One of the Pentagon’s largest-ever military communications programs is
getting off on a slow start, hindered by the sheer scope of the project and
the inherent difficulties in consolidating up to 25 families of radios into
Under the Joint Tactical Radio System, the Defense Department plans to field
a single family of software-programmable radios, to replace more than 750,000
devices now used by the military services.
Software-defined radio is viewed as the holy grail of military communications,
a technology that promises both efficiency and seamless interoperability among
the U.S. services and foreign allies.
A software-defined radio box functions much like a PC. The software radio applications,
called waveforms, are based on common standards, but designed to meet each service’s
specific needs. The basic operating software is the SCA (Software Communications
Architecture), the equivalent of Windows on a PC.
The first segment of the JTRS program, called Cluster 1, got under way more
than a year ago, with the selection of a Boeing-led contractor team to produce
up to 106,000 JTRS boxes for Army aircraft, ground vehicles and Air Force forward
Under Cluster 2, the Defense Department is developing handheld radios for the
U.S. Special Operations Command. The contractor, Thales Communications, is adapting
SOCOM’s multi-band intra-team military radio, known as MBITR, to make
Yet to be awarded are contracts for Cluster 3 (maritime radios), Cluster 4
(radios for all Navy and Air Force aircraft) and Cluster 5 (portable radios
for dismounted troops).
The JTRS program office also is considering a Cluster 6 version, for high data
rate transmission (up to 200 megabits per second). Additionally, the JPO is
evaluating bids for a law-enforcement version of JTRS.
The entire JTRS program is estimated to be worth at least $3 billion in U.S.
military contracts. Industry officials speculate there is potential for another
$3 billion in international sales.
Experts generally agree that the JTRS program is both technologically demanding
and difficult to implement at an affordable cost, given the diversity of requirements.
The program office already is facing significant schedule slips and cost overruns
in Cluster 1, sources said. Driving the cost growth are larger-than-expected
price tags for installing the radios aboard older aircraft and ground vehicles.
The U.S. Air Force, meanwhile, is struggling to figure out how to fit the development
and procurement of JTRS into its overall aircraft modernization plans. The Air
Force plans to spend $1.5 billion in the next 10 years on Cluster 4.
The JTRS program has been a “really hard sell” in the Air Force,
said Col. Charles Whitehurst, a requirements officer at the Air Combat Command.
With 124 different types of radios, the Air Force could stand to save lots
of money by adopting a single family of JTRS radios, Whitehurst said. The AWACS
warning and control radar aircraft, for example, would go from 30 radios (1,500
pounds) to four radios (875 pounds).
The problem is that most senior officers in the service are not convinced that
the benefits would outweigh the cost of retrofitting hundreds of aircraft, especially
when JTRS dollars will be competing with more pressing funding priorities.
“Users wanted GATM (Global Air Traffic Management) and Link 16, but not
JTRS,” Whitehurst told a conference of the Institute for Defense and Government
Advancement, in Alexandria, Va.
JTRS introduces a whole new culture with which the services may not yet be
comfortable, he noted. “Nobody talks in waveforms. They talk in frequencies—VHF,
HF, Link 16, GATM.”
A typical reaction to JTRS from military commanders is, “‘Why should
The cost of modifying every aircraft to fit new radios worries the Air Force,
said Whitehurst. “It’s a whole lot different problem than ground
vehicles.” The paperwork alone would be taxing. ACC estimated that approximately
314 officers will need to approve the “migration plan” to JTRS for
each type of aircraft in the Air Force.
Service officials, however, will begin to embrace JTRS once they understand
the long-term implications of the technology, Whitehurst said. With JTRS, “if
you want to change the radio in the future, all you have to do is hook up the
laptop and update the waveform.”
Another concern for both the Air Force and the Navy is the JTRS development
schedule. The new radios would not be fielded until at least 2008, a goal viewed
by many as too optimistic. In the meantime, the services expect in the near
future to upgrade aircraft with MIDS (multifunction information distribution
system) radios equipped with the Link 16 data-link. According to Rear Adm. Mark
P. Fitzgerald, director of air warfare, “MIDS is probably the single biggest
thing that is going to drive the next revolution” in air combat, he told
a conference of the National Training Systems Association.
The services today operate more than 2,000 MIDS radios. The plan is to buy
4,000 more, none of which would be SCA-compliant.
Because software-defined radio, or SDR, is the mandatory standard for every
Defense Department program, any upgrade project that involves non-SDR radios
must receive a special waiver from the Pentagon’s chief information officer.
