Army's Tactical Network Faces Fiscal, Political Hurdles
But manufactures worry that the Army’s plan to equip soldiers with modern information technology faces high fiscal and political hurdles.
No company has more at stake in this effort than General Dynamics Corp., which supplies the “backbone” of the Army’s network, known as the “war fighter information network-tactical,” or WIN-T. General Dynamics also received a contract to produce handheld and backpack-size digital radios under the joint tactical radio system, or JTRS, program.
General Dynamics’ leaders are mobilizing congressional delegations from 27 states that represent WIN-T’s 90 subcontractors, in a bid to protect the program from sequester cuts that Congress mandated under the 2011 Budget Control Act. Company officials were on Capitol Hill this week on a mission to persuade lawmakers that the money that already was appropriated for the Army’s network should not be traded off to fill gaps in the defense budget.
Worries about network-procurement funds being targeted for cuts were stirred by reports that the Pentagon will be seeking to reprogram billions of dollars from its 2013 budget to pay a $22 billion shortfall in its operations and maintenance accounts. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the Senate Armed Services Committee that a reprogramming request is imminent. The Pentagon must cut spending by $41 billion before Sept. 30.
General Dynamics’ officials believe that they can make a convincing case that taking money from WIN-T or JTRS is both bad for the troops and for the industrial base. "Reject reprogramming,” said one of several briefing charts distributed on Capitol Hill.
Many decision makers in Washington don’t grasp the implications of taking money from these tactical network programs, said Chris Marzilli, president of General Dynamics C4 Systems. This program would allow soldiers deployed in combat zones, for the first time, to give up their push-to-talk, line-of-sight radios and, instead, have modern devices to talk, text, chat and send pictures without the need for cellular infrastructure or fixed-site command centers. Soldiers at the squad level would be connected to commanders riding in vehicles and to higher levels of command. Soldiers in a squad would be connected to each other and be able to report their positions automatically, which would help prevent fratricide.
It has taken more than a decade to develop this technology and budget cuts could significantly delay its deployment, Marzilli said April 18 in an interview at General Dynamics’ Washington office. “We are educating people on the maturity of this network,” he said. “[Tactical network] money should be protected.”
The company also is reminding lawmakers that, as is the case with most big-ticket military procurements, the Army’s network creates lots of jobs. “All politics are local, Marzilli said. If Army network budgets were cut, he said, hundreds of manufacturing jobs in states such as Arizona, Massachusetts and Maryland would be at risk.
Army officials strongly endorsed their budget request for network procurement in fiscal year 2014. “The network is the Army's number-one priority,” stated Davis S. Welch, deputy director of Army budget. “The network is critical to empowering our soldiers and leaders with the right information at the right time to make decisions,” he said at a Pentagon news conference.
Besides WIN-T, the other key piece of the Army’s network is the joint tactical radio system, a family of software programmable devices with a troubled history of cost overruns and technological setbacks. The Pentagon terminated the procurement of a four-channel JTRS variant made by The Boeing Co. and sent the Army back to the drawing board. The portion of the program that is still alive was designated HMS — for handheld, manpack and small form fit. JTRS radios are required to operate government-owned software applications, called “waveforms.” One is the SRW, or soldier radio waveform. The other is the WNW, or wideband networking waveform.
JTRS radios have to be interoperable with the Army’s single-channel legacy combat net radio, known as SINCGARS. There are half-million of those in service today, but they cannot handle the data rate that is needed to run applications or receive video streams.
The Army so far has spent $8.5 billion on HMS, which also has General Dynamics as its prime contractor, with Thales as subcontractor. The Army ordered 3,726 manpack and 19,327 handheld rifleman radios under a $250 million low-rate production contract.
The Government Accountability Office raised concerns about the program in a March report. “The JTRS HMS program is conducting operational testing on both the rifleman and manpack variants but has not demonstrated maturity of all technologies and production processes,” said the report. “Full-rate production decisions have been delayed for both variants and are anticipated in the third or fourth quarter of fiscal year 2013.”
Marzilli defended the performance of the HMS radios and dismissed GAO’s conclusions as “old news.”
