter that's taking the power.

    Or perhaps it's the heater for the LCD to enable it to run in temperatures of -10 degrees C, ah..but this is Afghanistan? Hot country isn't it?

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Gates Halo

    Come back Clansman, all is forgiven...

    There was I thinking clansman was fairly dire kit and now appears it was lighter and had greater range.

    It's a good job they didn't ask for all the features of modern Nokias, imagine the battery life with a sodding great video camera attached as well....

    Bill because it would appear that Bowman is the Vista to clansmans XP

  8. Anonymous John

    by self-generating a "radio cloud".

    Sounds as if they've invented the first self-jamming radio.

  9. Dave Bell

    Too heavy for Land Rovers?

    I find it hard to believe that a vehicle-mounted Bowman set is too heavy, and consumes too much power for, a military Land Rover.

    I've driven ex-military FFR Land Rovers. I've seen the amount of gear they carried, and witnessed the ruddy glow of valve filaments. Too much weight and power?

    It sounds as if the Austin Champ was the vehicular equivalent of Bowman. Is there anyone left who can sell us the radio equivalent of the Land Rover?

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The thing to remember here is that...

    While the upper echelons of the civil service are both incompetent and morally bankrupt (like their political 'masters'), when they climb into bed with the upper echelons of the military, there is virtually no limit to the resources they can, together, squander. Time. Money. Lives...

    Will things ever improve? Possibly. But by that time the forces will be armed with rocks...

  11. Anonymous Coward

    Hello Tom and other old "toms"

    H 0 ti W42B locstat is RFT WT TF BU DL FK SM

    ahhh remember the good old days of encoding a huge report or return and then someone else nicking your start point on the sheet?

    AC because sadly I might still need to use that peice of junk...

  12. Christoph

    What's the problem?

    What on Earth is the problem here? If the bloke you're trying to contact has his system switched off to save power, phone him up on his mobile and ask him to switch it on. Jeez, do we have to think of everything for them?

  13. Anonymous Coward

    One of the minor details...

    Back in the day Bowman was going to be a Racal(Thales)/BAE/ITT program, and by all accounts was actually very good, after all the money spent on developing it.


    Then when there were some delays in delivery the Yanks appeared and promised quick delivery and a much lower cost, so the original contract was pulled and re-awarded.

    Needless to say the claims by the Yanks were bollocks, and you can see where we are today; late and with a crap product.

    Simultaneously Thales seem to be selling huge numbers of lightweight crypto radios to the US in preference to local suppliers.

    Something to bear in mind next time we see an article suggesting we should buy some (more!) military hardware from a US supplier....

  14. James O'Shea
    Dead Vulture

    Has the British Army _ever_ had radios which worked?

    I seem to recall numerous radio-related cockups going back at least as far as Operation Market Garden.

    Perhaps the Army should go back to carrier pigeons. Better range and reliability.

    Dead bird for obvious reasons...

  15. Anonymous Coward

    @Dave Bell

    If I remember correctly the vehicle mounted Bowman kit hasn't even been delivered yet, and anyway you don't think the army can afford landrovers now they're owned by BM, they'e all on rally grifters.

  16. Anonymous Coward

    CB works better than this

    As an ex member of the RAF and a Ham Radio user i find this just plain stupid.

    I have a Radio that is just a bit bigger than a Fag Packet TX's @ 5watts, Battery lasts Hours and can reach Italy from the Midlands UK on an antenna 4" long.

    To top it off it can also handle Digital Transitions and all for about £200.

    I am glad I am a Civvy now cos we get better kit

    Mine is the one with the Pocket Size Radio in it

  17. Mage Silver badge

    They had Racal hopping radios

    Over 20 years ago. Encryption by hopping.

    6hrs talk time on Racal syncal 300 1MHz ..30MHz radio, 25W. Hopping encryption option.

    Bowman is rubbish. Scrap it and start from scratch based on Digital Radio Mondail for HF and OFDMA (WiMax) for VHF/UHF.

  18. Martin Usher

    What's wrong with a cellphone?

    The cellphone is a great example of civilian technology outstripping military technology. There is no defense contractor in history and no government budget large enough to develop a system that's as sophisticated and reliable as the technology used in cellphones.

    So the sensible military would hoist the white flag and adapt commonly usable technology for their own use. This might annoy the whole defense food chain -- they will be told that its unacceptable for them to reinvent wheels, especially as they can't deliver round ones anything like on time and on budget -- but its essential to do this. It not only saves everyone a ton of money but it also faces the fact that the adversaries may not be so hidebound -- they'll use anything that works.

