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Ground mobile program worth the wait

Col. Daniel Hughes, JTRS Joint Ground Domain Program Manager

A critical aspect of the military’s Joint Tactical Radio System is the ability to secure wideband communications and provide situational awareness to Marine Corps and Army ground vehicles. That’s the focus of the Army’s Ground Mobile Radio (GMR) program. Efforts to complete the engineering development model and ultimately deliver that capability have faced a variety of hurdles. JTRS Ground Domain program manager Col. Daniel Hughes shared his perspective about the program’s recent steps forward with contributing editor David Carr.

When people ask me why it’s taking so long to deliver real results for soldiers on the ground with our JTRS programs, I don’t entirely blame them for being impatient. The JTRS program started way back in 1997, and we have taken some hits in the media and in Congress for being one of those programs that’s taken longer and cost more than it was originally supposed to.

I came into this story after JTRS was reorganized and refocused in 2005, taking charge of what we call the ground domain. That’s the set of related programs producing the JTRS radios soldiers will carry, or wear, or operate out of vehicles. And I’m here to tell you that we’re getting really close to delivering on the vision of highly networked and software upgradeable radio systems. Even during this transitional period, we have managed to deliver some JTRS-compatible radios to the field under an acquisition strategy that has saved our armed services more than $300 million and demonstrated the benefits of standardization.

The biggest thing that was wrong with the early incarnation of the JTRS program was that it was too fragmented, operating under the supervision of the Office of the Secretary of Defense but with program and product management spread across the services. So even though the goal was a joint system, we had too many people and organizations charting their own course. It just didn’t work. So in 2005, we reorganized under a Joint Program Executive Office, which meant we now had one common organization, with one person ultimately in charge.

The formation of the JPEO was the biggest thing we did to get on track. I did some reorganizing of my own within the Ground Domain, which includes two major programs, GMR and Handheld, Manpack, and Small Form Fit (HMS). As you can tell from the name, the HMS piece is actually a family of products. The GMR radios will be mounted in vehicles as command communication hubs, while HMS includes radios that will go into radio operator backpacks, be worn by individual soldiers, and be embedded in unmanned aerial vehicles and unattended ground sensors.

Before, all these things were being run by independent project managers, even though they were all supposed to adhere to a common waveform specification and work together in the field and even though they had to solve a lot of common technical challenges.

Now, I run the entire Ground Domain as one enterprise, much more tightly coordinated than it was before. I am ultimately responsible for making sure these systems interoperate and pass all their tests. And across all the ground programs, we try really hard not to have to make the same mistake twice. We learn from the experience of all our programs, and we share that learning so we can head off the same kind of problems in all the related programs. With the help of our JPEO technical director, Dr. Rich North, we’ve also instituted a rigorous testing program to ensure interoperability and within the joint architectures, and with the Army’s Warfighter Information Network-Tactical wireless data networking technology and Future Combat Systems architecture.

That’s not to say there are no problems. New technology development is a risky proposition, and JTRS is still classified as a moderate-risk project. But before, smart people who looked closely at JTRS thought there was a high risk of failure, and the Ground Domain systems were considered as one of the riskier parts. The worry was simply that all these technologies that were supposed to interoperate might not fit together in the end.

Of course, that was the whole point: We wanted to have a common, joint services communication standard that would eliminate longstanding problems with hardware incompatibility. Let’s not forget the problems we’re trying to solve, problems that have real consequences.

Just about any soldier you talk to who has been in Iraq and Afghanistan has a story about a radio communications breakdown that had scary — or even deadly — results. I’ve been there myself. Say you’re in an Army vehicle roaring down the highway in Iraq, with a Marine Corps group behind you, and you run into improvised explosive devices, or something else that you really ought to let them know about. That Army unit will have trouble communicating with those Marines today, if they’re each using the organic radios they’ve been assigned.

Of course, there are workarounds. If it’s important enough, and your radio operator is determined enough, he may be able to relay a message through an intermediary. But it costs us in time, hassle and sometimes lives. With joint operations becoming more and more common and close collaboration across services ever more important, we need to put an end to these unnecessary technological roadblocks.

