Army’s Tactical Radio Procurement Remains Clouded in Confusion

By Sandra I. Erwin

Army officials face a January deadline to settle on a procurement strategy for new tactical radios that would give soldiers modern communications tools. Once the Pentagon approves the plan, the Army is expected to solicit industry bids for still-unknown quantities of handheld and backpack-size digital radios.

“The Army is finalizing the actions necessary to execute the competition, and plans to formally initiate the competition as soon as the acquisition strategy is received,” said Josh Davidson, a spokesman for the Army’s program executive office for command, control and communications.

The competition should be welcome news by manufacturers that have waited in the wings more than a year for the Army to decide how it will go about purchasing new radios. So far, radio suppliers seem more confused than enthused.

“The radio picture has been very hard to fathom,” said David Melcher president and CEO of Exelis, a manufacturer of tactical communications devices, including the ubiquitous single-channel combat net radio, or SINCGARS.

It is not yet clear how the Army plans to go about modernizing soldiers’ radios, Melcher said Dec. 3 at an investors’ conference hosted by Credit Suisse. The industry is becoming skeptical that a future competition will result in mass production of radios, Melcher said. Exelis expects more business to come from maintaining the existing half-million inventory of SINCGARS radios than from producing new ones, he noted.

The upcoming procurement of digital handheld — known as rifleman radios — and manpacks is rather unusual because these radios have been in low-rate production for years under the joint tactical radio system, or JTRS, program. The Army already has poured $8.5 billion into the development and low-rate production of handheld and manpack JTRS radios. The new competition is intended to bring non-incumbent vendors into the fold on the assumption that market forces will push down prices and spur innovation.

Separately, the Army is evaluating bids for “appliqué” mini-computers that would be installed in existing SINCGARS radios to give them capability to send and receive data, which is a requirement for all JTRS radios. JTRS radios must operate government-owned software applications, called “waveforms.” One is the SRW, or soldier radio waveform. The other is the WNW, or wideband networking waveform. The appliqué for SINCGARS would run the SRW waveform.

Melcher said he, like others in the industry, “wants to see JTRS succeed.” The program started out more than a decade ago as an ambitious effort to modernize the entire U.S. military radio inventory, but the only pieces that have survived are the manpack and rifleman radios, along with the waveforms. Melcher said he sees few opportunities for outside vendors that are not already JTRS contractors.

“I just see the odds are against it,” he said. Companies like Exelis now seek more lucrative opportunities to sell tactical radios outside the United States.

Although Army officials have maintained that the goal is to open up JTRS production to multiple vendors, the bulk of the funds in the near term will be spent on low-rate production of JTRS manpack radios made by a team of General Dynamics Corp. and Rockwell Collins.

A Dec 12. memo from defense acquisition chief Frank Kendall gives the Army the green light to order 1,500 additional manpack radios for the 82nd Airborne Division. He also approved a multivendor strategy for future buys of the JTRS family of handheld, manpack and small, form-fit, or HMS, radios. Kendall asked for an acquisition strategy to be sent to him within 14 days.

The Army so far has ordered approximately 5,600 manpack and 19,000 handheld rifleman radios under a $250 million low-rate production contract. General Dynamics also manufactures the rifleman radio in a partnership with Thales Defense.

The official explanation for Kendall’s decision to extend low-rate JTRS production with current vendors is that the Army needs to fill urgent needs of the 82nd Airborne Division. But industry sources said the more plausible justification is that the Army did not want the GD-Rockwell line to go cold. The companies finished producing the second low-rate production lot in late summer and had run out of work. The transition to full-rate production was expected to move more quickly, but the Army’s delays in formulating a politically acceptable strategy prompted the call to keep ordering radios from current vendors. This third low-rate production contract would keep the GD-Rockwell line warm for some time to come.

The lag in moving to full-rate production can be blamed on political dealings. The Army in April had proposed a single-vendor strategy to award full production in a winner-take-all competition. That sparked congressional backlash, notably from Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who charged that the single-vendor approach would favor GD and jeopardize the future of Rochester-based radio manufacturer Harris RF Corp. Schumer took up the issue with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and urged him to make the Army reverse course. In a Nov. 13 news release, Schumer boasted that his push led the Army to “finally create an even-playing field for companies like Rochester’s Harris RF to compete.”

Harris and other non-incumbent JTRS vendors feared that a winner-take-all five-year award, as the Army originally proposed, would put them at risk of being shut out of the market and force them to close down their plants. Consequently, fewer competitors would be available to bid the next time around.

Current JTRS vendors, which already won hard-fought competitions, obviously did not want a multi-vendor strategy. The original JTRS model called for selecting two manufacturers each for the rifleman and the manpack radios. But both companies would have to work together on development and would produce the same design. The new approach, by contrast, would permit multiple producers offering different products.  

The Army insists that it was the plan all along to have a “full and open competition,” said Davidson, the spokesman for the radio program office. The goal is to soon transition to full-rate production, he said.

Purchases of radios under low-rate production contracts continue while “simultaneously executing the competition for the next-generation full-rate production radios,” said Davidson. “It has always been the Army's intent to conduct a full and open competition, open to all industry partners,” he told National Defense. The Army supports a “multi-stage effort and a multiple-vendor approach aimed at lowering radio procurement costs while improving the networking radio capabilities that are delivered to soldiers.”

