Military Sets Less Ambitious Goals for New Tactical Radio

Article excerpt

The Pentagon's $20 billion program to develop a family of digital combat radios is expected to see substantial changes in scope and technical requirements.

The adjustments would affect substantial portions of the Defense Department's Joint Tactical Radio System, industry sources said. The focus of the program would shift from replacing current radios to developing advanced networking technology that could be applied to existing devices.

JTRS, conceived in the late 1990s, was intended to eventually supplant more than 750,000 radios in the current military inventory. Unlike conventional radios, JTRS devices work like PCs and can be programmed to operate a variety of software communications applications, which, in the radio world, are called "waveforms."

The program fell into disarray during the past year for several reasons. Among them, experts contend, is that even though JTRS is a "joint" procurement, its organization is very much service-centric. JTRS was divided into "clusters," each managed by a different service. The Army is responsible for duster 1, which covers the service's ground-vehide and helicopter radios, and cluster 5, which are handheld radios. The Navy and the Air Force are in charge of the "airborne and maritime" cluster of JTRS radios to be installed on ships and aircraft.

Another unplanned hurdle for JTRS was the war in Iraq, which prompted rushed purchases of thousands of new combat radios. Under a 1999 Defense Department rule, each time a military service purchased radios, it had to seek a "JTRS waiver" from the Pentagon's Networks and Information Integration office. The policy gave the Defense Department an oversight tool to curb unneeded buys of legacy radios.

After much lobbying by Army and Marine Corps officials, the Defense Department suspended the waiver policy on May 23. Plagued by delays and bureaucratic wrangling, the JTRS program is being restructured under a new management team.

Government and industry sources familiar with the program predict that JTRS will continue, but that the services will "dumb down" the performance specifications. They also expect the revamped management team to set JTRS on a different course, where the emphasis will be on developing mobile network technology rather than on replacing radios.

Dennis M. Bauman, JTRS program executive officer, was unavailable to comment on the future direction of the project, his spokesman said.

Bauman's technical advisor, Howard Pace, told Pentagon officials in June that "not every part of JTRS is in dire straits," according to one of the participants in the briefing. Pace showed a chart that ranked each cluster of JTRS by its level of complexity. Clusters 1 and 5 were categorized as the highest risks.

Another reason for the change in program requirements is the dose ties between JTRS and the Army's largest ever procurement effort, the Future Combat Systems. Until recently, the Army often had stressed that JTRS was an essential element of the FCS, and that both programs needed to march in lockstep. With JTRS now years behind schedule, the Army does not want to see FCS jeopardized in any way, industry insiders noted.

The FCS program, in fact, complicated JTRS efforts by demanding more advanced networking features and increased bandwidth, explained Dan Zanini, vice president of SAIC and deputy program manager for FCS. Boeing and SMC are the lead contractors for FCS.

"JTRS got caught in a time warp," Zanini told reporters. "When FCS came along, the requirements for wideband increased in importance."

The Army does not necessarily need new radios to make FCS work, Zanini noted. But the project is highly dependent on the "wideband networking waveform" software that also is being developed under JTRS.

"JTRS was focused on replacing radios rather than on what we needed, which is the wideband waveform," Zanini said. …