The Defense Department is drastically downscaling plans to develop its next-generation radio communications network.
The Pentagon launched the “joint tactical radio system,” or JTRS, six years ago, with the intent to deploy a family of software radios for all military services. But the program soon unraveled as it became clear that its goals were way too ambitious, and its cost — estimated at $20 billion — would not be affordable at a time when the services are struggling to equip troops at war.
The Defense Department’s acquisition chief, Kenneth Krieg, directed a sweeping review of JTRS and, in early 2005, appointed a new team to oversee the program.
Leading the effort to rescue JTRS is Dennis M. Bauman, a senior program executive at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command.
Bauman has a five-year $4 billion budget to complete the JTRS development phase. But the scope of the project was reduced substantially. Instead of aiming for a network than can accommodate all 32 of the military’s radio bands — also called waveforms — the revised JTRS will be limited to just nine. Also, JTRS radios will be compatible with 13 major weapon systems, rather than the 26 originally planned.
Budget constraints partly are the reason why the Defense Department decided to go this route, Bauman said in a telephone conference with reporters. His team had estimated that it needed $6 billion for JTRS development, but the Pentagon agreed to fund $4 billion. Still, this was good news to program officials, said Bauman, because it was appreciably more money than the $2.3 billion that was in the budget a year ago.
Technological roadblocks also drove the Defense Department to downscale the program. A major concern continues to be encryption, said Bauman. Software-based radios such as JTRS — designed to operate as a computer network — are more difficult to protect from hackers than traditional military radios, which have customized crypto devices and are intended for individual services, not for the entire Defense Department.
“The complexity of the information assurance challenge was not fully realized early in the program,” Bauman said. “When you move from a radio to a networking device, the potential vulnerabilities grow immensely.”
A major feature that would make the JTRS network useful to troops in combat — the ability to stay connected even while they move from one location to another — also makes it less secure than traditional networks. This Internet-like capability, known as “mobile ad hoc networking,” is fundamental to JTRS, Bauman said. It also raised red flags at the National Security Agency, which has to certify that a military radio is safe to operate before it can be deployed. “The NSA had not fully appreciated or understood the full ramifications of that vulnerability and how to mitigate it,” said Bauman.
This problem is not unique to JTRS, said an industry expert who used to work at the Defense Information Systems Agency. There is an inherent conflict between building “net-centric” systems that are accessible to millions of users and “information assurance,” the expert said. Today, “most systems build their own application infrastructure and their own security infrastructure. Now, as you start to open up in a net-centric world, how do you make sure the system talking to you is authorized to talk to you? … How do you distribute trust between the different systems you are trying to link together?”
Steve MacLaird, a retired Air Force colonel and former JTRS program executive, said that even though the network was conceived as an “open standards” system, it still can be made secure.
Before MacLaird left the program, he said in a recent interview, “We were working closely with NSA.”
Wireless ad hoc networks are relatively new for both for the Defense Department and NSA, he said, which explains why they are taking longer than expected to determine how they will be protected.
“This marriage of security and advanced technology is not new,” said Steve Jennis, vice president of PrismTech, a company that supplies software to JTRS contractors. The Defense Department already has built many tactical networks that use open-source software and are secure, he said, “although JTRS poses new challenges because it is a wireless environment.”
A larger concern for JTRS developers, MacLaird cautioned, should be the Defense Department’s decision to shrink the program from 32 to nine waveforms. The implication is that only a portion of the force will be included in the JTRS network, and the majority will continue to operate their current radio systems.
“One of the key aspects of JTRS is the bridging function to the current force,” he added. The 23 waveforms that will not be part of JTRS could a “huge constituency.”
“If you are not providing the bridging function to the legacy force, in my mind, that is huge,” said MacLaird.
The nine waveforms in JTRS are the following: wideband networking waveform, soldier radio waveform, joint airborne networking tactical edge, mobile user objective system, single channel ground and airborne radio system, Link 16, enhanced position location and reporting system, high frequency, and ultrahigh frequency satellite communications.
Financial considerations probably explain why the Defense Department curtailed the program, MacLaird said.
Initially, JTRS was projected to replace every military radio currently in service. But once the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq got under way, the Army and Marine Corps realized they needed thousands of new radios to equip the force, and could not possibly wait five years for JTRS to come around. Since 2004, both services have spent nearly $20 billion on new communications systems to meet war demands. This large investment in radios has raised questions about the relevance of JTRS and whether, once the emergency war funds run out, the services will be able to afford the new technology.
In Bauman’s opinion, this will not be a showstopper for JTRS. “We are at war. There are near-term needs we support while knowing the objective is to move to JTRS.”
Many of the radios currently being purchased by the military services are software-based, but that does not mean they are JTRS-compatible, he noted.
MacLaird said that, so far, only two companies — Thales and Harris — produce JTRS-certified radios. “A number of companies have requested that their radios be certified,” he added.
If a radio is not JTRS-certified, it is not likely to interoperate with JTRS, MacLaird said. In 2003, he recalled, program officials took a JTRS waveform and tried to port it on a non-JTRS software radio. “It became so hard that we gave up.”
Ultimately, MacLaird stressed, it’s important for JTRS to focus on what troops in the field need. For the soldier on the front lines, he noted, all the complex terminology and acronyms don’t mean a whole lot. All he cares about is “I want to push the button, I want to talk, I need a video clip.”