Army Tactical Radios in the Crosshairs After Scathing Review

By Sandra I. Erwin

Army officials are defending their decision to continue buying tactical radios that soldiers have judged inadequate during recent tests. Officials contend that the problems are fixable and do not warrant termination of the program or a change in vendors.  

The two-channel "manpack" radios in question, which soldiers use for voice and data communications, have been in development since 2004 and in low-rate production since 2011. They are made by General Dynamics C4 Systems and Rockwell Collins Corp.

The Army has bought 5,326 radios so far under low-rate production contracts. The goal is to eventually acquire about 60,000 for the entire Army. According to Defense Department procurement rules, the Army can buy up to 10 percent of the overall requirement under low-rate production orders.

Pentagon top weapons buyer Frank Kendall approved an acquisition strategy May 1 for the "handheld, manpack, small form fit" (HMS) program, which sets a goal to begin full-rate production of HMS radios in 2017. It directs the Army to open up the program to non-incumbent competitors for future full-rate production contracts.

The Army announced it will solicit competitive bids for full-rate production of the handheld radio but so far has stuck to low-rate production orders for the manpack version. On May 30, it published a"sources sought" solicitation for sole-source procurement of manpack radios from General Dynamics. This would be the third low-rate initial production (LRIP) order.

Coincidentally, a few days later, the Army general who oversees infantry and armor forces' equipment requirements questioned the decision to continue to buy the manpack radios after soldiers rated them unsuitable for combat use during tests at Fort Bliss, Texas, and White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico.

A June 6 memorandum — signed by Maj. Gen. H.R. McMaster, commander of the Army Maneuver Center of Excellence, in Fort Benning, Georgia — lists several performance shortfalls of the manpack radio tested by dismounted soldiers. Among the complaints is excessive weight. The manpack radio, at 17 pounds, weighs more than twice as much as existing Sincgars radios, the memo said. Soldiers also complained about insufficient range — up to 3 km compared to 7 km for Sincgars. Battery life is a problem, too. The HMS manpack, said the memo, requires two batteries for six hours of operation, whereas Sincgars lasts 33 hours. Users also sounded alarms about the HMS overheating and putting soldiers at risk of injury.

"The Maneuver Center of Excellence considers the dismounted HMS manpack radio unsuitable for fielding to brigade combat teams," McMaster wrote. "A radio that is heavier and provides less range while creating a higher logistics demand does not make our units more operationally capable. Additionally, any radio that places our soldiers at risk of being burned is unacceptable."

McMaster suggested the Army should suspend the fielding of the radio until these issues are fixed.

The Army Test and Evaluation Command, meanwhile, is writing its own independent assessment of the radio's performance. The ATEC report is expected to be completed within the next two months, officials said.

McMaster's memo, meanwhile, raises fundamental questions about the Army's original specifications for the radio and implies that even if the radio met its requirements it would still be inadequate.  

A spokesman for the Army's program executive officer for command, control and communications tactical, who oversees the HMS program, declined to comment for this article. A General Dynamics spokesperson also declined to comment.

Army procurement officials in off-the-record conversations defended the decision to stick with the current manpack and issue the "sources sought" solicitation. They point out that the solicitation is standard procedure that asks for vendor input and does not commit the Army to any purchases. The third LRIP "may or may not happen," one official said.

Another Army official said there is a "real need" for about 2,000 to 3,000 HMS manpack radios to meet the demand between 2015 until full-rate production starts in 2017, and an LRIP order would be the most expedient way to get the radios. He said he doubted the McMaster report would make the Army change course. Although the memo has "caused angst," he downplayed its significance because it only points out problems with dismounted soldier radios, which only make up 20 to 30 percent of the program. Most HMS manpack systems are installed in vehicles. He blamed the overheating problem on soldiers who took the radio out of its case, which is not recommended. He said soldiers had difficulties in recent tests because they lacked familiarity with the radio. The features are not intuitive, an issue that Army leaders have raised in the past.

The radio could be modified to address McMaster's concerns if the Army's Training and Doctrine Command directs the program office to do so. Whether McMaster's report results in dramatic changes to the radio's requirements is still to be determined. If that happens, the Army Training and Doctrine Command would have to rewrite the specifications before the program office can make any changes. And if the ATEC report corroborates McMaster's findings, that also would compel the program office to modify the radio.

Complicating matters for the Army are "industrial base" politics. More than 80 lawmakers signed a letter that was sent to the secretary of defense asking him to ensure the Army spends up to $300 million that Congress already appropriated for radios but the service has yet to obligate. They criticized the Army for withholding funds that should be spent on equipment that soldiers need.

Congressional supporters contend that HMS manufacturers General Dynamics and Rockwell Collins need another LRIP order to keep their production lines warm.

The political battle escalated further after Harris Corp., which manufactures competing manpack radios, challenged the Army's sole-source LRIP solicitation that seeks new radios from General Dynamics. Company officials have argued that the new acquisition strategy calls for "full and open competition.” A Harris spokesperson said the company has a newly designed manpack radio that will be available in October for tests and would be ready for production in 2015.

"We strongly believe that the best way to put next-generation radios into the hands of the war fighter quickly is for the Army to pursue an accelerated schedule for full-and-open competition, not by issuing another sole-source LRIP award for the HMS manpack program," Dana Mehnert, group president of Harris RF Communications said in a statement.

An Army official said Harris could pursue legal action by protesting the sole-source solicitation to the Army Contracting Command. Harris' spokesperson said the company would "not speculate on the actions we'll take at this point." Responses from industry regarding the notice were due to the government on June 11.

Topics: C4ISR, Tactical Communications, Manufacturing, Procurement, Land Forces

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