From radios to waveforms: How JTRS is remaking itself as JTNC

The Defense Department recently approved the organizational restructuring and realignment of mission responsibilities for the Joint Program Executive Office Joint Tactical Radio System (JPEO JTRS), which will become the Joint Tactical Networking Center (JTNC) by the end of fiscal 2012. The JTNC will serve as the DOD lead for development and sustainment of software defined radio waveforms and network managers, and will be the certification authority to ensure tactical networking interoperability.

The Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics is still working to approve the charter defining JTNC's roles, responsibilities, authorities and resources. Army Acquisition Executive Heidi Shyu will serve as the lead acquisition executive for the JTNC.

The three remaining JTRS hardware programs—Airborne, Maritime and Fixed Station (AMF); Handheld, Manpack and Small Form Fit (HMS); and Multifunctional Information Distribution System (MIDS)—will transition to the military services by the end of the year. Specifically, AMF and HMS will become Army programs, while MIDS goes to the Navy.

The Ground Mobile Radio (GMR) program was cancelled in fall 2011, and the program office is working with the Army to pursue the Mid-Tier Networking Vehicular Radio Non-Developmental Item capability based on some of GMR’s previous requirements.

The former JTRS Network Enterprise Domain (NED) program will be renamed the Joint Tactical Networks program, and will be a part of the JTNC organization.

The JTNC itself will be responsible for providing secure, networking waveforms capable of operating in a variety of hardware transport solutions, for both programs of record and commercial radios in support of combatant commander, service and coalition interoperable network mission requirements. The JTNC will be the information repository for these waveforms and will rely on testing performed through established test centers and agencies.

Over the last year, JPEO JTRS has focused its efforts on driving HMS and MIDS into production. The HMS program recently received approval a second Low Rate Initial Production for the Rifleman radio and is working toward a second LRIP decision for the Manpack radio in September 2012. There have been approximately 800 flight hours of MIDS testing on Navy and Air Force TACAIR platforms, and the program achieved a successful Full Rate Production decision in April 2012.

To examine where JTRS is going next and how the organization will transition to JTNC, Defense Systems Editor-in-Chief Barry Rosenberg interviewed JTRS Joint Program Executive Officer (JPEO) BG Michael Williamson and Deputy JPEO Mark Compton, who will become JTNC director on Oct. 1.

Williamson assumed his duties as JPEO JTRS in March 2011. Before that, Williamson was the deputy program manager for PEO Integration. It was recently announced that Williamson’s next assignment will be as assistant deputy for acquisition and systems management in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology.

Compton is a retired Navy captain who flew operationally in P-3 Orion aircraft, held operational command at sea and served in major acquisition command positions developing IT solutions. He was the deputy program manager for Navy satellite communications, and the program manager of the Navy-Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI). He has been part of JPEO JTRS since October 2009, first as director of operations and most recently as deputy JPEO.

DS: Without asking you to be a Monday-morning quarterback, what do you think was the fatal flaw with JTRS going back a decade that brought the program to the point where it is today?

Williamson: I think you are going to find that as you start looking at technology and the speed of technology, and I don’t think it’s just tied to the JTRS program, I am not sure that the government, specifically DOD, was equipped with its processes to be able to react as quickly as we needed to. I would tell you that the regulations and the things that we have in place for acquisition are well thought out. But I would also tell you that when you start looking at the speed at which things happen with technologies we probably have to think more about what adjustments we need to make to be more agile.

You can’t help but look and say: ‘You’re developing a product that’s needed, but you’re also doing that while we are fighting two wars.’ As a result, each one of the services have gone out and procured different items that they are not going to dispose of when we come to the table. And so once that started to happen I think that there probably should have been an adjustment. Those adjustments could have been in some re-scoping of the requirements so maybe we didn’t get the full 100 percent solution, but a 60 percent or 70 percent solution would have been better than going without, and we didn’t make those adjustments. I think there is a lot of culpability there. I think it’s important to know as a department that we do take some lessons learned from this.

I think if you were to ask me what we did wrong, I would tell you that there was too much simultaneity. Too many programs had dependencies from other programs in order to meet their schedules, and so Program A might be the lead on a waveform that another program needed, but because of differences in not only the developers for those particular radios but specifics in their hardware, you found that you were actually having to do some work over again. And because the bar was set so high it was just taking a while to get there. And so this is not an excuse, this is an understanding of what happened in the environment.

At the same time, a lot of good happened in terms of definition of software defined radios and implementation of software communications architecture.

DS: You’ve told me in the past that, in essence, JTRS should have been a waveform factory and not gotten into radio hardware at all?

Williamson: Not just because I think we are the only ones who can do waveforms; that’s not the reason. What I think is that when you boil all of this down, the standard is in the waveform…that’s where your interoperability comes from. And so we should have focused there. I think as we move forward you are going to see more of the emphasis placed on the standards tied to the waveforms.

