Army Tactical Radios: The Struggle Continues
By Sandra I. Erwin
Following a decade of fits and starts trying to produce soldier-friendly wireless devices, the Army is seeking bids for two new radios in hopes of opening up the market to newcomers and compelling contractors to lower their prices.
Army officials have long predicted a surge of innovation in the tactical radio market, spurred by vigorous competition and an influx of nontraditional vendors. Yet for all the wishful thinking, the Army’s radio modernization program has yet to get off the ground.
Although the Army promises to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on new radios in the coming years, reenergizing the radio market and motivating companies to invest in new products will be an uphill battle. One reason is that the Army has yet to settle on what specific features its radios should have and how they should be deployed across the force. For companies, this means making risky gambles on products that the Army may not ultimately buy.
Blame this uncertainty on the Army’s own confusion about its future. A new motto, “winning in a complex world,” has prompted sweeping reviews of all procurement programs in order to identity how the Army should equip soldiers in 2025. Officials continue to champion the need for modern wireless systems for deployed soldiers, but they don’t believe they have a solid plan yet to make that happen.
Leaders such as Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who heads the Army Capabilities Integration Center, have been emphatic that building a new tactical communications network is important, but caution that the primary goal is “getting the network right.”
The Army is determined to innovate but first it has to figure out how to tap emerging technology, said Undersecretary of the Army Brad Carson. “It's really hard to get that requirements process right,” he said April 1 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
In the tactical communications arena, the Army has fallen short in part because it conceived grandiose visions of how technology would develop that didn’t materialize.
“The challenge for us is that we have to make a decision of what the future looks like and plan for that,” Carson said. “One has to have a vision of future warfare and decide [what equipment] is going to be used for,” he said. “If you can’t agree on that, all acquisition programs become questionable.”
Digital radios and networking software that provide reliable voice and data communications, have long battery life and function in austere combat zones have been a holy grail for more than a decade, and the equipment that has been fielded so far has not met expectations.
Two major procurements the Army is embarking on include a handheld single-channel rifleman radio and a larger two-channel manpack for use both in vehicles and by dismounted troops. These radios started out as part of a much bigger program, the joint tactical radio system, that sought to produce radios for all branches of the military. The effort didn’t pan out and later became an Army-centered program called HMS (handheld, manpack and small form fit).
Since the outset of HMS in 2004, the goal has been to acquire nearly 200,000 handheld radios and more than 60,000 "manpacks" over the next two decades. The Army requested $64 million in fiscal year 2016 for HMS radios. In later years, the Army would spend $40 million to $50 million annually on rifleman radios, and $250 million to $300 million on manpacks.
Most contractors would consider these numbers attractive, but the continuing uncertainty about what specific features the Army wants in its future radios and how many it will buy have put a damper on the HMS program.
Only two firms — Harris RF Communications and Thales Defense — appear to be serious contenders for rifleman radio production contracts. Harris, which soon will acquire a competitor in the radio market Exelis, will challenge General Dynamics and possibly other firms for manpack orders.
The Army said it intends to buy wireless technologies for its tactical networks from commercial vendors, but the radio market will remain solidly dominated by established defense firms. As one industry insider put it, "Any vision of a green-colored 'Best Buy' seems implausible."
In a surprising development last month, the manufacturer of the first generation rifleman radio, General Dynamics Corp., decided to not bid for the contract to produce a new version. The decision was first reported by Inside the Army and confirmed by a company spokeswoman. General Dynamics will stay involved in the manpack market. The company also is the prime contractor for the Army’s multibillion-dollar deployable tactical communications infrastructure.
The rifleman radio would in theory be a lucrative opportunity, even if orders were reduced as a result of Army troop cuts. According to one Army plan under consideration, only team and squad leaders would be issued rifleman radios, which could sharply reduce the number that was originally forecast. There also has been much second-guessing about the rifleman radio's usefulness because it is a one-channel device. In field exercises over the past several years, team and squad leaders have suggested that what they really need is a two-channel handheld radio for voice and data communications. Vendors believe the Army eventually will phase out the current rifleman radio in favor of a two-channel version.
Indecision has been a constant in the Army's effort to field a new generation of battlefield networks and software reconfigurable radios, noted industry consultant Loren Thompson, of the Lexington Institute. This initiative, he said, has been "shifting and shrinking for the better part of a decade as service leaders keep rethinking what it is that they really want."
General Dynamics’ exit from the handheld radio program is seen as a smart move by the company. It would have required a large investment for GD to compete in a market that is largely owned by Thales and Harris. The Army’s contracting strategy for acquiring these radios also would be a concern for any company because of the risk involved. The plan is to acquire small batches of radios from bidders and keep re-competing every five years. This may not motivate companies to spend corporate R&D dollars knowing that they can get kicked out of the program before they recoup their investment. Contractors also could be exposed to future cuts in rifleman radio orders as the Army continues to review its needs. The Army said full-rate production would begin in 2017, but a lot could change in the next two years, including the possibility that the rifleman radio transitions to a two-channel model or the likelihood that the Army might conclude that prices are still not low enough to justify a large buy.