  19. Christo

    From the 3rd World

    Being an ex-signaler and coming from a fairly poor 3rd world country, I have to admit that on the one hand it is fairly ... and I use this VERY gingerly ... hating to see that other militaries are struggling with the problem. Note that I have been deployed in hot environments before and that in all honesty I do believe that the people in front are, be they from what-ever nation, are doing a job that a mere few can claim to have done AND they are doing it really well...

    Mil spec equipment, be it ITC or serious killing hardware (guns, tanks, aircraft carriers *wave at Lewis Page*) are notoriously hard to engineer, manufacture and produce. Asked why; most of the vendors that I had the pleasure of experiencing outside the work environment told me that frankly the military have enough money to throw at their problems. :-(

    P.S. Before anybody states the obvious, YES I'm a suck up to the GRUNTS in front -- I have seen what they can do. YES I'm oblivious of the modern world, I have only spend the last 14 years working in IT and 8 of those in a Defence Force and lastly YES I'm a total buffoon with no understanding of the anything what-so-ever in any why shape or form.

    P.P.S. "A woman for a general, and the soldiers will be women."

  20. Kanhef

    @ RotaCyclic

    The heater actually makes sense; winters get pretty cold there. Even if they didn't, needing a different set of kit for every operations theater is a terrible idea.

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Surely even Tetra would be better than this lot?

    And yes I do remember the LandRover mounted stuff being too heavy for the vehicle?!

  22. daniel Silver badge

    PMR from Tesco?

    A plain and simple 2xAA powered personal handheld CB would do far better!!!

    How friggin hard is it design a decent army radio FFS!

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Does what was asked off it

    The freq used for close quarters was choosen to limit it it's range. It sits in a very high attenuation band so that only those in a section can pickup those signals. It has switchable bands so you can use the same radioset for differing roles

    Yes it's happily in lots of land rovers.

    Anyone who has used Clansman may remember the in case of failure please kick advice.

    As for Market Garden, they choose crystals that used high attenuation bands so one of the leasons learnt was to have a radio system where you could switch between high attenuation and low attebuation bands, bit like Bowman really.

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    ...does not belong to BMW.

    It has just been bought (along with Jaguar) by India's TATA, from Ford.

  25. Jesse

    RE: What's wrong with a cellphone?


  26. Anonymous Coward

    Encrypted Radios

    What ever happened to digitising the voice with an ADC and then running the corresponding data stream across a network with Encrypted VOIP using PTP Encryption? It's pretty easy. As for the mobile phone system, why can't we use a frequency hopping, encrypted deployable version of a obile base station. Again, there are systems out there that can do this already. Too easy, you could even use clustering technology and adaptive software and load balancing technologies to enhance redundancy and reliabilty of communications. If one base station is taken out, another takes over, like a cell phone moving from one base station to another. The Trunk communications can be done further along in the rear area using satcoms (Skynet 5/Inmarsat/Etc) or other bearer, again using encrypted frame relay systems. Instead, lets spend millions on a bespoke system that comes into service 5-10 years late, with massive requirement creep. At least some Brigadier will get an additional star out of the project before they move on to their next post 2-years later, leaving an absolute shambles in their wake.

  27. Ed
    Thumb Up

    Hey Reg....

    I think you should get into contact with Lt-Col Nick Borton and make sure the Man on the street, (oops I mean the General Pubic) is made aware or any sudden "career path changes" that he is forced to make......

  28. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Bradley armored car

    Looks like another Bradley armored car screw up. You want decent equimpment. Make the people who buy it , use it in the field.

  29. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    How hard could it be

    to stick a Yaesu FT-817ND in an excitingly camoflaged military style box with a larger battery, antenna tuning unit for HF operations and an additional circuit card to handle all the encryption/relay functions?

  30. Matthew

    Simple solution =-)

    Sounds like they should arrange some "Al-Qaeda" to break into an american base and thief some of their radio equipment!

  31. Chris Copley

    Bowman...typical civilian intel....

    The entire Bowman package is extremely typical of the MoD allowing civilians to 'run' the military. They scrimp and save and cut corners - that's what civilians do best. Cost cutting and scrimping on the dollar results in 'white elephants' such as the inferior, obsolete and world-wide ridiculed 'Bowman' communications system. No wonder teh British Army is but a shadow of its former self.

