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FEATURE ARTICLE  

Clash Over Conflicting Priorities Disrupts Tactical Radio Program 

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By Sandra I. Erwin 

The plan appeared simple enough: The Defense Department would develop a new family of tactical radios to replace thousands of outdated communications devices that don’t allow the military services to talk to one another.

Nearly seven years after it was conceived, the Pentagon’s ambitious effort to field the Joint Tactical Radio System largely remains mired in bureaucratic infighting. It also is suffering from bad timing, as the demands for new radios for troops in Iraq have driven the Army, particularly, to pour billions of dollars into new radios that are not part of the JTRS family.

The entire JTRS program—valued at up to $20 billion—was intended to eventually replace more than 750,000 radios in the current military inventory. Unlike conventional radios, JTRS devices function like PCs, and can be programmed to operate a variety of software communications applications, which, in the radio world, are called “waveforms.”

Although JTRS is years behind schedule and its scope is likely to be substantially reshaped, senior Pentagon officials remain staunch supporters. “The vision of JTRS was born from a desire to address key shortfalls in tactical battlefield communications capabilities, enable mobile wireless networking and bring separate service-led radio programs together into a joint development effort,” wrote Michael W. Wynne, the Pentagon’s top procurement official, in a February 2005 memo outlining his decision to reorganize JTRS under a new “joint program executive office.”

Critics and backers alike agree that the program fell into disarray because, even though it is a “joint” procurement, its organization is very much service-centric. JTRS was divided into “clusters,” each managed by a different service. The Army, for example, is responsible for cluster 1, which covers the service’s ground-vehicle and helicopter radios. The Navy and the Air Force are in charge of the “airborne and maritime” cluster of JTRS radios to be installed on ships and aircraft.

To take over the management of the entire JTRS effort, Wynne handpicked Dennis M. Bauman, who will have one of the hardest jobs in military acquisition, observers noted. Bauman is the Navy’s program executive officer for command-and-control, communications and space, and was chosen to run JTRS because of his extensive experience in “joint” programs, said an industry source.

Experts said they expect Bauman will need at least two years to get JTRS back on track.

Bauman’s deputy and top technical advisor is Howard Pace, a recognized radio expert who has worked on Navy tactical communications systems. Army Col. Glen Lambkin serves as program manager for waveforms. Also on the new management team is Paul Schneider, a former assistant secretary of the Navy for research and development, who has been touring the manufacturing plants of major JTRS contractors.

Among Bauman’s top priorities will be to build a better working relationship between the office of the assistant secretary of defense for networks and information integration—which oversees JTRS—and top Army officials who don’t necessarily oppose JTRS, but believe their dollars today are better spent on technology that troops need right away, not years from now.

A case in point was the Army’s decision last year to suspend the development of the cluster 1 version of JTRS. The program is at least two years behind schedule, and is being targeted for possible cancellation, unless the contractor can prove the technology is performing according to government specifications.

On April 25, the prime contractor for cluster 1, the Boeing Co., received a “show cause” letter from the JTRS program executive office that requested the company to make a case for why the government should not terminate the contract. Show-cause letters generally are sent to a contractor when the government is concerned about the performance of a program. Boeing’s response was due May 25.

The Army’s top acquisition executive, Lt. Gen. Joseph Yakovac, told an industry conference in February that the JTRS strategy was flawed, because it was built on the premise that all “legacy” radios in the current inventory would have to be replaced. “We cannot afford to throw away good stuff just to throw away good stuff,” he said. “The JTRS program, as it was developed, was an unachievable goal … That is an inefficient way to manage resources.”

What the Army really wants from JTRS in the near term, Yakovac said, is to “enhance networking, not replace legacy radios.”

Another source of angst among Army and other service officials is the JTRS waiver policy that is enforced by the office of networks and information integration (NII). The policy requires the services obtain a waiver from NII each time they want to purchase radios. The mandate, in place since 1998, was designed as an oversight mechanism to ensure the services do not spend research-and-development money on non-JTRS legacy radios.

NII officials for years have stressed that the waiver policy is critical to the Defense Department’s “transformation” efforts to become a networked force that is equipped with interoperable communications devices.

