Magazine article National Defense

Warning Signals: Tactical Radio Project Substantially Weakened

Magazine article National Defense

Warning Signals: Tactical Radio Project Substantially Weakened

Article excerpt

The Defense Department is drastically downscaling plans to develop its next-generation radio communications network.

The Pentagon launched the "joint tactical radio system," or JTRS, six years ago, with the intent to deploy a family of software radios for all military services. But the program soon unraveled as it became clear that its goals were way too ambitious, and its cost--estimated at $20 billion--would not be affordable at a time when the services are struggling to equip troops at war.

The Defense Department's acquisition chief, Kenneth Krieg, directed a sweeping review of JTRS and, in early, 2005, appointed a new team to oversee the program.

Leading the effort to rescue JTRS is Dennis M. Bauman, a senior program executive at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command.

Bauman has a five-year $4 billion budget to complete the JTRS development phase. But the scope of the project was reduced substantially. Instead of aiming for a network than can accommodate all 32 of the millitary's radio bands--also called waveforms--the revised JTRS will be limited to just nine. Also, JTRS radios will be compatible with 13 major weapon systems, rather than the 26 originally planned.

Budget constraints partly are the reason why the Defense Department decided m go this route, Bauman said in a telephone conference with reporters. His team had estimated that it needed $6 billion for JTRS development, but the Pentagon agreed to fund $4 billion. Still, this was good news to program officials, said Bauman, because it was appreciably more money than the $2.3 billion that was in the budget a year ago.

Technological roadblocks also drove the Defense Department to downscale the program. A major concern continues to be encryption, said Bauman. Software-based radios such as JTRS--designed to operate as a computer network--are more difficult to protect from hackers than traditional military radios, which have customized crypto devices and are intended for individual services, not for the entire Defense Department.

"The complexity of the information assurance challenge was not fully realized early in the program," Bauman said. "When you move from a radio to a networking device, the potential vulnerabilities grow immensely."

A major feature that would make the JTRS network useful to troops in combat--the ability to stay connected even while they move from one location to another--also makes it less secure than traditional networks. This Internet-like capability, known as "mobile ad hoc networking," is fundamental to JTRS, Bauman said. It also raised red flags at the National Security Agency, which has to certify that a military radio is safe to operate before it can be deployed. "The NSA had not fully appreciated or understood the full ramifications of that vulnerability and how to mitigate it," said Bauman.

This problem is not unique to JTRS, said an industry expert who used to work at the Defense Information Systems Agency. There is an inherent conflict between building "net-centric" systems that are accessible to millions of users and "information assurance," the expert said. Today, "most systems build their own application infrastructure and their own security infrastructure. Now, as you start to open up in a net-centric world, how do you make sure the system talking to you is authorized to talk to you? ... How do you distribute trust between the different systems you are trying to link together?"

Steve MacLaird, a retired Air Force colonel and former JTRS program executive, said that even though the network was conceived as an "open standards" system, it still can be made secure. …

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