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FEATURE ARTICLE  

Delays in ‘joint tactical radio’ program cast doubts on future 

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By  Sandra I. Erwin 

DelaysJointTargetThe military services by and large have abandoned a Pentagon-directed effort to replace their combat radios with new digital devices, at least for the foreseeable future.

Ten years after the Defense Department launched its ambitious “joint tactical radio system,” the project remains stuck in uncertainty. Although JTRS supporters cite some accomplishments — such as the successful development of a handheld radio for special operations forces — the majority of troops in the field will continue to operate existing radios for decades to come.

JTRS radios are programmable PC-like devices that are designed to operate multiple software radio applications, known as waveforms. The Defense Department originally had planned to buy as many as 750,000 JTRS units to replace the radios used by dismounted troops, as well as those found in ground vehicles, airplanes, ships and military bases.

But the plan took an abrupt turn when the Army and Marine Corps, as they prepared to fight wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, suddenly found themselves woefully short of modern combat radios. Those technologies had been under-funded for years, because the Army had assumed it would enjoy an extended post-Cold War peacetime and could afford to wait until JTRS came to fruition beginning in 2009.

Since 2002, the services have spent nearly $9 billion on radios that already existed in the inventory — dubbed “legacy” radios — and progressively have come to view JTRS as a luxury that they may not be able to afford, even if the technology ends up delivering what it promises.

“We were going to wait for JTRS before 9/11,” said Lt. Gen. Steven Boutelle, the Army’s chief information officer.

The Army’s large expenditures on legacy radios, however, are not the only reason why JTRS has been downsized — some say, decimated. The program from the get-go was too ambitious and underestimated the cost and complexity of developing software applications that met the rigorous military specs and National Security Agency encryption requirements. At least two Government Accountability Office reports in recent years chastised the Defense Department for mismanaging JTRS, for failing to articulate how the technology would work in the real world, and how specifically it could contribute to military operations.

The Pentagon directed a major reorganization of JTRS in 2005, including a new management structure, in an effort to save the program. The current program executive, Dennis M. Bauman, got a five-year $4 billion budget to complete JTRS development by 2009. But the scope of the project was reduced substantially. Instead of aiming for a network that could accommodate all 32 of the military’s radio waveforms, the revised JTRS will be limited to just nine. Also, JTRS radios would be compatible with 13 major weapon systems, rather than the 26 originally planned.

Bauman 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, Bauman told reporters last year, because it was appreciably more money than the $2.3 billion that was in the budget before he took over.

Beyond the R&D phase, however, the funding prospects for JTRS have turned bleaker, as the services have indicated they have no intention of procuring large quantities of JTRS radios during the next five years.

The Air Force and the Navy have delayed a contract award for the so-called “airborne maritime fixed facilities” JTRS radios, even though the contractors said the technology is ready for prototyping.

The Army’s 2008-2013 budget, according to a program official, includes funds for 1,000 ground-vehicle JTRS radios. The original plan, before the war, was to buy 100,000.

But if in fact the Army does not intend to buy large quantities of JTRS radios, critics question why the Defense Department has committed $1 billion in R&D costs for the ground vehicle radios. A billion dollars is a huge investment if only 1,000 radios are bought, said the official. Further, these radios, at $300,000 to $400,000 each, would be three times more expensive than the humvee trucks on which they would run.

A more cost-effective option, the official said, would be to adapt the handheld or manpack versions of JTRS for use on vehicles. These radios are in development and so far have shown signs that the technology is working, the official said. The problem is that the Army has too many legacy radios to justify the additional billions of dollars it would need to buy the handheld or man-pack JTRS radios.

The largest purchase of legacy radios has been the single channel ground and airborne radio system, or SINCGARS. Since the war in Iraq started, the Army has doubled its inventory to nearly 480,000 radios. In the past two years alone, SINCGARS purchases have exceeded $1.3 billion. Army officials have indicated the quantities will go up to 570,000 during the next three to four years.

Not surprisingly, there is a lack of consensus within the Army about the way forward for tactical radio procurements. Senior officials, including the vice chief of staff of the Army, Gen. Richard Cody, have argued forcefully in favor of buying more SINCGARS and other radios already in production because troops in Iraq need these systems urgently, and because the Army had to make up for shortages dating back to the 1990s. But other leaders privately have questioned why the Army needs so many SINCGARS radios, and whether it is now time to start shifting dollars to the next generation of technology in the JTRS program.