“The Army is probably the service that has the biggest gripe” concerning the use of waivers, said Vic Russell, former assistant deputy director for tactical systems at NII.

Russell, who recently retired after 18 years at NII, said the waiver rule was not in any way obstructing or slowing down Army efforts to satisfy commanders’ urgent requests for combat radios.

“We fully supported meeting the war-fighting requirements,” Russell told National Defense. To ease the paperwork burden on the Army, NII relaxed the regulations in late November. In a letter to the chairmen of key congressional committees, Linton Wells II, the acting assistant secretary of defense for NII, articulated the rationale for the change.

“An accelerated approach for addressing urgent operational requests was explicitly added,” Wells wrote.

Once the Joint Staff validates a procurement need, it takes NII anywhere from one hour to seven days to process a waiver.

In response to high-level pressure from the Army, NII officials had considered suspending the waiver entirely, but chose to not do so, arguing the revised policy ensured the proper balance between the “need to meet urgent operational requests against valid concerns about the long-term effects of the unlimited acquisition of legacy radios,” Wells explained in the letter.

Russell, who was directly involved in the policy rewriting process, said that after extensive deliberations, it became clear that the waiver mandate itself was not the problem, but rather the Army’s aversion to civilian oversight of their purchases.

“They don’t want their decisions to be questioned by the Defense Department,” Russell said.

If JTRS is to survive and eventually become the standard for tactical communications, the waiver only makes sense, he stressed. “It’s a management tool to get a handle on all the legacy radios to try to minimize interoperability issues.”

Ron Jost, also an NII official, defended the value of the waiver at an industry conference in March 2004. “We don’t want to propagate legacy equipment,” said Yost. “If you start buying radios for two to five years, radios tend to stay around for decades.”

It’s not clear whether the Joint Staff would support a suspension of the waiver. According to sources, the vice director for command-and-control, communications and computers on the Joint Staff, Rear Adm. Nancy E. Brown, hinted she would consider backing the cancellation of the policy.

During the past two years alone, NII has processed hundreds of waiver requests. Since the policy took hold in 1998, the services purchased nearly $3.5 billion worth of legacy radios. The supplemental appropriation Congress approved for war expenditures in fiscal year 2005 includes more than a billion dollars for tactical radios, most of which are Sincgars (single-channel ground and airborne radio systems).

Russell acknowledged that legacy radios are the only course available to meet urgent requests. “They need to field new capability, and JTRS isn’t here,” he said. But he expressed frustration, which is shared by others at NII, about the Army choosing to spend billions of dollars on non-JTRS radios that are not necessarily intended for immediate use in combat.

Most of the Sincgars radios purchased under a contract signed last year, for example, are allotted for the Army’s new “modular” brigades. A $2.5 billion contract awarded to Sincgars manufacturer ITT in November stipulates quantities of up to 65,000 radios. That level of production could take more than two years to complete, as the plant delivers 2,000 to 3,000 radios per month.

Such a large expenditure in legacy radios bothers JTRS supporters such as Russell. He contends that the Army’s controversial approach to seeking funds for large procurement programs as part of emergency war appropriations precludes proper oversight of military acquisition accounts.

Further, by sinking billions of dollars into legacy radios, the Army effectively is delaying its commitment to JTRS. The war, in many ways, has forced the Army to think differently, and to view next-generation technologies such as JTRS as luxuries that drain resources from “good enough” systems that soldiers need today.

“They developed this term ‘good enough,’ which is used to describe the Sincgars radio,” Russell said. “That’s unfortunate. It’s a limited radio that is not going to meet the networking requirements. They are robbing Peter to pay Paul. The more Sincgars they buy, the more legacy radios they have, the longer it takes to field JTRS.”

Nothing is wrong with Sincgars, Russell asserted. “It is a great radio,” but it’s not a radio that fits into the “network-centric” vision of the future. Twenty-first century technologies such as digital music players offer a perfect analogy to help explain why the Defense Department should not abandon JTRS, Russell said. “The rest of the world is moving to I-Pods, while we continue to give our soldiers Walkmans with cassette tapes … We need to give the I-Pod technology to the soldiers … Buying another 65,000 Sincgars is not a smart thing to do.”

