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Trials and tribulations persist in Joint Tactical Radio 


By Sandra I. Erwin 

TrialTribThe military services are slashing by nearly two-thirds their expected buys of the Defense Department’s troubled joint tactical radio system.

As the program continues to lose support across the military services, Defense Department officials are engineering a last-ditch effort to save what is increasingly a shaky procurement plan. They also are backing away from earlier demands that the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps stop buying their own service-unique radios in favor of a “joint” family of radios.

A decade after it was conceived — and $2 billion spent on research and development — the joint tactical radio system, or JTRS, is hanging on for dear life.

The original goal was to replace more than 500,000 military radios with a family of interoperable devices that carry voice and data communications. The most significant feature of JTRS radios would be their ability to be programmed, like PCs, with software applications called “waveforms.”

But the program got off to a slow start, and was beleaguered by bureaucratic infighting.

At the Pentagon, acquisition officials viewed JTRS as the poster child of joint programs, one that would finally allow the Defense Department to rein in the services’ disjointed hardware procurements. As JTRS development got under way between 1998 and 2000, government officials and contractors were predicting prototypes would be in the hands of soldiers by 2003. But as early as 2001, it became more apparent that JTRS was an appealing concept that would be harder to execute than anyone had foreseen.

By the time the Army marched into Iraq in 2003, no new radios were yet available, not even working prototypes. The service went to war with 1980s vintage radios, and supplemented those with commercial cell phones and satellite phones. After Army leaders realized they would be in Iraq for years to come, by late 2003 they began ordering thousands of tactical radios that vendors already were producing.

The highest demand was for handheld and vehicular radios. The Army before Iraq did not issue radios to each soldier nor did it install them on every humvee, because it was deemed too expensive. But that changed once commanders in Iraq began to demand thousands more radios to keep soldiers and Marines from buying off-the-shelf products to make up for shortages of military-issued equipment.

During the past four years, the services (mostly the Army) have spent nearly $4 billion on new radios. By comparison, between 1998 and 2001, their radio purchases amounted to less than $1 billion, according to Defense Department estimates. More than 60 percent of all radios procured are either individual handheld or squad-level manpack.

Before the war, the services were not allowed to purchase radios unless they obtained a “JTRS waiver” from the office of the assistant secretary of defense for networks and information integration. The policy aimed to discourage purchases of non-JTRS radios.

But Army officials complained that the waiver was a bureaucratic burden that hindered their ability to rapidly deliver radios to troops in Iraq. The Pentagon subsequently agreed to suspend the waiver, although it recently approved a limited policy that only applies to single-channel handheld radios.

Radio manufacturers, who had envisaged a financial boon from JTRS contracts, gradually realized that they could make better profits by ramping up production of existing radios in response to the military’s surging demand. Some contractors privately admit they have soured on JTRS, especially once they saw that their customers in the armed services had begun to lose confidence in the program. Several industry representatives contacted by National Defense, who did not want to be quoted by name, voiced disappointment about disorganized management and scattershot decision making by those in charge.

As it is now structured, JTRS includes multiple radio variants for the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Special Operations Command.

Just two years ago, the services had forecast they would buy nearly 458,000 JTRS radios — the majority of which were small form fit (184,000), four-channel ground vehicular (108,000) and two-channel manpack (104,000).

In February 2007, the services revised their expected buys down to 148,000 JTRS radios. The biggest drops are for the four-channel ground vehicular radio (from 108,000 to 5,700), the two-channel manpack (from 104,000 to 16,900) and the one-channel handheld (from 46,700 to none).

The 68 percent procurement cutbacks, while not entirely unanticipated, nevertheless sparked unease among JTRS program officers and contractors. Of most concern is that in smaller quantities, the new radios will be far more expensive and even less likely to survive future budget drills.

