Shifting frequencies: The Joint Tactical Radio System is a key element in DOD’s shift to network-centric operations

The changes made in the JTRS radio program have changed the game of development and procurement of communications gear — and might have provided a new model for joint systems development

After more than 10 years of research and development — and a bevy of critical reports from the Government Accountability Office — the Defense Department is now finally coming close to delivering a new generation of radio systems to the military services.

In March, the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) will clear another hurdle with the award of its contract for the system development and demonstration phase of the Airborne and Maritime Fixed Station Joint Tactical Radio System. AMR JTRS will provide the networking backbone for ships and early warning aircraft. The success of the program was far from certain just a few years ago.

According to executives at the Joint Program Executive Office (JPEO) for JTRS and reports from GAO, JTRS was at risk of substantial further delays and cost overruns. In 2005, JTRS’ Cluster 1 program, now renamed the Ground Mobile Radio, was running behind schedule, and DOD had sent a show-cause letter to Boeing, Cluster 1’s prime contractor, stating that it might terminate the contract because of anticipated failure to meet cost, schedule and performance requirements.

But a major overhaul of the program and a new approach to contracting for JTRS acquisitions have already yielded substantial benefits, JTRS’ program officers say. The program is now a test bed for how to run joint procurement programs.

“We’re not saying this is the right model for DOD in all functional areas,” said Dennis Bauman, the program’s JPEO. “We’re not out to preach.” But he said that the model JTRS has created will significantly reduce the cost of future procurement because the new approach has built both competition and an open-source approach to technology development into the program.

THE TACTICAL EDGE
JTRS is a key element in DOD’s shift to network-centric operations. Launched as a set of procurement programs in 1997, its goal was to extend the edges of the Global Information Grid (GIG) through the use of software-defined radio (SDR) technology.

From the start, JTRS was supposed to improve the interoperability and lower the cost of communications systems by creating a family of radios based on a single software architecture: Software Communications Architecture (SCA) is the operating system on which all JTRS elements are being built.

By using a variety of waveforms — standardized sets of radio transmission types paired with software interfaces for specific applications that run on top of SCA — JTRS radios can potentially deliver data, voice and video to warfighters in the field and ensure that all the communications of forces in the field are interoperable. And by adding new waveforms on top of SCA, JTRS radios could be configured to take on new tasks.

“DOD is on a path to achieving a network-centric warfare capability,” Bauman said. “We have a GIG. But without JTRS, net-centric stops at the command center. We have to do mobile ad-hoc networking out to the tactical edge.”

But after more than eight years of development, JTRS looked more likely to deliver a defense procurement cautionary tale than the badly needed last mile of the GIG. JTRS has faced organizational and technical problems that contributed to program delays and increased cost — and increased scrutiny from GAO and Congress. GAO estimated total JTRS spending as of fiscal 2007 at $37 billion.

After reorganizing the program into a single JPEO, JTRS has apparently turned things around. In January, Bauman and Howard Pace, JTRS deputy JPEO, said that the new enterprise model had already resulted in $104 million in program savings. In the process, JTRS has become more than just a radio acquisition program — it has become an effort to fundamentally change how the services buy communications hardware.

ON THE ROCKS
“Back three years ago, JTRS was on the rocks,” Bauman said. In August 2003, GAO told Congress that despite its technical advances, JTRS still faced significant technical and management risks. GAO listed a number of concerns, but “the most significant challenge we identified is the lack of a strong, joint-management structure,” the report states.

Part of the problem was that each of JTRS’ components was its own Acquisition Category 1D program, led by a specific stakeholder. “There were five [acquisition] programs run by the services, and they weren’t federated at all,” Bauman said. Because the services each controlled their own programs, joint requirements were suffering.

“As a consequence,” the GAO report states, “several program development efforts, such as handheld radios, have been delayed by more than a year. In the meantime, the Army has purchased more existing radios with fewer communications capabilities, which may further delay the delivery of JTRS capabilities to users.”

Another problem was the huge number of features included in JTRS’ initial specifications. The mass of requirements defied quick delivery. And when the program was getting under way, SDR technology — which, along with SCA, is at the heart of JTRS — was still relatively immature.

In the first request for proposals, “the government tried to get all of their features in, so it ended up pretty feature-rich,” said Dominick Paniscotti, vice president of engineering for SDR products at PrismTech, an SDR middleware vendor and a member of the initial SCA working group.

“A lot of folks were trying to get their requirements into it,” Paniscotti said. “People were trying to make sure that their needs were satisfied. Industry had to respond to that, or they weren’t going to win the proposal.”

Bauman agreed. “We found that each of the five programs was [aimed at] delivering everything at once. “That was a recipe for disaster.”

UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT
In 2005, JPEO began a reorganization of the five programs. The Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Michael Wynne — now secretary of the Air Force — formed the centralized Joint Program Executive Office ( JPEO) for all five JTRS acquisition programs, putting them under a single executive officer — Bauman — and creating a board of directors with representation from each service. The board puts “everyone in the room you need to make and approve a decision,” Bauman said.

The JPEO also broke the projects down into increments, Bauman said. “We’ve defined Increment 1,” he said, “and we’re now working with the Joint Staff to define the functionality for Increment 2.” The original 32 waveforms required for JTRS were cut to nine for the first increment of the program. A fully compliant JTRS radio might have to execute several different waveforms simultaneously, so limiting the number of possible waveforms reduces the complexity of the initial radios.

Paniscotti said redefining the core technologies for Increment 1 has been a definite plus for JTRS. “What you have seen over the last few years is a tailoring back of the functionality that is in the radio, rather than a tailoring back of the underlying architectural pieces of the radio.”

The JPEO also re-examined the whole model of development and procurement of the radio systems.

The programs “had a traditional approach to acquisition with open competition for development and sole source for production,” Bauman said. “The end product of that is that we end up in a sole-source situation where all the capital is owned by a single vendor.”

The new business model extends competition beyond the bidding. “We still do open competition for the design phase,” Bauman said. “But we require that we qualify at least two sources and then compete annually on lots” for production.

Bauman said the Multifunction Information Distribution System (MIDS) Low-Volume Terminal is an example of the success of this approach. There are three qualified vendors for MIDS — DLS, ViaSat and EuroMIDS — and a multiyear contract has been awarded to DLS and ViaSat for fulfillment.

However, instead of simply setting a price for the systems in the contract, DOD consolidates requirements for new terminals each year and has the vendors compete on each lot of requirements.

The original authorizations “were $6,000 each for the terminals, and the initial production units were in the $4,000 range,” Bauman said. “We’ve now driven the price down to $180 per terminal.”

JPEO JTRS is applying the approach used with MIDS across its programs. “We’re not requiring the customer [services] to compete on our contracts,” Bauman said. “The Army can sole-source if they want — we’re not responsible for the procurement dollars. But we have a single [communications] purchasing organization for the DOD for the first time.”

Another way JTRS is breaking the single-source model is by keeping ownership of the software used in the radios. All JTRS software uses SCA’s 26 application program interfaces based on the Common Object Request Broker Architecture. This makes it possible to port the software between hardware platforms if DOD changes suppliers, Bauman said.

All software for JTRS — more than 4 million lines of code, according to the JTRS program office — is placed in a repository. All of the companies developing for the JTRS program have access to the repository and are checking code in.

“We give a library card to the code to vendors who demonstrate they’re using it for government services,” Bauman said. But in a fashion similar to open-source software licensing, “if they change it, they have to put the changes back in” the repository.

The result is that the barrier to entry for potential new suppliers for JTRS radios is significantly lower. It makes competition that much fiercer. Bauman said the JPEO has a rolling admission capability for vendors as a result. “It helps us sustain a wider vendor base. You don’t have to win [a system development and demonstration] contract to compete.”

The model has worked with the first set of JTRS-compliant radios to be approved. Two radios have been certified as SCA-compliant by JPEO — Thales Communications’ JEM and Harris’ Falcon III. Thales had developed JEM for the Consolidated, Interim, Single- Channel Handheld Radios (CISCHR) contract, originally under the auspices of the Special Operations Command, Bauman said.

When CISCHR was rolled into JTRS, Thales modified the radio to make it JTRS-approved — running on SCA, with a single waveform, with embedded cryptography and certified by the National Security Agency as secure. “Normally, we would have had sole-sourced to Thales,” Bauman said. Instead, Harris got its commercial Falcon III radio JTRS-approved “on their own dime.”

“Harris and Thales have come on faster than expected, especially when you consider that they weren’t on the ground floor of this,” said Brad Curran, senior industry analyst at Frost and Sullivan. “But they stepped up to the challenge. They saw there was a gap here, so they made improvements to the existing radios and developed new ones.”

As a result, JPEO issued a $128 million indefinite-delivery, indefinite- quantity contract for 39,000 radios, and the two companies have bid on lots. The Marine Corps picked up the Falcon III on its own contract. “We were able to return $104 million to the Army,” Bauman said.

OFF THE SHELF
Although not having a single source might pose some challenges for logistic issues such as repairs, the dramatically lower cost of the systems reduces that issue, both Bauman and Pace said.

“When you compete in production, you save money on purchase, but in most cases, you need to sustain two devices, which will admittedly cost more money,” Bauman said. “But some of the radios cost less than $3,000 — in some cases, it’s not even economical to fix them.”

But Bauman said the program is delivering now and won’t get pushed aside by the need to refresh older hardware now. “JTRS is crucial to DOD. It didn’t get marked down a single dollar [in the fiscal 2008 budget]. We’re delivering capability today.” And, he said, he believes the new model for JTRS will continue to deliver.

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