Procurement: Talked To Death

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June 21, 2007: Many in the U.S. Department of Defense are fed up with the delays in getting the multi-billion dollar JTRS (Joint Tactical Radio System) into production. The troops need digital (for computer stuff) and analog (traditional radio) communications in one box now, and it has to be programmable, in order to handle new applications. That's what JTRS was supposed to do, but it isn't happening. Meanwhile, the war on terror has given the U.S. Army a chance to buy new radio technology they need, and they are doing it. Since the invasion of Iraq, the army and marines have spent over two billion dollars on new handled and backpack radios, to tie the infantry into a battlefield Internet. Another two billion dollars was spent on larger radio sets, for the army and the air force. This is more than four times what the Department of Defense spent on new radios in the three years before September 11, 2001. Back then, everyone was holding off on buying new radios, because JTRS was to be available in 2007. Well here it is, 2007, and no JTRS in sight. How did this happen?

There are many problems getting all the services to agree on "Joint" standards. Typical are the problems with the software. The Department of Defense insisted that manufacturers use specific software tools and supporting software for JTRS work. Rather than just tell manufacturers to, "make it work.," the Pentagon bureaucrats insisted on getting into the details. This has backfired, as it usually does when bureaucrats do that sort of thing. It has happened before. In the 1970s, when the Pentagon tried to force defense contractors to use a new software language, ADA, for all military related work, much confusion and missed deadlines ensued.

The Pentagon is very reluctant to admit error, or defeat, in these matters. Much better to spend billions more and let the needed equipment arrive late, and missing important capabilities. It's something of a tradition. And you know how some people in the military, even Pentagon civilians, can be about tradition.

Meanwhile, the military has taken the JTRS concept, and had radio manufacturers take commercial designs and adapt it, quickly, for military use. An example of this is a recent purchase, by SOCOM (Special Operations Command) of over $400 million worth of AN/PRC-150 radios. They will be delivered over the next five years, and cost about $2,500 each. The ten pound (without batteries) radios are very flexible (are used in vehicles or backpacks), and are able to use several different types of transmission (including bouncing signals off the ionosphere, for longer range, or just to get a signal out of a built up area.) Digital transmissions allow for data to get through under poor atmospheric conditions, or when in a built up area. The radios also have good encryption, and the ability to send and receive all forms of digital data. These radios are also used by the army. This buy indicates that SOCOM doesn't expect the long awaited JTRS to arrive any time soon.

JTRS is behind schedule, over budget and under review. The customers have already decided that JTRS is not the future. Originally, the services pledged to buy nearly half a million of JTRS radios. Those orders have now fallen to about 148,000, and may go to zero. All that will remain will be the basic JTRS idea, talked to death by the committees that were supposed to make it happen. The two billion dollars of JTRS R&D is largely wasted, but because of the war, the radios got developed anyway, under realistic conditions, and largely outside the JTRS bureaucracy. It's a battle that was largely unreported, but at least the good guys won.

 


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