Better acquisition rules would speed JTRS development, general says
Tight fiscal environment spurs program creativity, flexibility
- By Henry Kenyon
- Oct 13, 2011
The Joint Tactical Radio system is at the core of the Defense Department’s efforts to streamline the military’s communications and to provide the backbone for a more flexible force at the tactical level. But managing a program as complex at JTRS has presented a variety of challenges as it faced technical, budgetary and organizational hurdles over the last 10 years.
But the program has made progress, with major components such as the Ground and Mobile Radio and the Rifleman Radio undergoing evaluations prior to a final decision for full production and deployment. The new head of the JTRS Joint Program Office, Army Brig. Gen. Michael Williams, spoke to Defense Systems at the AUSA exhibition and conference in Washington D.C., on Oct. 11 about his hopes for the program.
Williams said he wants to focus on modular systems that can be tailored to the operational environment. He said if it were possible, the JTRS radios should have been made modular a decade ago. But the current evolution of the program is making it more flexible for the Army to respond and modify systems based on soldier feedback, he said.
Changes in procurement and acquisition requirements, which have been achieved through the Army’s new agile process, allow vendors to provide the best value to the Army because they can scale their offerings to meet service needs, Williams said. For example, he advocated allowing vendors to port the Solider Rifleman Waveform and the Wideband Networking Waveform (WNW) into legacy hardware to be compatible. He explained that it took many years to develop the waveforms and make them work properly. If they had not been in a program of record, he said it would have been easier and faster to move them into other equipment, speeding up the development process.
As the key waveform for JTRS, the WNW has demonstrated its broad data pipe capability. While industry and academia will probably develop new waveforms to support JTRS, by the 2017 to 2019 time period, Williams said that the army will be a WNW-based force. In the meantime, he said there is a great deal of industry experimentation with new waveforms to help manage bandwidth on military networks. One of the waveform’s key advantages is that it makes small tactical units more flexible. “WNW gives our forces more capability than they’ve ever had,” he said.
However, the program must also be ready for change as Congress prepares to trim DOD's budget. But Williams is hopeful that the Army’s new agile acquisition process will help with developing and procuring programs. Agile acquisition avoids the old multi-year, cost plus development process by focusing on systems and equipment that can be readily issued. “We know there’s a level of capability that we can deliver to soldiers now,” he said.
With the new policy in place, the service can deliver an “80-percent solution” to meet warfighter needs, breaking the old cycle of lengthy development that often stretched across decades. Efforts such as the Network Integration Exercise allow the Army to directly ask soldiers what they need, and if systems being evaluated meet these needs, they can be moved to the field in months. But the bottom line is that programs such as JTRS must be responsible for cost savings to the Army and taxpayers. “There’s no margin here,” he said.
The new process provides the Army with an opportunity to engage with industry to offer solutions to DOD. This is not an indictment of programs of record, Williams said. He added that small companies have many ideas to contribute and there are opportunities for them.
As a part of this approach, Williams said that the Ground Mobile Radio part of the program will have a competition focused on providing “faster, smarter, cheaper” technology. With the new agile acquisition rules in place, the program has the flexibility to move in either direction if necessary — smaller and cheaper, or larger and more structured if necessary.
However, in the tight fiscal environment, there will be some hard decisions to make. Savings are important and the program will look for opportunities to integrate into existing production platforms. But whatever choices are made, it will be vital to keep as many vendors as possible in the process. “If I want innovation, I can’t drive away all but two vendors in the game,” he said.
Henry Kenyon is a contributing writer for Defense Systems.