The potential scope of future contracts is still the subject of much speculation within the industry. Estimates put the total value of future orders at $750 million on as many as 120,000 rifleman radios, 71,000 manpack radios, 2,000 vehicular four-channel radios and 7,000 small airborne networking radios.

Melcher, whose company Exelis is among the expected competitors, said he is not confident that the JTRS program will ever produce massive quantities of radios. For industry, it is a question of whether the potential reward warrants the investment. “There are opportunities,” he said. “But I don't see more than a ‘slim’ fielding of JTRS. So we have to be careful how we pick our targets.”

Other concerns about the Army’s new plan have to do with the logic of buying radios from multiple vendors. Some retired military officers who have commanded units in the field cringe at the idea of having to train crews to operate and maintain equipment made by different manufacturers. That issue is particularly troublesome in vehicle-mounted radios, which require integration into trucks or armored personnel carriers, and demand more maintenance. “Multiple manpacks require multiple test and evaluations, logistics chains, training classes, carefully managed vehicle integrations,” said an industry source. The Army does not like the logistics problems this creates, the source said, but it is nonetheless moving forward with a multi-vendor approach because of outside pressures.

The multi-vendor strategy also might increase program costs, the source said. To accommodate multiple vendors, the Army might have to add $30 million to its estimated $400 million five-year budget for radio procurement to cover the costs of contract awards, competition test events, vehicle integration, sustainment, schedule and equipment changes.

Industry officials estimate that, under the revised plan, it could take a year for the HMS competition to kick into high gear. Meantime, the Army can claim some success in having replaced the most troubled component of the JTRS family, the ground-mobile radio, with a lower cost commercial radio made by Harris. Before it was terminated by the Pentagon, the four-channel ground-mobile radio was on pace to reach a half-million-dollar price tag. Its replacement, called the mid-tier networking vehicular radio, or MNVR, is a Harris two-channel Falcon III wideband radio dubbed VRC-118. The company beat three other competitors by offering the radio for an unprecedented price of $36,000, according to industry sources. Most of the other bidders’ radios were at least double that price.

The two-channel MNVR radio’s primary purpose is to link the lower and upper tactical Internet, and will run both the soldier radio waveform and the wideband networking waveform. The Army awarded Harris an $8.4 million contract for 232 radios to be tested this fall.

Since the selection of the Harris radio was announced in September, its competitors, not surprisingly, have privately questioned the Army’s decision. Harris did offer an unbeatable price, but critics wonder how the two-channel radios will fill a requirement that initially called for four channels. A maneuver commander may need at last two channels to pass and receive data up and down the chain of command using the wideband networking waveform, and two channels for voice communications, including the SINCGARS net. With a two-channel radio, one would have to be assigned to SINCGARS at the expense of one of the wideband waveforms.

Some of Harris’ competitors had bid two-channel radio systems that were smaller in order to allow space in the vehicle to keep the existing SINCGARS box. They wonder whether the Army will be compelled to buy double the number of Harris radios to be operationally compliant.

Army officials disagree. “The Army's mid-tier networking vehicular radio will not exclude a commander's use of their current SINCGARS capability,” said Col. Ralph Higgins, capability manager for tactical radios at the Army Training and Doctrine Command.

“If a commander has a current SINCGARS capability, they will continue to have a SINCGARS capability after MNVR is fielded,” he said in a statement to National Defense.

Higgins explained that the MNVR radio and SINCGARS perform different functions and are not linked systems. The new Harris radios, he said, will come with the SINCGARS, SRW, and WNW waveforms, “even though we don't envision using SINCGARS on the MNVR radio.”

Davidson said the Harris radios will be tested in multiple vehicles, and will “help inform the Army on the mid-tier radio requirements and capabilities.”

It could take time for the Army to fix the kinks in a network that has both new radios and legacy systems, the industry source said. “This will play out in the trenches, platform by platform.” With vehicle radios, these things are harder to do because of size, weight and power constraints.

Many companies in the military radio business will be looking to 2014 as a make-or-break year when they expect the Army to make key decisions. One is how to live up to promises of opening up the market to vendors that are not incumbent contractors in “programs of record.” The launch of so-called network integration evaluations, or NIE, in 2011 was billed as an attempt to do away with the business-as-usual approach that led to the collapse of the ground-mobile radio and put the entire JTRS program on the brink. Agile testing and acquisition was the hallmark of NIE. On the testing side, the evaluations have been hugely successful as they ensure that soldiers are able to review the equipment before it is fielded. But the NIE has been a financial drain for many contractors that spent millions of dollars to deploy hardware and staff at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., but have not scored any sales.  

The Army requested $193.7 million for NIE events in fiscal year 2014. Officials have said they intend to revamp the evaluations in order to address industry’s concerns.

“My disappointment, as a former Army officer, has been that those experiments have not led to any meaningful production whatsoever,” Melcher said. “I told the Army leadership that businesses will not continue to invest in something that is just a series of science experiments and not leading to real production.”

Topics: C4ISR, Tactical Communications, Combat Vehicles, Defense Contracting, Procurement, Land Forces, Test and Evaluation

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