JTRS: Networking the last tactical mile

The Joint Tactical Radio System is often called the last — some prefer to say the first — critical mile in connecting the Global Information Grid to mobile warfighters. Dennis Bauman is the joint program executive officer for JTRS. Defense Systems invited Bauman to share his view of the initiatives and challenges that lie ahead in advancing the military’s mobile networking capabilities.

“Survivability and lethality in warfare are increasingly dependent on smaller, highly mobile, joint forces that rely on superior information and communication capabilities. [The Defense Department’s] existing tactical radio systems lack the functionality and flexibility necessary to achieve and maintain information superiority or to support the rapid mobility and interoperability desired by the armed forces.”
— Government Accountability Office report, “Department of Defense Needs Framework for Balancing Investments in Tactical Radios,” August 2008

The original concept for the Joint Tactical Radio System was the result of lessons learned from communications interoperability challenges during operations in Grenada, Panama and Desert Storm. It was envisioned as a way to replace the multitude of noninteroperable radios in use throughout the Defense Department.

Over time, however, the vision evolved to encompass the enabling of network-centric warfare through the use of devices that would facilitate advanced mobile ad hoc networks. As a result, JTRS radios are now being built to transmit, receive, route and relay voice, data and video communications among warfighters. They are building a powerful network of troops, ground vehicles, sensors, ships and airborne platforms, and enabling true networking and joint interoperability for the first time between all four military services.

JTRS is being built to accomplish those goals without external infrastructure and without reliance on space-based assets. Moreover, it delivers true networking capability at the tactical edge. It self-forms, self-heals and travels with the warfighters who need it most, connecting ground, air and maritime forces with one another and with the Global Information Grid.

Facilitating that interoperable network is a software-defined architecture that enables the loading and reuse of a standard suite of software products, including the waveforms used to transmit data, on a wider variety of hardware configurations. In addition, the radios are scalable so that other waveforms can be added over time, thereby increasing the ability to expand the network to include coalition and allied fighting forces.

Beyond the command center

With the JTRS capability, the interoperable communications required during conflict engagements no longer stop at the command center but now extend to warfighters at the front lines. Moreover, those communications will encompass high-bandwidth information, including sensor information from joint and national assets, into a single network for warfighters at the tactical edge.

With previous systems, situational awareness stopped short of the tactical edge, limiting the amount of information that could flow to or from the engagement. That approach led to latency in shared data, the inability of ground troops to expand their network vertically to receive cross-service air or maritime support, and difficulty in tracking friendly forces on the battlefield. By eliminating or greatly mitigating those shortcomings, JTRS increases the effectiveness of individual soldiers and the impact they can have on the situation.

Moreover, the radios are self-contained units that require no additional physical infrastructure to operate. Unlike cellular and other mobile devices that require extensive arrays of fixed towers and relay stations for users to communicate seamlessly while on the move, JTRS has been designed to allow for all those functions to happen on each radio device. In essence, each device becomes a retransmit and relay node within the network. As devices enter the network or retreat from it, the network self-heals to accept a new node or remove a former node. That functionality is far beyond what a traditional radio has had the ability to do and is crucial to the network’s battlefield efficiency.

Finally, JTRS devices will be able to handle satellite communications, though the satellites are not essential to their operation. That is of particular interest in areas in which satellite coverage is nonexistent or where dense foliage or other obstructions can interfere with coverage. Again, by having the self-contained network elements reside in the JTRS devices, the need for external resources is greatly diminished.

Enhanced security and value

JTRS focuses on providing mobile ad hoc networking in a manner that is secure from enemy detection or infringement.

Given the wireless nature of the system, JTRS has been designed to include National Security Agency-certified encryption systems and techniques with multiple levels of security. The goal is to prevent enemy forces from jamming JTRS signals, intercepting and decoding them, or introducing viruses or launching other malicious attacks on the network. Such security mechanisms exceed the general commercial standards for wireless devices and are at the cutting edge of what is possible with today’s technology. Such efforts to prevent intrusion will further protect warfighters and safeguard our national security.

Historically, the radio industry paradigm has been a closed, proprietary model: The industry typically retained practically all intellectual property rights for software and hardware, which required the military services to pay individual vendors for each capability upgrade. Additionally, the services chose different radio vendors, diluting DOD’s ability to take advantage of economies of scale. Thus, the overall cost to innovate, upgrade and field devices in mass quantities was inflated. Furthermore, that approach limited the services’ ability to deliver new capabilities in the field and constrained joint interoperability.

