Industry Ready to Pounce on Embattled Radio Programs

By Eric Beidel

After nearly two decades and billions of dollars spent, the Joint Tactical Radio System, once a grand plan to build do-it-all radios common to the military services, is in a state of flux.

The program office has closed up shop and shifted responsibility to the Army, which will try to pick up the pieces and forge ahead with a coherent acquisition strategy. The problem is that nothing about JTRS up to this point has been easy, especially not in recent months.

Development of a ground mobile radio (GMR) has been cancelled in favor of seeking industry bids for a new mid-tier networking vehicular radio (MNVR). Officials also are starting from scratch with an airborne and maritime fixed station (AMF) program after nixing an initial effort to make radios for Apache helicopters and other aircraft.

Both those efforts are looking to the commercial market to deliver the goods rather than repeating lengthy and expensive in-house development programs. Sandwiched between the airborne and vehicle radios are two pieces of the JTRS puzzle designed to bring the individual soldier into the battlefield network. These handheld, manpack and small-form (HMS) items have generated most of the drama lately and also are prime targets for a growing commercial market that promises to deliver more for less, sooner.

“The commercial technology in this field is evolving so quickly you really can’t spend eight years building a radio,” said Dave Prater, vice president for networked communications at ITT Exelis, which has a product aimed at the rifleman radio effort and has teamed with Northrop Grumman on a bid for the new MNVR. “It’s old before it hits the streets.”

General Dynamics C4 Systems is the prime contractor for the backpack-sized, two-channel manpack radio and the handheld “rifleman radio,” which aims to provide mobile, voice and data communications to soldiers on the front lines in much the same way information is exchanged over commercial cellular networks. General Dynamics has teamed with Thales Communications Inc. on the HMS program.

The Army has bought 19,000 rifleman radios, which work in tandem with smartphones to allow soldiers to communicate via voice and video and track their positions while on the move. The service ultimately wants to purchase 193,279 of them. A full-rate production contract will be up for grabs by General Dynamics, Thales and vendors outside the program of record, according to an acquisition decision memorandum issued in July by Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.

The Army expects to make that award toward the end of fiscal year 2013.

The manpack radio, made for use by either dismounted or mounted troops, is another story. An acquisition decision regarding it has been on hold since a July memo from Pentagon Director of Operational Test and Evaluation J. Michael Gilmore described the radio as not operationally effective or suitable.

The manpack displayed a lack of range and “poor, garbled and unintelligible” voice quality when running the single channel ground and airborne radio system (SINCGARS) waveform, Gilmore wrote. During a Network Integration Evaluation in May at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., and Fort Bliss, Texas, troops could not consistently communicate by voice with their higher battalion headquarters. The infantry company commander had to resort to satellite-based chat on his blue-force tracker to communicate with headquarters. Additionally, the commander was not able to talk with fire support and Apache helicopters flying nearby.

The manpack performed well when running soldier radio waveform (SRW) but ran into trouble again when using the ultra-high frequency satellite communications (UHF-SATCOM) waveform, Gilmore noted.

The radio became too hot for soldiers to remove it from its protective carrier and took 20 to 25 minutes to power up and download pertinent files and cryptographic keys, the memo stated. Troops said it was too easy to inadvertently “zero” the radio, forcing them to wait another 20 to 25 minutes to power it up again. They also complained about its weight and integrating it onto the mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicle.

A re-test of the manpack had been scheduled to take place in Fort Huachuca, Ariz., in late September, after which an acquisition decision would be made. The Army could purchase between 3,000 and 4,000 through a low-rate initial production order. Eventually, an open competition would be held to reach full production of 50,000 radios.

The issues detailed in the Gilmore memo have been taken care of, said Chris Marzilli, president of General Dynamics C4 Systems. A successful test in July after the Network Integration Evaluation showed that the discrepancies had been corrected, he said, though those results were not included in Gilmore’s review.

No matter how temporary, the problems have added fuel to the fire. Other companies have been critical of the program’s performance and want in on the action. They say the JTRS HMS program has had several years to produce a workable solution, and now it’s time for the Army to quite literally test the marketplace.