There are other times when you can’t get a message through because of simple physics — obstacles blocking line-of-sight communications. We can’t repeal the laws of physics, but we can mitigate them. JTRS radios come with mobile ad hoc networking (MANET) capabilities that let us relay a signal from one radio to another so that if any radio in that group can get a signal through, you can talk to whoever you need to talk to. That’s a big deal for urban warfare or for rooting the enemy out of tunnels and caves.

And because we’re layering all this on IP, data and voice communications can be relayed from a portable radio to GMR, up the chain of command, and into the Global Information Grid if necessary.

Procurement gains

For years, military procurement folks within the services have been doing their best to procure the best possible equipment to meet the needs of their people, and I would never criticize them for that. But we can do better. JTRS will set a standard that’s tight enough to be meaningful — equipment will interoperate in practice, not just in theory — and flexible enough to accommodate differing or changing needs. Moving to software-based radio means we can change how our equipment operates by reprogramming software rather than replacing hardware.

We are already seeing the benefits with the Consolidated Single Channel Radio product, which I also oversee. [It] is a transitional program that is currently delivering radios that are JTRS-approved, meaning that they are software upgradeable to work to our standards. Meanwhile, they work with the current [Single-Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System] standard for Army communications and interoperate with existing dedicated SINCGARS radios. But ultimately, having those [new] sets in the field will help us make the transition to JTRS happen faster.

The real beauty of what we achieved here was a specification implemented by two different suppliers, which allowed us to get them competing with each other like a couple of cell phone companies both after our business. The Harris Falcon III and the Thales Communications JEM, the JTRS-enhanced version of the Multiband Inter/Intra Team Radios, are functionally equivalent, to the point where we can choose based on who offers the better price.

Price competition has made a huge difference, driving our cost down from $8,000 — the regular GSA-approved price — to about $2,000 per unit. We have had more than 99,000 of those units ordered and estimate total savings from that procurement strategy at $300 million.

While I talk about being close to achieving our goals, it’s true that my schedule for testing some of this equipment stretches out through 2013. But we’re not just talking about PowerPoint anymore. At Fort Bliss, we recently had near-final units of the Rifleman Radio going through limited user testing, where soldiers are using it as part of their regular training exercises, for things like cordon and search or moving into a mock village. This is under the supervision of Operational Test Command, so we’re past the point where the project managers can intervene to paper over problems. The equipment is supposed to work out of the box, and they judge it on its merits, with the soldiers using it. We successfully demonstrated a 30-node MANET, which is about the scale we expect to function as a subnet within the wireless network.

We don’t have official test results from Fort Bliss yet. But I expect that by September, that project will reach Milestone C, which is where we ask the undersecretary for Defense acquisition for permission to start low-rate initial production and go to a full-up operational test next summer.

Rifleman Radio is a key system because it extends networked communications farther down the chain of command to individual soldiers than we’ve ever taken it before. Actually, one source of resistance that we see comes from some senior NCOs who don’t want the soldiers to have radios – they want them to be paying attention to them and to voice commands. So that’s going to have to work itself out. We’ve had multiple soldiers participating in these exercises say to us, “Hey, now I know everything that’s going on.” That’s what we’re after — better situational awareness for the individual soldier. Also, the ability of a soldier who finds himself in trouble to call for help and get help quickly.

We do have some complaints to address. The biggest one involves the headsets. Any time you cram a piece of equipment into a soldier’s helmet, things can get uncomfortable. We’re also being told the volume is too low. We have a number of headsets to choose from, and we’re working on figuring out what would work better.

Will JTRS be worth the wait? Ultimately, I don’t think we have any choice but to move to this kind of networked environment. The amount of data moving around the battlefield, from soldiers, sensors, UAVs, ground robots, and all the rest, is rapidly outpacing the capabilities of the currently deployed technologies. My team’s job is to make it work, to solve the problems JTRS set out to solve in the first place, and to show that we can fight better and smarter by getting this technology into the field.

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