Years of development problems in JTRS, however, have made General Dynamics the target of criticism by industry competitors that claim they can offer the Army better radios at far more competitive prices. Whereas General Dynamics and its subcontractor team were once viewed as sole-source suppliers of HMS radios, the field has been opened to competitors.
Several radio manufacturers will be challenging General Dynamics this summer when the Army is expected to seek bids to begin high-rate production of rifleman and manpack radios for ground troops, airborne radios for helicopters and a four-channel radio for commanders’ vehicles.
Industry executives from several companies said they are encouraged by the substantial funding that the Army has requested for tactical radio acquisitions. Army officials have said they expect vendor competition will lower prices and make it possible to buy larger quantities. The 2014 budget estimates rifleman radios could cost $5,600 per unit, while manpack systems could run about $72,000. Manufacturers speculate that they can bring those prices down.
The expectation is that the Army will buy up to 120,000 rifleman radios, 68,000 manpack, 2,000 mid-tier vehicular four-channel radios and up to 7,000 small airborne networking radios.
Chris Ager, product line director for networked communications at BAE Systems, said the new radios that are now available on the market cost less and perform better because they have adopted modern technology from the cell phone industry.
BAE, which is a major subcontractor in WIN-T, has developed a new family of software-programmable radios, named Phoenix, that will be offered to the Army in the upcoming competition. The vehicular and airborne radios are the “primary focus” for BAE, Ager said in an interview.
The company also intends to market a jam-resistant WNW waveform that it developed under a Defense Department contract. Radio jamming is a concern for U.S. tactical networks both because enemies could intentionally try to interfere with signals or because the Army’s own equipment — such as bomb jammers — can disrupt communications.
Harris Corp., which has made major inroads into the military radio market over the past decade, is viewed as the biggest threat to General Dynamics’ dominance of the HMS program.
For the rifleman radio competition, Harris will be offering a new handheld wideband radio, the RF-330E. For the manpack and vehicular radios, the company is developing new products that are based on its AN/PRC-117G wideband radio currently sold to the U.S. military. Harris’ 117G radio runs its own wideband waveform, which has served as an interim alternative to the JTRS’ own WNW.
Company officials said they expect to put up a tough fight for JTRS. “Harris developed a breakthrough team radio with significant performance improvements over the current JTRS program of record radio," said George Helm, president of defense business at Harris RF Communications, in a March 2013 statement announcing the RF-330E. "We also are investing in solutions for next-generation manpacks and vehicular wideband radios using this same commercially oriented business model," Helm said.
Another challenger will be ITT Exelis. Company spokesman Tim White said ITT will offer a radio for the rifleman program, but will not compete for the manpack. For the vehicular radio, ITT teamed with Northrop Grumman Corp.
Contenders for future HMS contracts have speculated on whether the Army will ask for rifleman and manpack radios that are exactly like the ones that General Dynamics is building. They wonder if the Army might be open to new designs that could do the job at less cost. Those questions will be answered when the Army publishes a final solicitation.
The HMS specs that the Army will require for full-rate production are a concern for General Dynamics, which is asking lawmakers to insist that the Army buys HMS with “open waveforms” — a reminder that Harris’ waveform that is currently in use by the military is proprietary. General Dynamics is asking Congress to support HMS’ original specs, rather than new designs. “Future procurements should be satisfied via full and open competitions, using open source waveforms and rigorously tested against the original specifications of the HMS program,” said a General Dynamics’ briefing slide.
“We are prepared for competition,” Marzilli said.
He said the rifleman radio that General Dynamics developed under the JTRS program brings more than just a device. “This provides the infrastructure,” he said while holding a rifleman radio. Each one of these radios serves as a miniature cell tower, he said. Each soldier in an Army squad is a node in the mesh network. That infrastructure is what makes the network possible, he added. Soldiers can plug in any smartphone or PC of their choosing to talk, send data or track the location of unit members. “The rifleman-radio infrastructure will be around for decades,” Marzilli said. “The devices can be swapped any time.”
Photo Credit: Army
Chart Credit: General Dynamics Corp.