Two of these companies, Harris RF Communications and ITT Exelis, together submitted an unsuccessful bid back in 2004 to develop and deliver a host of small-form factor, manpack and handheld radios. Those deliveries were supposed to take place by 2009, Prater said.

“Here we are in 2012 and they’re still struggling to deliver anything,” he said. “We’ve done what we said we would do in that [2004] proposal. We’ve built our own radios.”

So has Harris, which in October will unveil products based on the manpack and rifleman radio requirements. These devices are the result of a fast-moving commercial marketplace adjusting to standards set by the military, and they will be less expensive than price points set forth in the program of record — about $5,800 for a rifleman radio and $56,000 for manpack, according to industry experts.

“That’s the model we all need to move to,” said Dennis Moran, vice president at Harris. “Who would pay to develop a computer or a cell phone? The government simply has to establish standards and waveforms and have industry go to work developing products that meet those standards.”

A step in this direction may be the Pentagon’s decision to close the JTRS program office and transition its duties to the Army and a Joint Tactical Networking Center. This new office appears as if it would be responsible for developing waveforms and establishing standards for both program-of-record and commercial devices.

The Defense Department has invested significant resources in developing software-defined radios, communications architecture and openly shared waveforms, Kendall wrote in a July 11 memo. “These developments have fostered the emergence of competitive markets to deliver radios to meet service requirements.”

The rifleman radio could have multiple vendors in response to evolving requirements and new commercial capabilities, Kendall wrote. He suggested forming an acquisition strategy that addresses criteria to evaluate potential sources for radios within and independent of the program of record.

The commercial market will spawn products that not only meet the requirements, but at a cost more attractive to an Army looking to save money, Moran said.

“The whole tactical radio space is changing and I believe it’s changing for the better,” he said. “And companies will fight tooth and nail to keep products state of the art. If you allow this commercial model, you’re going to see that innovation and companies meeting that requirement quicker.”

Testing environments, such as the NIE, already exist to evaluate which commercial products meet the government’s standards. Kendall’s memo stated that officials would have to identify what is necessary for an outsider radio to qualify against the minimum requirements, as well as establish a timeline for them to be included in NIE events.

“The NIE has given us a sanctioned testing environment, but the government has to define the technical architecture and ruthlessly enforce it so only companies that meet the standards can compete,” Moran said. “It’s a win-win situation and it gets the competitive juices flowing.”

Marzilli agreed, to a point. As far as competition goes, “bring it,” he said.

“We won the program of record full and open against the same people that now want to offer their products,” he said. “Don’t dilute the requirements, that’s all we ask. If it doesn’t fit the form factor or waveform or number of channels in a package, don’t dumb down to meet the market.”

General Dynamics officials in the spring expressed concern that opening the door to other competitors could result in less stringent requirements. They were referring to competitor radios being slightly larger than called for or missing the mark on volume requirements. The contractors involved in the program of record have done the heavy lifting, and if anything, the requirements should become even tighter now, Marzilli said.

“There are a few players that have decent radios that have served the fighting force, but they are not evolved and haven’t kept pace with miniaturization, waveform development and security channels,” he said. “The program of record goes through the ringer. It’s not ad-hoc.”

Commercial investment in military radios hasn’t reached the scale of that accomplished within the program, Marzilli said.

Some commercial radios may fall short of certain requirements but provide benefits in other areas, Prater said. “If you were a cubic inch larger than the requirement but $3,000 cheaper, is that a good trade?”

In the case of the rifleman radio, Exelis’ offering doesn’t meet the volume requirements, “but at the same time, our radio has a higher security level,” Prater said. “They can say ‘lower the bar,’ but in some areas it’s actually raising the bar.”

Other JTRS programs have been cancelled in favor of “going commercial,” Prater noted. The handheld and manpack effort has had just as many problems, yet it is still being supported, he said. “I think most of industry would say, ‘Stop that and go commercial.’”

General Dynamics officials agree increased competition ultimately will present the Army with a better buy. “It’s the best thing for the government and the best thing to get a new price,” Marzilli said.

“But let’s do it with apples to apples.”

For more on selling to the Army, check out "No Stranger to Scrutiny, New Truck Program Forges Ahead."

Photo Credit: General Dynamics

Topics: Defense Department, Procurement

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