    Speaking of its former self the radio system used by all British Centurion tank regiments back in the late 60s and early 70s beat the 'Bowman' system hands down. What price progress?

  32. Michael

    Old equipment was good equipment

    I've been out of the military for some while so I do not know the current state of affairs; but back in the day the ancient R-390 receiver was absolutely incredible in its sensitivity and selectivity. It had huge banks of ganged tuning coils and gears and cams; a nightmare to tune I'm sure BUT I used to have the receiver tied to the same antenna as a CB radio, and I could transmit CB and listen to a shortwave signal on the R-390 at the same time without an isolator or coupler so long as the receiver was at least 2 megacycles (yes, it was calibrated in good old MC) from the CB frequency. I have never seen a synthesized receiver or transceiver perform as well.

  33. Barrian
    Black Helicopters


    most of the significant kit IS American

  34. Graeme

    Land Rovers

    "I find it hard to believe that a vehicle-mounted Bowman set is too heavy, and consumes too much power for, a military Land Rover."

    the Short Wheel base Fitted For Radio can't carry bowman at all and have been sold, the LWB ones have had to have the suspension beefed up and better anti roll bars fitted

    imagine a small server rack with a radio bolted to it

  35. Anony mouse
    Black Helicopters

    not suprised

    while working on the ATE test rigs for..


    not sure.. thought it might have been some sort of radio..

    it was a royal ordinance project and they wouldn't tell us what it was..

    army stuff hush hush pip pip big moustache..

    anyway every time one of the loaded circuit boards failed the passive resistance test we were told to increase the failure tolerance, where most companies wouldn't allow more than 5% some of these were running at 50% and we were told not to test certain components as they failed so badly.

    this was about 15 years ago.. and if any other military projects were tested with the same kind of rigour.. like the bowman

    fill in the final thought yourselves

  36. Alex


    I'm really not surprised by this....

    The British should be forced to purchase any military hardware more complicated than a tent from existing technology (such as that designed by the Israelis or Americans) as we have proven time and again to be absolutely useless at doing this sort of project.

    I know... I know... Comms and national security requires an in house developed system!!!

    But the truth is that Mossad probably have our entire Military/Govenrment chain infiltrated already and we give the Americans anything they want anyway!

  37. heystoopid
    Paris Hilton

    Oh how nice

    Oh how nice for all to forget that since the advent of radio communication equipment since the "War to end all Wars" so last century ago(and the 100th anniversary of same is not long in coming too)has been heavy difficult to use subject to crap battery life and numerous other technical problems in the field which at times meant that the radio rooms on Battle Wagons of the 20,000 TONNE PLUS size like the SMS SEYDLITZ could barely fit the operators between the racks but boy she could still out turn the Beatty boys flash fire mob lot any day of the week in the setting sun even with an additional fifteen thousand tonnes of water !

    But it truly does explain much why the Israeli reservist Cavalry Units in it's last experimental stroll to the five kilometer to the border warning sign in Southern Lebanon just near the heavily shelled partially wrecked UN Observation Post still flying the UN Flag(crap artillery observers or gunners to lazy to relay the guns after recoil that be for sure) preferred to use standard commercial grade mobile phones rather then the government supplied field communications kit and their reluctance to advance past the last border cell phone tower range limit as well !

    Perhaps the army should find it far cheaper to equip all it's troops in the field with the standard rugged Hummer cased Iridium Satellite Telephone handsets so they would lose the bulk of the excess baggage of the existing crap with gains in battery and other life expectancy as well and can phone home to mother so she can call MOD HQ on a fixed copper land line to tell them where they are in the field too for all the kite flying US Air Force Major Schmidt's clones to know which target to bomb !

    Oh well just a thought !

  38. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I used to work for them 15-20 years ago and I'm completely sure I don't recollect any "accounts" of how good Bowman was going to be. I do remember people saying "Bowman, for the love of god don't get put on Bowman as you'll be out the door when it gets cancelled".

    So it transpired for many people - not for me though as I had the sense to jump ship to Vodafone while I still had the chance (also a Racal company at the time, old Sir Ernest knew what he was doing ;-) ).

  39. Mark York
    Black Helicopters

    Racal II

    Racal Seaton 1990 - 1998 & got out before the wave of redundancies started.

    I had the pleasure of revisting the old Seaton site yesterday, the pleasure being that after being empty since "2000" & still present up until January of this year, its finally been demolished.

    They were touting Bowman at my interview & still hadn't got anywhere by the time I left, all that came in was Six Sigma & Computing Devices of Canada as partners IIRC.