Despite the progressively bleak outlook for JTRS, Adm. Edmund P. Giambastiani Jr., who chairs the four-star Joint Requirements Oversight Council, lauded the progress the Pentagon so far has achieved in moving the program forward. During a recent hearing of the House Budget Committee, he told lawmakers that JTRS development costs had shrunk from $6 billion to $3 billion after the Pentagon agreed to downscale the project’s technical scope. Rather than be able to operate 33 waveforms, the radios will only run eight waveforms. “We could meet 80 percent of our requirements with eight waveforms,” Giambastiani said. Even tough JTRS has been scaled back, he added, “It’s a very important program.”

Currently overseeing the joint tactical radio effort is John Grimes, the assistant secretary of defense for networks and information integration. In charge of managing the procurement of radios is the joint program executive officer, Dennis Bauman, who is based at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command in San Diego.

At a February meeting of top Pentagon acquisition leaders and JTRS officials, Bauman said one of his “strategic priorities” was to bolster confidence in the program, according to briefing charts obtained by National Defense.

Other goals include better explaining JTRS technical requirements, informing members of Congress and establishing a defense-wide “tactical networking center of excellence.”

Many insiders questioned the decision two years ago to locate the JTRS program office thousands of miles away from the nucleus of military power in Washington, D.C. But the current plan is to expand the program’s footprint in San Diego even further. Officials at the meeting warned Bauman that moving all JTRS operations to San Diego will be a “challenge” but also potentially a benefit as “new blood” could be injected into the program.

Among the priorities that Bauman listed on the briefing charts are to “promote continued co-location of JTRS program elements to San Diego; encourage industry, government, academic, and international investment; shape the Department of Defense radio environment; strengthen the industrial base; educate and train the JTRS team; build morale and ‘esprit de groupe.’”

Bauman’s deputy, Howard Pace, who also briefed senior management at the February meeting, cautioned that unless the Defense Department can find a way to curtail the services’ escalating procurements of non-JTRS radios, the program could eventually perish. He cited figures of $9 billion to $16 billion spent on non-JTRS radios since 1998 — the largest expenditures occurring in 2004 and 2005.

“Conclusions can be drawn that policy, absent compliance and enforcement mechanisms, is at most partially effective,” Pace wrote in his briefing charts. “Without acquisition discipline and adherence to policy, there is far less chance of achieving JTRS program objectives.”

Kenneth J. Krieg, the Pentagon’s top acquisition official, was in attendance at the meeting, sources indicated. He endorsed Bauman’s strategy as a “step in the right direction, but not yet revolutionary.”

One major topic of discussion was the notion of endorsing company-developed radios as official JTRS products.

Radios that were selected to become official JTRS-approved products include the Falcon III AN/PRC-152(C) handheld made by Harris RF Communications, and the JEM AN/PRC-148 handheld made by Thales Communications. Both radios were designed and developed by their manufacturers, outside the JTRS program.

Krieg directed Bauman to come up with a “contract vehicle” that would allow all services to purchase both radios under a consolidated arrangement. The Army, Air Force and Marine Corps currently are buying these radios but under separate contracts. Minutes of the February meeting note that Krieg disapproved of these disjointed procurements because they result in higher prices. Krieg suggested that the services probably are managing their own contracts independently because they do not trust the JTRS joint office to handle acquisitions in a timely manner.

Another concern is future JTRS costs. The downward projections in the quantities of radios that the services plan to buy could result in substantial per-unit cost increases. Most of the 148,000 radios identified by the services for future procurement are not funded in the Defense Department’s 2008-2013 budget, which includes $3 billion for JTRS research and development. Krieg asked for precise budgets that show procurement dollars allocated to JTRS and directed Bauman’s office to calculate the per-unit cost of future radios. A major concern is that if the unit price ends up being more than 15 percent higher than the original estimates, the program will be the target of a congressional review under the so-called Nunn-McCurdy legislation.

