Tactical Radios: Military Procurement Gone Awry

By Dan Ward

For those who aren’t familiar with the Joint Tactical Radio System, it is the Joint Strike Fighter of the radio world, an attempt to build an omni-purpose communications network that can do everything but wash your windows.

What it actually delivered after 15 years and $6 billion was little more than a large invoice.

The Army cancelled the JTRS Ground Mobile Radio (GMR) in October, via a kung fu smack down in the form of a letter from Frank Kendall, the undersecretary of defense for acquisitions, technology and logistics. The letter explained the technical challenges were “not well understood due to the immaturity of technology at that time.” It then concluded that it is unlikely that “products resulting from the JTRS GMR development program will affordably meet service requirements, and may not meet some requirements at all.”

In Internet speak, that translates to: Radio development: You’re doin’ it wrong.

As an Army official told a reporter, what happened with JTRS GMR is that “We tried to make it better and better and better.”

And that, my friends, was the heartbreaking problem.

To be specific, the problem is rooted in the way project leaders defined “better” over a decade and a half. They seemed to mistake it for a synonym of “more.” It’s closer to the truth to say “better” is a synonym for “less.”

How exactly did the Army go about making the radio better and better? By increasing its complexity, extending the schedule, spending more money and making the device larger. Engineers continuously added features and functions and capabilities on paper, all of which made the design worse and made the users wait.

Vaporware much?

During the program’s 15-year lifespan there were no doubt thousands of participants who contributed to the morass.

In 2005 the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported the “number of drawings has nearly tripled” in the two years after full-scale development was approved.

That’s right, the blueprint quantity tripled, two years after development received the green light. And it should be noted that the number of JTRS radios in the hands of users did not go up by a factor of three during this time. That number stayed at zero. That’s profound change pretty late in the game. It’s also a lot of additional features, parts and functions.

How did these changes affect the radio itself? Well, the GMR eventually weighed in at 207 pounds, “several times the weight of existing radios” and solidly in professional boxing’s heavyweight class. My professional engineering judgment tells me most of the weight came from the big, big, oh-so-big buckets of fail strapped to the side of the thing.

GAO said testing was delayed by a year. And then another year. And since that strategy was working so well for everyone, the testing was delayed by a third year. All this on a program that, again according to the GAO, “is proceeding under an accelerated strategy.” What sort of accelerated strategy is consistent with constant delays, you might ask? A strategy that “does not allow for testing the radio’s full functionality before initial low-rate production begins.” The Internet meme “seems legit” was invented precisely for strategies like this.

Despite spending $6 billion over 15 years, the Army failed to produce much in the way of actual radios. Since soldiers inexplicably still wanted to communicate with each other, the Army ended up buying $11 billion worth of equipment cleverly named “old-style radios” for use in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It gets worse. Brace yourself.

Having already spent $17 billion, the Army may have to pay out billions of dollars more to get the radios it needs.

How does this happen?

Easy. It happens when we set out to build a universal system that is based on contradictory requirements instead of a focused system predicated on a technically and operationally coherent vision.

It happens when we decide that more is better, rather than insisting on restraint and making the hard decisions about which capabilities are true requirements and which are frivolous.

It happens when we pay lip service to simplicity while simultaneously indulging an endless appetite for requirements porn — It will handle every legacy mobile ad-hoc networking waveform as well as every future waveform. It will have a wide-spectrum amplifier. It will be compatible with everything U.S. forces and allies use.

As the Army tried to make JTRS better and better it actually was making it worse. In the meantime, other manufacturers independently upgraded their existing radios by increments and actually did make them better, and fielded them.

In an October interview with Defense Systems, Brig. Gen. Michael Williamson, the joint program executive officer for JTRS, explained the results of a Network Integration Evaluation conducted earlier that year. Nine days before GMR was cancelled, Williamson put a brave face on the exercise results, saying it “did all the things that we were looking for.”