The decisions of what to buy are further complicated by the onslaught of new radio products in the marketplace that claim to be JTRS-like. Several companies, once they realized that JTRS would not be going into production any time soon, funded their own R&D programs and manufactured a variety of military radios that are software programmable and perform many of the functions that originally were planned for JTRS. The availability of new products has been welcome by many military commanders who don’t see the point in waiting for the yet-unproven JTRS. But the push from commercial vendors also has raised serious concerns at the JTRS program office, where officials worry that by buying company-developed radios, the military services are moving away from the basic premise of JTRS, which was to have open-standards technology that was not proprietary to any company.

A surge in the demand for handheld radios prompted companies such as Harris RF Communications, Raytheon and ITT Industries to aggressively market their software-programmable radios, which have some of the same capabilities as JTRS radios. Only Thales Communications currently is producing a handheld radio that officially is part of the JTRS program, but initially only will be fielded to special operations forces.

Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson, Army deputy for acquisition and systems management, recently told industry executives that he plans to proceed with the certification of JTRS handheld radios, and that these will be available for procurement within a year, using a “GSA-schedule-like” approach between competing JTRS radio vendors.

An officially approved JTRS radio must meet a series of detailed technical evaluations that measure performance, interoperability and encryption requirements, said a spokesman from the JTRS program office in San Diego. Radios must be certified by the National Security Agency, the Joint Tactical Radio System Technology Laboratory and the Joint Interoperability Testing Center.

So far, no radios meet all the mandated criteria, he said. Two handheld radios — the Thales JTRS enhanced multiband inter/intra team radio (JEM) and the Harris Falcon III PRC-152 — currently satisfy “some of the basic criteria,” said the spokesman. Both comply with the software communications architecture, are NSA-certified and have modern encryption. The JEM, he added, has been “operationally tested in a formal setting and found to be both effective and suitable.”

In recent months, Harris has sold 16,000 of the PRC-152 software radios, said Andy Adams, vice president of product line management. The JTRS program office is “welcoming commercial solutions and Harris expects the AN/PRC-152(C) to be the first commercial JTRS offering,” Adams said. Two handheld radios are packaged into a vehicular set, which “provides greater range coverage than the legacy SINCGARS man-pack system and is used to communicate from areas previously known to be ‘dead spots,’” he added. When they exit the vehicle, soldiers can pull one of the radios as they go to search buildings. When they return, they can quickly reconnect the radio back into the vehicular system. The handheld device also provides a satellite link for beyond-line-of-sight communications.

The Raytheon Company is offering its Microlight handheld Internet protocol data radio, which is a miniaturized version of its vehicle data radios. The radios are programmed with the enhanced position location and reporting system, or EPLRS, which is the backbone of the Army tactical Internet.

ITT Industries, the sole manufacturer of SINCGARS, is proposing to equip these radios with an attachment called “sidehat” that would give the low-bandwidth SINCGARS high-data rate connectivity.

Larry Williams, director of business development at ITT, said the Army should have the option of buying commercial radios that meet its needs, and should not be forced to wait for JTRS to come along. “Companies like Harris or ITT will come in with great ideas, but the Army will be hamstrung by the program of record,” Williams said. “If they are to ever achieve their vision, they have to come up with ways of opening up the environment to the latest technologies and competitors. Until they are able to articulate that vision, they will not see JTRS really begin to move forward. It will be too limited and too expensive.”

As part of the JTRS program, ITT is developing the “soldier radio waveform.” The SRW enables data connectivity, bandwidth and efficient voice capability, Williams said. So far, the company has demonstrated it works in a network of 100 nodes.

This waveform is “key to the future of the Army,” he added. “Current Internet-based voice solutions work fine for point-to-point communications but when you get in the combat net environment, it takes an enormous amount of bandwidth.”

The “sidehat” radio was designed to run the EPLRS and the SRW waveforms.

Critics of the Army’s current approach to buying radios describe it as a “chicken-and-egg” dilemma. Army officials would like to have the advanced JTRS radios, but they have to wait so long to get them that they prefer to buy proven legacy technology or commercially developed software radios. But the more money that goes into these alternatives to JTRS, the less likely that the program will get off the ground.

Troops on the ground in Iraq, meanwhile, remain encumbered by the lack of radio interoperability between services — a problem that JTRS was expected to solve. “We can’t talk to the Army’s radios. It’s very difficult for the Marine Corps and the Army to operate,” said Marine 1st Lt. Nathan Dmochowski, who served twice in Iraq, most recently from July 2005 through February 2006 as a company executive officer for an infantry battalion. “They were a stone’s throw from where we lived, but if we needed help from them, it took an arm and a leg to get them on the radio.”  

Please email your comments to SErwin@ndia.org

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