“Between now and 2008, we are going to be processing a heck of a lot
of waiver requests,” said Whitehurst.
Pentagon CIO official Frank Criste explained that waiver requests are submitted
through the service chain of command. They are vetted by representatives of
the CIO office, the Joint Staff, the JTRS Joint Program Office and the military
services. Approximately 50 waivers have been approved this year, according to
The director of the JTRS Joint Program Office, Air Force Col. Steven MacLaird,
also expressed concern about integration costs. A MIDS radio runs about $225,000,
but it costs an additional $450,000 to install it on an F-16 fighter.
Neither the Air Force nor the Navy wants to pay nearly a million dollars per
airplane to install JTRS only a few years after they have spent a comparable
sum on MIDS, industry sources said.
For that reason, the JTRS Cluster 4 is likely to be designed so it takes up
the same space and weight that already has been allocated on airplanes for the
A similar problem applies to the widely used military radio, the AN/ARC-210.
The Air Force and the Navy want the JTRS radios to fit in the space already
assigned to the ARC-210 radios aboard aircraft. The ARC-210 is a multimode communications
system for voice and data that operates in line-of-sight or satellite modes.
Adding to the complexity of Cluster 4 is the requirement to accommodate 65
different types of aircraft, including unmanned drones, Coast Guard and civilian
The program may not meet its ambitious schedule, given the variety of platforms
that must be dealt with, said Dennis W. Marsicano, lead engineer for airborne
joint tactical radio at the Mitre Corp.
“We are under a lot of schedule pressure from the users,” he said
at the IDGA conference. “In some cases, we won’t be able to get
there in the time required.”
Cluster 4 contractors, Marsicano said, will be asked to develop a joint tactical
radio that “form fits” the space and weight of the MIDS and ARC-210
One industry source noted that the Air Force cannot afford any major delays
in the JTRS program, because it needs to integrate it with its new multi-sensor
command and control aircraft, the MC2A.
“MC2A is driving Cluster 4 to come online by 2006,” he said. “The
Air Force cannot afford to build the airplane without JTRS.”
The Navy wants a JTRS surrogate now, while it’s upgrading its airplanes,
instead of having to upgrade them again in 2006 or 2008, he added.
Another industry expert questioned the wisdom of adapting the MIDS and ARC-210
radios for Cluster 4, instead of developing a new box.
“The MIDS mafia is pushing for that,” the expert said. “It’s
all about getting stuff in the near term, to match up with aircraft upgrades
already scheduled. ... I don’t think that is the adequate solution.”
The Naval Air Systems Command, particularly, does not want to “screw
around with the interfaces on the F/A-18 for the ARC-210,” the source
said. “I think that is a pretty myopic view of the world.”
This incremental approach defeats the purpose of having a JTRS program, he
said. “If you are not willing to take a giant step forward, why are you
doing something as dramatic as JTRS anyway? If you are just playing the compliance
game, it’s kind of silly.”
The entire JTRS program includes 33 radio waveforms that operate in the frequency
range between 2-Megahertz and 2-Gigahertz. Of the 33, 32 are applications that
have been in use for many years, such as the Army’s SINCGARS and the Air
Force Have Quick. The only new application to be developed specifically for
JTRS is the wideband networking waveform.
In June, meanwhile, the Pentagon CIO office moved to expand the scope of the
JTRS program. CIO John P. Stenbit amended the software-radio policy by mandating
that all radio systems operating above the 2-Gigahertz frequency, up to 55-Gigahertz,
be JTRS-compliant. This policy primarily affects space-based communications
MacLaird said the new policy has significant implications for the program,
but it’s premature to predict how specific projects will be affected.
The JPO now has more pressing matters to solve, such as whether the JTRS radios
can deliver what they promise.
So far, it is not yet certain that these radios will be able to perform to
military standards. One specific issue of concern is “quality of service,”
said MacLaird. Software radios, like PCs, may require occasional rebooting,
especially when changing waveforms. The process of switching bands now takes
about 13 seconds in a JTRS radio, while it only takes conventional radio operators
two seconds to switch frequencies. To call up a different waveform could take
up to 45 seconds.
Gaps in quality of service are not acceptable in military operations, he said.
“I cannot stand to be shot at and get the communications 80 percent of
The time it takes to reboot a software radio poses a “big problem that
we are continuing to address,” said Byron Tarver, software-defined radio
engineering manager at General Dynamics Decision Systems.
Another technical hurdle are the antennas. Even though multiple radio applications
can be consolidated in a single box, a JTRS radio still would have multiple
antennas, adding to the load of the dismounted soldier.
