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National Defense > Blog > Posts > Budget Crunch Aside, Army Speeds Up Procurement of Mobile Battlefield Network
Budget Crunch Aside, Army Speeds Up Procurement of Mobile Battlefield Network
By Sandra I. Erwin

Eight combat brigades soon will be equipped with $65 million worth of new digital radios. Six more brigades are next in line.

Under the now-defunct Future Combat Systems program, it would have taken two decades to provide 14 brigades with a mobile tactical Internet, whereas the Army now promises that it can get it done within two years.

“It’s a new business model,” said Army Brig. Gen. John B. Morrison Jr., land war net mission command director. “Imaginative procurements is what we are doing,” he told a group of military contractors during a recent breakfast meeting in Arlington, Va.

Many of the Army’s big-ticket weapon acquisitions, including new combat vehicles and armed helicopters, are being postponed or are in danger of being terminated as a result of proposed cuts to the Pentagon’s budget. Battlefield communications systems are bucking that trend, according to Morrison. In an extensive PowerPoint briefing, he outlined the Army’s “agile procurement” plans for buying new radios, computers and advanced software to help commanders in war zones manage the massive flow of data across a brigade’s area of operations.

The first eight brigades will begin to receive the new equipment in October. The next six would follow sometime in 2014.

To circumvent the usually plodding military acquisition process, the Army has overhauled the way it tests hardware and software. It is soliciting direct advice from soldiers who use the equipment. Under traditional procurement methods, technologies get stuck in laboratories and program offices for years before real soldiers get a chance to evaluate them.

The fast-track method, known as “network integration evaluations,” or NIE, requires a pool of selected contractors to deploy their wares at White Sands Missile Range, N.M. So far the Army has hosted three NIE trials.

Several companies have complained that the Army has yet to make big-money procurements and that participating in NIEs can cost vendors millions of dollars. But Morrison countered that industry’s enthusiasm for NIEs has been overwhelming. The Army received 105 vendor proposals for the spring 2012 NIE, and 146 submissions for the one coming up this fall.

“Industry wants to play,” Morrison said.

He said the Army is in the market for several products. High on the wish list are network-management tools that would help consolidate the number of laptop computers that are required to monitor different pieces of the battlefield network.

“Net-ops is a mess,” said Morrison, using industry-speak for network operations. “If industry can help us anywhere it can help us with net-ops,” he said.

Even if a brigade is connected into a single tactical Internet, every radio type and model often comes with a dedicated net-ops tool, said Morrison. “None are integrated.” The upshot is that it could take 19 operators looking at 38 different computer screens to manage the brigade’s information systems, he said. “It is broken. If you can help us convert net-ops, it would be great.”

Jen Zbozny, division director at the Army’s program executive office for tactical command, control and communications, said the Army is working on net-ops standards that should help industry design new tools. Vendor proposals will be sought for upcoming NIE trials, Zbozny said in an interview. “We’re trying to get away from stovepipes in brigades.”

Other money-making opportunities for contractors will be in reengineering the latest communications gear so it can be installed in decades-old combat vehicles such as Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles. The Army’s most advanced mobile communications system, WIN-T Increment 2, has been set up to run in mine-resistant ambush protected armored trucks but not in the heavy combat-vehicle force. “We are out of whack in getting mission command on the move to our tanks and Bradleys,” Morrison said. “We don’t want our armored formations to be at a disadvantage. … Platform modernization and network modernization strategies were not aligned.”

Zbozny said it could take several years to modify older vehicles so they can be retrofitted with modern networking systems.

The Army also will be seeking cloud-computing technologies to help reduce the number of computer servers that units must bring to war. A study is now under way to use cloud-based technology in the Army’s intelligence-fusion terminal known as distributed common ground station. That system comes with a heavy hardware load, said Morrison. An infantry company might have to set up five servers, he noted. “We don’t want to push tons of infrastructure when we push the network.”

Despite Army officials’ assurances that the NIE is the end of business as usual, some vendors remain unconvinced.

Several suppliers said the Army has yet to prove that it is serious about opening up the market to outsider firms that are not involved in “programs of record.” The most vilified of the programs of record is the Joint Tactical Radio System, or JTRS. A decade after its inception, the Defense Department soured on JTRS over the past couple of years as costs soared and advances in commercial technology made many of the program requirements obsolete.

The Army decided last year to open the JTRS market to competitors. The JTRS program office announced it would select a new supplier of “mid-tier networking vehicular” radios in a competition that could begin next year. The MNVR would replace the now terminated “ground mobile radio” built by The Boeing Co. The GMR was hugely over budget and performed poorly in last year’s NIEs.

The Defense Department approved an Army request to shift $47 million in former GMR funds to kick-start MNVR. The Army also requested $86 million in fiscal year 2013 for procurement of vehicle-mounted radios. Until a new radio is selected, the Army plans to equip eight brigades with the Harris AN/PRC 117G, which has been in production for several years. Each brigade requires at least 40 to 50 radios to create a mobile network.

The vehicle radio procurement is being closely watched as a harbinger of change. Although the Army is seeking competing bids for new radio boxes, there are no plans to replace the JTRS software applications — known as waveforms — that run on the radios.

The Harris radios operate a company-owned waveform called ANW-2. But future MNVR must run the official JTRS software — the wideband networking waveform (WNW) and the soldier radio waveform (SRW) — in addition to the legacy combat net SINCGARS waveform.

“JTRS SRW and WNW is the model you’re really going to see,” Morrison said. “We have adopted those two waveforms as the standards waveforms for lower tactical communications,” he said. “We don’t care what box they ride on.”

Another piece of the JTRS program that the Army continues to support is the handheld Rifleman Radio, made by General Dynamics Corp. It has ordered 1,400 for each of the eight brigades that also are slated to receive the Harris radios. The Army's strong endorsement of JTRS waveforms has stirred speculation
 that the service could soon take over the management of the MNVR program, which currently is under the oversight of the JTRS Joint Program Executive Office, in San Diego. JPEO spokesman Jeff Mercer said there are currently no plans to transfer the program to the Army.

Companies that have sought to grab a share of the tactical radio market view decisions to stick with existing JTRS technology as a sign that the Army remains biased towards the status quo. Critics contend that the GMR program failed in part because of poor WNW performance.

“It is extremely tough to run a competition that is based on existing JTRS specs,” said Jeffrey A. Miller, director of tactical communications systems at The Raytheon Co.

The company has been gearing up to challenge WNW radios with its own Maingate (mobile ad hoc interoperability network gateway) radios that were developed with government and corporate funds.

Miller said that Raytheon and other non-incumbent vendors have interpreted the Army’s $47 million request as a rejection of non-JTRS alternatives.

“That flies in the face of what NIE was intended to do,” Miller said in an interview.

The Army is sending conflicting messages on how it plans to open the market to contenders, he said. On the one hand, it is shutting out non-JTRS waveforms. On the other, it is spending $7 million to $9 million to equip a battalion with Raytheon’s Maingate radios at the next NIE this fall.

Army spokesman Paul D. Mehney said the Army “will continue to evaluate Maingate mid-tier capabilities in the NIE process.”

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