To address those issues, JTRS is applying several methodologies as part of an innovative enterprise business model (EBM) that includes negotiating for government-purpose rights (GPR) for all JTRS software and establishing an information repository to maintain and reuse the software for current and future capabilities. JTRS vendors provide GPR for their proprietary software, and JTRS then controls access to the repository for capability improvement and enhancement.

By using that infrastructure process, JTRS has created a secure, common enterprise architecture and other standards, such as application programming interfaces’ software architecture and key tags, to ensure that JTRS software is applied consistently across several hardware platforms.

The approach provides a foundation for increased software reuse and portability, which reduces life cycle costs and maximizes communications and networking interoperability across multiple radio platforms. The model mirrors the Army’s ground control station program for unmanned aerial vehicles and the Navy’s Accountability, Responsibility, Consulted and Informed model, which the submarine community used for open-architecture approaches. It makes it easier to insert new technologies and refresh products while ensuring interoperability.

JTRS has also increased the overall industrial base during development by qualifying at least two sources in production and competing buys in aggregated lots. That approach has the additional benefit of laying the foundation for a more competitive environment when the program shifts to production and significant cost savings can be realized. Further, JTRS has altered the fee structures for its contracts, basing fees on measurable results and having a larger percentage of the fees tied to the latter stages of the contract. That provides incentives to increase productivity, keeps contractors focused on fulfilling the ultimate program objectives rather than earlier contract milestones, and shares accountability for product and capability delivery between DOD and its industry partners.

The JTRS EBM has already yielded tangible results in terms of obtaining GPR for JTRS software and yielding cost savings in production. Since the establishment of the information repository, JTRS has obtained more than 8 million lines of code, including 14 JTRS waveforms, the software for four operating environments, and numerous software standards, models, and simulation and test tools.

JTRS also executed the first DOD-wide competitive handheld tactical radio acquisition. JTRS forged the necessary partnerships to convince individual DOD components to combine their purchases of handheld tactical radios, equipping warfighters with the latest joint, interoperable, tactical radio technology. In less than 18 months, that approach has yielded $332 million in cost avoidance for DOD.

Moreover, the EBM has encouraged industry-led innovation in providing capability to warfighters at little to no cost to the government. For example, Harris developed the AN/PRC-152 Falcon handheld and the AN/PRC-117G manpack radios out of its own research and development budget to compete in the JTRS business space. Other industry-led developments include ITT Corp.’s Rifleman Radio, ITT and General Dynamics’ Small Form Factor–Sidehat, and Thales’ Extended Band manpack. Those efforts have greatly enhanced JTRS capabilities, promoted innovation, and saved the government scarce development resources in terms of time, money and personnel.

Capability delivery

The JTRS program is nearing completion of the core development activities necessary to field the full JTRS capability. Already more than 84,000 single-channel handheld JTRS radios are in the field or on order by the services to be deployed once production can meet demand. That is a significant achievement in the effort to replace outdated or inferior radios with more secure and higher-capability devices. Additional orders for handheld sets are expected soon, which helps lower unit costs, offers greater value to DOD and increases business opportunities for suppliers.

Other JTRS capabilities nearing completion and moving to the field:

  • The JTRS-variant of the Multifunctional Information Distribution System for high-speed aircraft (e.g., F/A-18) is 95 percent complete with its security verification testing. It has passed its initial airborne tests and is on track to be integrated in F/A-18s in February 2010.
  • The Rifleman Radio, a limited-range handheld radio for use by individual soldiers that allows for accurate passive position location information, has been cleared for Milestone C in summer 2009 and full-rate production in early 2010.
  • The Ground Mobile Radios (GMRs), for installation in Bradley, Abrams, Humvees and other vehicles, will undergo a 30-node test in May 2009. A Milestone C decision is expected in the first quarter of fiscal 2010.
  • GMRs will also undergo a Future Combat Systems limited user test in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2009, which will enable the Army’s future force program to achieve an important milestone in its development cycle.
The JTRS concept of providing a truly joint, secure mobile ad hoc network that extends beyond the command center and to the tactical warfighting edge is a reality. With thousands of units already in the field and many more only months away and by using a business model that promotes efficacy in development, JTRS is already proving its value for DOD and taxpayers.

As a result, warfighters will be equipped with the necessary networking and communications capabilities to ensure their safety and competitive advantage over adversaries. This, in turn, further enhances the overall security of their units and of the United States and its allies.

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