Apprehension about Nunn-McCurdy cost overruns, however, may be a moot point. So far, no JTRS radios are close to entering production. The Defense Department, critics argue, should be more alarmed by the fact that after billions of dollars in R&D, it has no combat-ready products to show for it.

A wavering commitment by the military services also could doom the program before it ever reaches full-rate production. The services by most accounts have yet to be convinced that they should forgo their acquisitions of existing radios in favor of yet-unproven technology.

“They are not willing to stop legacy procurements even though JTRS would be backwards compatible with legacy radios,” said one frustrated defense official.

It also has become apparent that within John Grimes’ office, JTRS is losing momentum. Ron Jost, who is deputy assistant secretary of defense for command, control and communications, is said to champion a shift away from government-developed software radios, in favor of products that companies already have designed and prototyped.

A spokesman for both Grimes and Jost at the Pentagon did not respond to several requests for comment.

At the February meeting at the Pentagon, Bauman acknowledged that there had been much confusion about the definitions of “JTRS compliant” and “JTRS approved.” He warned that many products claim to be JTRS compliant but are not.

To be certified as a JTRS product, a radio has to demonstrate that it can run version 2.2 of the Defense Department’s software communications architecture. The radio’s encryption technology also has to be certified by the National Security Agency. Radios, additionally, must get approval from the Joint Interoperability Testing Center.

Bauman’s briefing charts stated that both the JEM and the PRC-152 meet “some of the criteria” but were still given waivers so they could be considered “JTRS approved.” Both were certified by the NSA.

Manufacturers insist that the proprietary radios they have developed for military use are not to be confused with non-encrypted commercial radios. Many commercial products are being used by the Defense Department, such as Motorola handheld radios. Some radios developed for the Pentagon that are also sold in the open market are not necessarily considered commercial products, one industry executive said.

Some company-funded proprietary products may look and feel like JTRS radios but are not exactly the same. Supporters of JTRS fear that military customers ultimately may not care where the product came from, as long as it does the job.

The two-channel handheld, two-channel manpack and small form-fit JTRS radios, for example, add up to 21,000 requirements, according to General Dynamics, one of the JTRS contractors. The most demanding specs are in the area of encryption and network security.

Those who back the adoption of vendors’ proprietary radios as substitutes for government-developed systems contend that this approach saves the Pentagon R&D dollars in the near term. But JTRS advocates worry that the end result will be a mishmash of radios that may or may not be able to talk to users across all services, as JTRS was originally envisioned.

Observers who follow the program closely view the current woes as symptomatic of a wider issue — the absence of a staunch advocate within the Defense Department. The original architects of JTRS, who saw it as a linchpin of a “network-centric” military, have long departed. And it still remains unclear whether JTRS can regain momentum.

Meanwhile, JTRS supporters and contractors are making the case that “success stories” are being ignored. General Dynamics C4 Systems, responsible for the handheld/manpack/small form fit (HMS) radios, recently announced it had delivered working prototypes to the Army.

General Dynamics displayed a two-channel JTRS manpack at an industry trade show in February. But even as the contractor is publicizing the JTRS program’s first manpack prototype, officials from Bauman’s office are considering offering a stopgap radio — the so-called SINCGARS “sidehat.” The single-channel ground and airborne radio system, made by ITT Corporation, is used for single-band VHF voice communications. The sidehat, as the name implies, is an appendage radio that would operate the networking waveform so users can also send and receive video, maps and other data.

The problem with the sidehat, industry sources said, is that it is so far only a concept. Some factions within the Army would like to adopt the sidehat because it would allow the service to piggyback on its large investment in SINCGARS. The Army already owns 400,000, and requested an additional $2 billion for SINCGARS radios in the 2007 and 2008 war-emergency budgets.

A number of Army officials who oppose the sidehat concept believe the service should back the next-generation JTRS manpack, even though it may not be ready for another five years. But as more funds get poured into SINCGARS, the lesser the chances that there will be enough money to buy the new joint tactical radios.

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