Complicating matters even further is the Army’s plan to field a sophisticated family of new combat vehicles, the Future Combat Systems. The success of FCS, service officials said repeatedly in briefings to industry and in testimony to Congress, depends on having the high-capacity radio communications network that JTRS was designed to achieve.

The Army may not be able to field the FCS using legacy radios, Russell said. “It would be unfortunate.” Most likely, however, “they would delay the FCS schedule before they allowed that to happen.” The level of networking envisioned for FCS means they must have JTRS, said Russell. “You won’t get there with legacy radios.”

Several Army officials contacted by National Defense declined, via spokesmen, to comment for this story. A Defense Department public affairs officer also refused repeated requests for interviews with NII officials.

Russell pointed out that, despite the turmoil in cluster 1, there are several bright spots in JTRS. One is the so-called MIDS-JTRS, a data link and communication terminal for tactical aircraft. The development is much farther along than the other clusters, Russell said. Several NATO countries have expressed interest in acquiring this technology to replace the current Link-16 MIDS terminals. The U.S. government, however, has not yet approved this technology for export.

The cluster 2 version of JTRS also is progressing, Russell noted. It is a handheld multi-band radio, made by Thales, for the U.S. Special Operations Command.

“SOCOM has issued a notification of its intent to negotiate a sole source contract with Thales for this radio,” said a company official. “We anticipate initial production later this year.”

The newest JTRS, cluster 5, also is led by the Army. The contractor, General Dynamics, is developing three variants: a man-pack, a handheld and a miniaturized device to be placed in sensors and small robots.

Russell said cluster 5 already is at least a year behind schedule, and is likely to be delayed even more if the Army continues to buy legacy radios at the current rate.

Meanwhile, a growing awareness among radio manufacturers that JTRS will take much longer than planned to come to fruition has spawned a market for software-based radios that, even though they are not JTRS, are close enough, contractors assert.

Harris RF Communications—a JTRS subcontractor for cluster 1 but a losing bidder in cluster 5—has developed a “commercial JTRS” radio, said Steve Marschilok, company vice president.

“We see a real need in the marketplace for a commercial JTRS,” he said in an interview. “It would be our own commercial JTRS solution, to fill the gap until cluster 5 is developed.”

Harris is working to obtain government approval to sell the radio. That will involve a series of complex reviews, “interoperability” tests and the mandatory endorsement from the National Security Agency, Marschilok said. Government customers are “really excited” that they will be able to get a JTRS-like radio sooner, he said. “Customers seem surprised that we are investing in JTRS outside the conventional ‘cluster’ process.”

Vendors such as Harris that provide software-based radios tout their compliance with the “Software Communications Architecture,” which is fundamental to any JTRS radio. But not every radio that is SCA-compliant meets the full JTRS technical specifications.

Several radio suppliers also are awaiting word from the JTRS Joint Program Office concerning the possibility that the Defense Department will fund a version of JTRS that would operate in the spectrum above 2 gigahertz. The current JTRS program only covers frequencies between 2 megahertz and 2 gigahertz, which are used primarily for tactical communications.

Above 2 gigahertz radios work the same as others, but they are in a higher frequency and would offer much more capacity to transmit imagery and video via military satellites. If developed, they would replace current satellite communications terminals that are not interoperable between military services.

Several companies are positioning themselves to compete for high-frequency JTRS work, and are anticipating the completion of an “analysis of alternatives” study now under way at NII.

John D. Olsen, technical director for integrated communications systems at the Raytheon Company, said that to fully take advantage of JTRS above 2 gigahertz, the system should have “portable” waveforms that can operate interchangeably on any of the military services’ terminals. That interoperability does not exist today because each service has developed its own ground stations and waveforms to receive data from military satellites.

“JTRS wants to move toward a global information grid,” Olsen said. “We very much support that vision. But sometimes the vision gets a little big clouded by too much focus on the hardware implementation and boxes.”

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