But then the details came out.

With commendable honesty, Williamson acknowledged the radios couldn’t handle the desert heat and had to be shut down.

Sadly, the radio’s problems are not limited to the absence of a huge refrigeration system — which certainly could have been added given a little more time and money.

The NIE exercise highlighted the uncomfortable fact that soldiers might sometimes have to send critical messages during a fight. An impatient lot, they may not be terribly excited about waiting 10 minutes for the radio to run through a slow series of boot-up processes and waveform initiations.

This wasn’t a problem with previous, simpler radios.

The soldiers expected a straightforward radio, like what they had before, where they could click a button and start talking. Instead, they received a radio whose “level of sophistication” was out of alignment with their needs. I am pretty sure there’s a lesson to be learned here.

If someone were to make a television commercial for the GMR, it would undoubtedly include a line about sophistication being worth the wait. Except in combat, sometimes you really can’t wait. Too bad the GMR was supposed to go to war, because it would apparently be a pretty sweet system in an environment where the temperature and operational tempo are both low.

Since GMR couldn’t handle high temperatures and couldn’t send messages in a timely manner, one might reasonably ask if the system truly exhibited a higher level of capability than the legacy radio. Wouldn’t such shortcomings qualify as a lower level of capability?

It’s important to understand the JTRS concept actually includes a wide range of radios, the GMR being just one piece. All those different radios are supposed to talk to each other, but as Williamson explained, the exercise identified some “disconnects between various products, as an example between GMR and Rifleman Radio using SRW [Soldier Radio Waveform].”

Uncovering disconnects like this is why we do exercises in the first place, so let’s call that a win. But 15 years into the development — and nine days before it gets cancelled — is a little late in the game to be talking in terms of ASAP.

When an acquisition program fails, it’s important to take a hard look at what happened and see if there are any lessons to be learned. What wisdom might we glean from the GMR story? I suggest this experience shows that adding time, money, weight and complexity didn’t make the system better. It hardly ever does.

In its well-intentioned quest for simplicity, the JTRS team failed to understand what simplicity is really all about. Yes, having one radio is simpler than having 10, but not if that one radio tries to incorporate every single feature and capability of the previous 10, plus new stuff nobody ever dreamed of. In this case, the result was actually more complicated, not less, and the operational result did not satisfy the users.

Delays tend to correlate with increased complexity, and when the delivery schedule continues to slip, it’s hardly ever because we’ve made the thing too darn simple.

The result of this approach is inevitably something worse, not better. In the case of JTRS GMR, the final product was far less than the sum of its parts.

What did the Army require? Soldiers need to be able to communicate securely while on the move. Easier said than done, but it’s certainly a reasonable, feasible request.

Technology marches on, and soldiers still need to communicate, so the Army will have to do something. Thankfully, wiser heads prevailed. Along with cancelling GMR, Kendall’s letter called for an off-the-shelf procurement strategy “with a low cost, reduced size, weight and power variant.”

Then, to make sure everything is absolutely clear, the letter offers this parenthetical translation: “A smaller, more affordable radio.” Such a clarification should not be necessary.

The letter goes on to explain that for this smaller, more affordable radio, “minimum required capabilities were reviewed and adjusted. Key waveforms were reduced from seven to two.”

Now we’re talking. Simple, focused, affordable and restrained. That is a much better foundation than the JTRS GMR team’s previous trajectory, and it creates the possibility that the story may eventually have a happy ending. Here’s hoping the team will stay true to this new direction. A smaller and better radio will end up contributing more to the fight than it’s designed to do. Soldiers are clever that way.

At the very least, the new radio will do something. That alone would make it better.

Lt. Col. Dan Ward is an active duty acquisitions officer in the U.S. Air Force, currently deployed to ISAF HQ in Kabul, Afghanistan. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the
Air Force or Department of Defense.

Topics: C4ISR, Tactical Communications

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