Army to Continue Radio Procurement Amid IG Audit

By Sandra I. Erwin

The Defense Department's top acquisitions review panel in February 2004, assigned the Army to oversee the Joint Tactical Radio System. Exactly 10 years later, the department's inspector general announced it would begin a comprehensive audit of the program, whichremains bogged down in low-rate production.

The IG probe is the latest in a long list of reviews, inquiries, investigations and reorganizations that have beset the JTRS program since it was conceived in 1997. The Pentagon wanted to replace bulky, crackling military voice radios with digital devices that would make U.S. forces "network centric."

The inspector general's office launched the audit last month. Audits usually last 12 to 18 months, although they could go longer, according to Defense Department IG spokeswoman Bridget Ann Serchak. The JTRS audit, she said in a statement to National Defense, was "self initiated," which implies that it was not prompted by the defense secretary's office or Congress.
Pentagon insiders, however, point out that the IG office typically gets involved when there are complaints. 

Other red flags about JTRS were raised by the Defense Department's director of test and evaluation in his 2014 annual report. He called on the Army to fix reliability and performance shortfalls in both in the manpack and rifleman radios.

"Our objective is to determine whether the Army is effectively managing the acquisition and testing programs for the Joint Tactical Radio System handheld, manpack, and small form fit rifleman and manpack radios to make sure they meet war fighter needs," Jacqueline L. Wicecarver, assistant inspector general for acquisition, parts and inventory, wrote in a Jan. 14 letter to the Army auditor general.

The Army already has poured $8.5 billion into development and low-rate production. A Dec 12. memo from defense acquisition chief Frank Kendall gave the Army the green light to order 1,500 manpack radios for the 82nd Airborne Division. He also approved a multivendor strategy for future buys of the HMS radios. 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 Corp., Rockwell Collins and Thales Defense are the current manufacturers for low-rate production.

In 2013, Army officials were given a January deadline to settle on a procurement strategy for mass production of both radios. The Army has said since June it would soon release a solicitation for industry bids. The goal is to encourage non-incumbent vendors to enter the competition on the assumption that it would help lower prices.

News of the IG audit sparked speculation about further delays to the program. But Army officials said they plan to go ahead and solicit industry bids after the Pentagon approves the acquisition strategy in the coming weeks.

"The HMS acquisition strategy is currently being reviewed at the secretary of defense level," said Josh Davidson, Army spokesman for the program executive office for command, control and communications tactical in Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.

"Upon approval, the Army intends to release the rifleman radio RFP (request for proposals) and initiate the full and open competition for the next generation rifleman radio," he said in a statement to National Defense. The manpack RFP would come later. "Both RFPs are planned for release during the latter half of fiscal year 2014," said Davidson.

Serchak, of the IG office, said auditors generally "work on their audits with a minimum of disruption to the auditees, but we don't typically provide specifics about the ongoing work."

Industry insiders doubt that the findings of the IG audit will derail a program that has lived beyond the proverbial nine lives. After 10 years, the handheld radio is still receiving bad reviews by the Pentagon's testing office and the manpack is about to begin its third major operational test this fall. "Much of that long runway has been supported by the office of the secretary of defense, which keeps handing out low-rate production [approvals] in the face of poor evaluations," said an industry consultant.

If the acquisition strategy for HMS is signed off by the Pentagon’s procurement office, as expected, in March, it could take the rest of the year for the Army to solicit bids and evaluate them, he said. For vendors eyeing an HMS production deal, the best-case scenario would be a contract award in 2015.

Topics: C4ISR, Tactical Communications, Procurement, Land Forces

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