For the Army’s Joint Tactical Radio System, It’s 'Do or Die' Time
JTRS was launched 15 years ago as the military’s next-generation digital voice-and-data radio. It includes a mix of PC-like radios and software applications, known as waveforms. The program, which is designed to supply radios to all branches of the U.S. military, has a troubled history of technical setbacks, budget overruns and schedule delays. In recent years, it has gained Army support as the service strives to build an advanced wireless communications network for deployed forces.
At the “network integration exercise” that is under way at White Sands, the focus is on two critical waveforms: the SRW (soldier radio waveform) and WNW (wideband networking waveform). Also under evaluation are JTRS radio devices: the Ground Mobile Radio, or GMR (a four-channel voice and data radio) and the HMS (handheld, manpack, small form). The HMS manpack is a two-channel backpack-size radio. The handheld, called the “rifleman radio,” is a single--channel device.
Interviews with exercise officials and soldiers participating in the combat drills this week reveal that JTRS is scoring points in some areas, and earning poor grades in others. Overall, the NIE event is seen as an sink-or-swim moment for the program.
One bright spot is the WNW software, which appears to have overcome serious snags that surfaced a year ago during an Army network test. WNW is regarded as a “must have” technology for future tactical networks because it allows high-speed high-volume data transmissions up and down the chain of command.
“WNW is working well,” said Capt. Kevin DeWitt, commander of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 35th Armored Regiment. The issue of concern about WNW appears to be not the software, but the radio box. So far it only runs on the GMR radio, which received less than positive reviews during the evaluation. Adding to its troubles, GMR is hugely over budget and its future is in peril. Performance-wise, several soldiers noted that GMR is too big, too complex and drains far too much energy, when compared to other radios.
“It does require a lot of power,” DeWitt told National Defense during a visit to Alpha company’s simulated combat outpost. The GMR that is running aboard DeWitt’s mobile command post can only stay on for 30 minutes to an hour before it completely drains the vehicle’s battery, he said. That is is usually not enough time to complete many of the needed data transmissions. “I would prefer a radio that doesn’t [cause me] to have to idle the vehicle consistently,” DeWitt said.
Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli observed the interior of the company commander’s mobile tactical command post during a June 28 visit to Alpha company. Chiarelli is a strong supporter of the WNW waveform, and is pushing the JTRS program office to field it as soon as possible. But Chiarelli said the Army should seek a better and cheaper alternative to GMR. He predicts that other options will come along. “It needs to be reengineered,” Chiarelli said. He is confident that several companies are working to fill this need. So far, however, no manufacturer (GMR is made by The Boeing Co.) has demonstrated that it can run the WNW software on a non-GMR radio. Because of the complexity of the technology, uncertainty about the future of JTRS and the cost of engineering a radio to run WNW, many contractors are waiting to see how far the Army takes this waveform before they commit research-and-development dollars, industry sources said. Companies such as Northrop Grumman and Harris Corp. are expected to propose GMR alternatives.
Chiarelli told National Defense that he is encouraged by the improvements that he has seen in WNW since a year ago, and that the box is a relatively simple problem to fix.
There are 47 GMR radios deployed for the field exercise across tactical operations centers, vehicles and even an aerostat, where the radio functions as the “aerial layer” of the brigade’s communications network.
Feedback from soldiers is leading JTRS officials to conclude that a GMR replacement might not require a four-channel radio. With a price tag of $500,000 to a million dollars per radio, any competing options would have to be much less costly. Bill Seiss, from Harris Corp., said the company is demonstrating at NIE its own wideband waveform as a WNW competitor, called the ANW-2. It runs on Harris’ AN/PRC-117G digital radio. For the test, Harris is deploying a 30-node configuration of the ANW-2, which is the same size network that WNW would support. Seiss said Harris’ waveform is being used on 3,000 radios by U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The company has offered to turn over the intellectual property rights of ANW-2 to the U.S. government if the program office decided to make ANW-2 an official JTRS waveform, said Seiss. The company also is weighing whether it should spend the funds to integrate the WNW waveform into its 117G radios.
Chiarelli’s vehement endorsement of WNW appears to be sending a message to contractors to get on board, said Navy Captain Jeff Hoyle, JTRS network enterprise domain program manager. “WNW is ready,” Hoyle said in an interview during the NIE at the tactical operations center of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division. “Chiarelli has been very clear that these are the waveforms that we are going to use,” Hoyle said. “Industry is recognizing that now.”
The other waveform that the Army wants is the SRW. Compared to traditional FM line-of-sight radios, SRW-equipped radios are more sophisticated because they create a self-healing “mobile ad-hoc” network, which distributes data like the Internet.
Soldiers of Charlie Troop, 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, said that SRW has not functioned as advertised in the JTRS manpack radios, but it performed better than expected in the handheld rifleman radios.
Hoyle said some of the glitches cited by soldiers do not reflect any major flaws in SRW but point to the need for more training and learning about the system’s features. For the network to get the full benefit of SRW, for instance, it should be combined with WNW, Hoyle said. If a unit is only using SRW, it is not seeing the complete capability, he said.
On the hardware side, it was the General Dynamics-made JTRS manpack radio that bore the brunt of the criticism. Soldiers told Chiarelli that the 16-pound radio and the battery packs are too heavy to be used by dismounted soldiers, and that the radio frequently overheats. The two-channel JTRS manpack is overkill for dismounted use, unit members said. A soldier who is out of his vehicle and has to carry everything on his back is not going to be interested in a large radio with a satellite-communications channel that requires him to spend hours setting up the sat-com dish. A dismounted soldier also would be unlikely to have the time or the ability to monitor two networks. The manpack radio, soldiers said, would be a better fit as a vehicle-mounted system.
Charlie Troop soldiers, meanwhile, gave the handheld device, also made by General Dynamics, rave reviews. If every soldier in a platoon had one, they said, the commander would have “complete situational awareness.”
The rifleman radio is emerging as a big winner in the JTRS program. The Pentagon recently authorized purchase of up to 6,250 units, but only 100 manpacks. SRW also is gaining traction. It will be expanded into more radio devices, Hoyle said, as more companies are now spending their own funds to integrate SRW into radios, including Harris, Northrop Grumman and ITT Corp.
Based on NIE tests and user input, it appears that JTRS will be kept alive for some time, if only because of the value of its waveforms. In fiscal year 2011, the program received nearly $800 million. For 2012, the Defense Department requested $635 million.