The Army has bought 11,000 rifleman radios from a General Dynamics-Thales team in low-rate production orders over several years. The new solicitation for the full-rate production deal requires a different radio, equipped with a panel display instead of buttons. This was a feature that soldiers had been requesting for years. Competitors would have to design a radio at their own expense and submit it for qualification tests. The qualified vendors would then go head-to-head for follow-on orders based on price. This almost guarantees that no new companies will jump into the competition, an industry insider said. "The notion that vendors would repeatedly invest to innovate and compete is very hard to realize" even if the Army imagined it could qualify multiple vendors and create a sizeable marketplace.
Paul Mehney, spokesman for the program executive officer for command, control and communications-tactical that oversees the HMS radio procurement, said the Army will continue to drive competition in the radio market.
The rifleman radio program was designed to encourage new vendors to enter the field, he told National Defense. “Every five years we'll take a look at re-competing," he added. "We want to ensure we have a vibrant marketplace and that radio vendors continue to innovate."
But if only two companies enter the fray, does the Army consider that a "vibrant" marketplace? Mehney said it is too soon to tell. "Our desire is to have as many vendors as possible compete."
Tom Kirkland, senior director of defense programs at Thales Defense and Security, said the company is upbeat about the rifleman radio program. It will be competing independently as General Dynamics opted to drop out.
"We are excited about the rifleman radio competition," he said. "There are objective requirements for a multichannel radio which are very exciting to us, as we have an NSA certified two-channel radio." He said Thales considers this a lucrative market. "The objective requirements incentivize industry to participate. It still is an attractive market for anyone that's in the tactical radio industry. We are looking at the budget numbers and we think they're trending in the right direction." If the Army wants to refresh technology every five years, "Thales believes that without any significant changes to our radio architecture we're going to be able to meet future technology refresh needs, like higher throughput, longer battery life and increased range."
Dennis Moran, vice president of government business development at Harris RF Communications, believes the Army is going down the right path. “Absolutely there is a viable tactical radio marketplace that is competitive and innovative,” he told National Defense. “These radio competitions represent the new non-developmental item standard in which companies invest their own R&D dollars.” The caveat is that vendors will need to make sure they can sell their products to other customers outside the Army in order to recoup their investment, Moran said. “If a company is going to develop a product using this commercial model, it is certainly going to try and maximize and innovate upon that investment by ensuring features that appeal to more than one customer."
A draft request for proposals will be released next week for the manpack radio, Army officials said. The plan on the books remains to buy about 62,000, but there is still significant churn in the program because soldiers have complained that the current radio made by General Dynamics and Rockwell Collins is too heavy and has low battery endurance. Each company has produced about 2,000 radios.
Negative soldier evaluations over the past two years prompted the Army to revise the manpack specs, so vendors are still waiting to see the final requirement before they take the plunge. “We are assessing our future role while the Army reviews its requirements,” said Dave Gosch, Rockwell Collins spokesman.
Mehney said the Army will host an "industry day" in April to provide further details on the manpack radio, and expects to issue a final RFP this summer. He insisted that, contrary to recent media reports, the Army is only buying one manpack model for both vehicle and dismounted use. The 17-pound radio is adequate for installation in vehicles but needs to be at least five pounds lighter for use by dismounted troops, according to soldier feedback.
The PEO C3T has sent out eight "requests for information" asking companies about the possibility of designing a smaller manpack at their expense, as the Army is not prepared to fund the development of a lighter radio. "We are pulsing industry. We are asking if the marketplace would potentially support a lighter manpack, increased battery power and increased range,” said Mehney. "We believe innovation will drive solutions," he said. "We don't' want to be wedded to a long-term development program. We want to see where industry can innovate and drive solutions. We believe a market exists for that."
The prospect of costly development and doubts about the Army’s long-term plans have given some companies pause. Suppliers like Harris and General Dynamics have a strong presence in the manpack market and would have a leg up on other competitors. Thales is undecided. "We are tracking the manpack program very closely," said Kirkland. "We'll continue to track it and decide if there's an opportunity for us in the marketplace. It's obviously an attractive market, but an adjacent market for us."
Because manpack radios are big-ticket items and potentially more profitable, other manufacturers of military radios that are used on ships and airplanes — such as Northrop Grumman or Raytheon — could decide to enter the fray.
Although the radio market will stay in the hands of traditional defense contractors, the Army intends to rely on commercial suppliers for products like 4G LTE cellular networks as it tries to equip tactical command centers with secure Wi-Fi.