“There is today no single antenna that can provide connectivity for all
these waveforms,” said Gary Martin, deputy program manager for Army tactical
radio communications systems. “Cluster 1 still will have multiple antennas,”
The Army is concerned about how antennas will fit on unmanned aircraft, which
are being designed to serve as communications relays. “You don’t
want a porcupine sticking out one of these vehicles,” Martin said. Additionally,
“as you start putting multiple antennas on these vehicles, co-site interference
becomes a problem.”
As more military users opt for satellite communications, more antennas are
needed, he added. “SATCOM will play a more significant role in the Army.
... When you are moving in mountainous terrain, SATCOM is a far better choice
than line-of-sight” systems.
“When you talk about antennas, you get into physics,” Tarver said.
The wavelength of a transmission is directly proportional to the size of the
antenna. “It is a limiting technology,” he said. The problem is
exacerbated in handheld radios. “You can’t afford to put either
a large antenna or a multiplicity of antennas. In a vehicle, I can put six antennas.”
Airborne antennas also fall short of what the military wants, Martin said.
“It’s really an art [to design antennas]. An awful lot of work needs
to be done.”
What keeps JTRS engineers awake at night is the requirement that manpack (man-portable)
radios operate 15 waveforms. “We are going to have one guy with the radio
and two guys following with the antennas,” Martin said.
Among the most technically demanding pieces of the JTRS program is the wideband
networking waveform, designed to transfer data at 5-8 megabits per second. By
comparison, most tactical networks today transmit 16 kilobits per second. The
work is funded under JTRS Cluster 1.
The WNW can be described as a “smart waveform,” according to one
industry source. It is supposed to automatically hand off information from one
mobile network to another. “It’s a tough requirement,” the
Martin said that the WNW would be scalable up to 1,600 nodes per network, to
support an Army division. “Over time, whether that is the right number
or not depends on the Army structure,” he said.
The most difficult job in the WNW project is the ground-to-air integration,
Navy Capt. Sherman Metcalf, program manager for JTRS Cluster 3, said that WNW,
scheduled to be completed by 2006, will allow the Navy to set up networks among
ships, airplanes and shore sites, “or whatever is in line of sight.”
Cluster 3 radios will go aboard submarines, surface ships and on shore installations,
and will operate 30 waveforms.
Tarver noted that the wideband networking technology already is mature in the
commercial sector. But commercial systems, he cautioned, cannot meet JTRS requirements.
“You can get more capability with a commercial 802.11 standard,”
Tarver said. “But the WNW is targeted specifically to get high data rate
in a common standard across the services, so you solve the interoperability
problem ... and the unique networking” features the military wants.
Batteries also could become a headache for JTRS users, said Gus Zader, project
manager for JTRS Cluster 2 at the Special Operations Command. The current battery
in the MBITR radio lasts 12 hours. But the goal for JTRS is 24 hours.
Zader anticipates that software upgrades for JTRS will be tough to manage,
given that each contractor follows its own unique software confi-guration management.
“Keeping up with the software upgrades and tracking down all the radios
to get them upgraded” could become a nightmare, he said. “With most
SOF deployed, keeping track of the configuration is a real challenge.”
Under Cluster 5, the JPO plans to field three types of soldier radios by 2008:
a manpack, a handheld and a so-called “embedded” radio for the Land
Warrior system and for robotic vehicles, said Martin. These are “radios
that have connectivity to the network but are not traditional radios.”
The Army does not provide adequate communications to dismounted troops, he
explained. “Once they get out of their vehicles, they are not plugged
The Defense Department, meanwhile, has been buying software programmable radios
for non-combat applications. The Air Force, for example, recently purchased
2,500 software-based land mobile commercial radios for eight Air Combat Command
bases. The $7.8 million contract eventually will add radios for all 22 ACC bases,
said Jim Ridgell, vice president of federal business at EF Johnson, the company
that won the contract.
The ACC radios must comply with the Project 25 standards, making them interoperable
with local and state first responders and homeland security agencies.
Since 9/11, said Ridgell, “there is a need for all Defense Department
bases to become more interoperable with local counties and municipalities surrounding
EF Johnson is considering partnering with a defense contractor for future JTRS
competitions. The military radio business, however, is too risky for a small
commercial company such as EF Johnson, said Ridgell. The three-to-five year
development cycles in military programs require significant corporate investment,
which small firms cannot afford. “As a small company, we are interested,
but there is no near-term revenue,” said Ridgell. “Other agencies
we support offer a more ready return on investment.”