  40. Robin Bradshaw

    Why not....

    Just equip the army with X0-1 laptops from one laptop per child, they can create adhoc wireless networks, they run on batterys and can be carried by a small malnourished child.

    Or they could take lots and lots and lots of twin core cable with them to war and spool it out behind them as they go then use old field telephones at either end you wind the handle and the phone at the other end rings (as a bonus you can clip the phone to an insurgent genitals and crank the handle to administer a mild tasering)

    How could they get it so wrong, In the time they have been faffing with this system nokia has gone from an almost unknown company to the biggest provider of digital communications devices in the world and has created, sold and retired many models of phone and added all manner of bells and whistles in the process.

    Imagine if the military tried to do satnav they would all turn up in iraq only to find out they only had maps of croydon.

  41. Anonymous Coward


    You must ofmoved across with Mr Simmon RIP

    A lot of good guys left Racal and the result was a very successful Newbury house price raise.

  42. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @ W42B

    Sorry, you seem to have missed out the key setting old chap, how am I supposed to decrypt without it?

  43. Dave Silver badge


    Pay attention please: this IS american tech, thats why it keep shooting our guys in the foot.

  44. Graeme

    Buy American

    Im not at all supprised to see that Lewis "buy american" page has failed to mention that Bowman was the American "off the shelf option"

    Racal were taken over by Thales after they lost this contract so we can't buy british anymore!

  45. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The powers that be knew all along but had deniable liability.

    This poor chap has made it public so they can no longer deny they know. Cue the spin machine and let's concentrate government efforts on the successful olympics team.

    Comment about the ATE made me chuckle. A previous company had a manufacturing defect which went unnoticed until it was too late and the company died just as they made manufacturing 100%.

    The new owners decided there was more profit to be made by using different components and they started failing the ATE.

    The new Engineering director resolved the issues within 5 minutes. He ordered the threshold to be lowered! Everything was fine and production was back to 100% with better profits.

  46. Michael Z. Williamson


    The US DoD could likely be persuaded to share our very functional, multi-frequency, long battery life, lightweight radios...

  47. Anonymous Coward

    Please! Please! Someone Pay Attention to this thread.

    Anyone out there responsible for procurement, please sort out this shite procurement process where companies offer the earth at the lowest bid and fail to deliver a workable usable solution. All we want is kit that works for our military (UK). If we the taxpayer have to pay an additional £3 a year each in tax so that you can spend a little more on a better solution, then so be it.

    The bottom line is that these systems operability in a lot of cases means a soldier living or dieing. Without being melodramatic, this is someones son or daughter. Wake up!

  48. Nigee

    Bowman is

    SINCGARS, actually an 'enhanced' version. All the radios are 'off-the-shelf' US ones from companies like ITT (VHF) and Harris (HF), the single (US) prime contractor who was supposed to get the whole shebang working together even failed in such basics as having common batteries for the HF and VHF radios (which Clanman had), no doubt because the radios were basically US off-the-shelf (civil servants following the expert advice from participants of forums such as this).

    However the PRR (very short rnage personal radio which is classed as part of Bowman but entered service a few years earlier is not US (although the USMC purchased lots in a hurry) and was UK designed and produced.

    The only good news is that the infantry section radio, which is the one causing most of the bother, is not too widespread (there aren't exactly thousands of infantry sections) so a replacement should be affordable, that's assuming there is something capable of doing the job.

    Incidentally, it's only universal encryption that's new with Bowman, Brit soldiers started using encrypted VHF with Larkspur (BID 150 over 40 years ago, it used punched cards for key settings) and new devices became more widely used with Clansman.

  49. Anonymous Coward

    @Jesse - RE: What's wrong with a cellphone?

    Actually triangulation is no more of a problem for a mobile phone handset than any single radio, what you would be worrying about is the base station being triangulated and then hit by artillery strike.

    But in any case, the problems with mobile based systems are actually more complex.

    The biggest problem is that cellphone systems are not point to point like radio systems and so require infrastructure to operate whereas two radios can communicate without any backup required.

    This requirement for infrastructure makes such systems vulnerable, the loss of a single cell tower could place large sections of a network out of contact rendering the users unable to communicate (even more the case if the towers are not connected by cable but use wireless links to intercommunicate). Cell towers are complicated to set up if you want to ensure complete coverage and no interference. They are also relatively easy to locate by triangulation, and you would expect them to be a priority target for the enemy, so losing them must be considered likely. This is not a good thing for an important communication system.

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