So as strongly as I feel about that, I’ve never wanted to give people the impression that you can completely disconnect or isolate yourself from the hardware. If you remember the first Windows operating system, and even back to DOS, you optimized your software to work with a chipset. As that hardware changes you will find changes occurring in the software, so you are never going to disconnect. The argument that I am making is that the standards and your interoperability will be facilitated not by the hardware but by the software because the hardware will have to be structured so it fits into different platforms and different environments.

DS: Total cost of all JTRS programs between fiscal 1998 and fiscal 2012 is $6.7 billion, according to JPEO JTRS. Can you say what percentage of that figure has gone to actual useful capability at this point?

Williamson: Interesting the way you pose the question. So my first answer would be that I would tell you that most of it has gone to something useful and productive, and let me try to qualify that. So the reason I would give you that answer is because I think what it has done is positioned us to understand how to build these radios. If you look across my portfolio I have a number of primes and subs that involve pretty much the radio industry in the United States. And I think what we have done because of this work is that we have now positioned ourselves to be able to procure radios at a much better price, if you will, with better technology than if we had not invested in JTRS.

And this is a tough one because at some point somebody will look at me and say, "Oh, you are trying to put lipstick on a pig." I think that would be a fair comment if you did not understand the difficulties tied to putting advanced waveforms and advanced hardware together into combat platforms. And so we could always have the argument about whether something could have been done smarter, faster and cheaper after the fact. But I think as we learned about these technologies and worked towards achieving specific milestone in these development programs, I think there have been a great deal of successes.

If I had my way we would have pushed it out faster and pushed it out incrementally, and I think this is consistent with what I talked to you about before. I would have preferred to have seen a more incremental approach to bringing out these radios, as opposed to getting a lot of legacy and new waveforms working on multichannel radios and then trying to field them all at one time.

DS: Do you feel any disappointment in the private sector letting down the military?

Williamson: As I look backwards there is a lot of culpability, so I would be the last person to blame my industry partners for how I managed a program. In all frankness, if I were to tell you my biggest complaint, it would not be directed against industry. I would probably try to do my contracting differently. We normally start with a cost-plus arrangement with some sort of incentive award fee. And then when you get to production you agree on a cost and buy radios at some set amount; that’s the standard model.

My position has been and what I have advocated is that I think it’s okay to start early with a cost-plus arrangement for those things where there is risk to the vendor…new technologies and those types of things. But where I think we can do a better job is after you’ve gone through your Critical Design Review and you are working towards that design I think you should have the ability to go back in and quantify risk, and be able to make some portions of your contract fixed price and other parts where the risk is still there you should be able to negotiate that and accept some sort of cost-plus arrangement.

I am very uncomfortable that I still see cost-plus awards where I am not sure we really incentivize our industry partners to be innovative and to help us drive down cost. And so that’s the model that I work towards, and it’s hard because what it really requires is for the government to be on its game and to be able to sit with our industry partners and understand where the risk has been reduced, where there is still risk and which portions of the contract can be locked down.

That’s why I tell you that my starting point is not to blame my vendors. My starting point is we’ve got to do a better job of thinking through how we structure these.

DS: The general’s discussion of standards and waveforms is good jumping off place to examine the new JTNC. So, why JTNC and what value will it provide?

Compton: What we are seeking is secure, interoperable and affordable waveforms, with a lot of emphasis on the affordability piece at this particularly stage of capability development. [We also want to] centralize down on the commonality pieces, with those being the waveforms to start with because that’s what brings the capability to the radio, whether it’s handheld or embedded into warfighter platforms.

Then there is also other components that go with it to make this happen, and that is ensuring that you have the necessary standards so industry isn’t coming in and guessing: ‘What do I build to that ensures that I have interoperability.’ One of the good things coming out of the JTRS program to date has been the standards that are associated with these capabilities.

So you’ve got the waveform piece and the standards piece. The waveforms are placed into the information repository where industry can pull those pieces and port them into their radios to respond to a demand from one of the services. And so the really good stuff that comes out of this is that we have a continuation of a centralized way of doing that, which is core around this. So we have the information repository, we have all the standards and we have the quality assurance pieces.

And you also have the configuration management piece because when you start talking about spreading waveforms out across many different radios that are being procured by the services, configuration management gets to be one of the core necessities associated with this to ensure interoperability.

DS: Is that the network manager element?

Compton: The network manager is a portion of that. As with any software development on your PC or Mac at home, for example, they release bug fixes that will continue to come out over a period of time. And if not managed properly then those could, if you don’t manage the configuration across the network, break the interoperability, so that does require some management.

The other one that I think is absolutely critical these days is the security piece. So you’ve got some things that are a little mundane in nature, but then there are other things that occasionally come out that are critical security patches that need to happen. And those need to be controlled and pushed across all the radio systems, and so having a centralized way of doing this is a very important aspect of it.

DS: How will JTNC work with the National Security Agency and the Joint Interoperability Test Command to avoid duplication?

Compton: Some good news is that we are not doing this from scratch. We have spent a tremendous amount of effort together in building up this relationship and the processes associated with it. So it’s a symbiotic and not overlapping piece between us and both the NSA and JITC.

So we have put in some processes with NSA that, in fact, help facilitate industry coming into this independent research and development environment to facilitate them getting their products tested out and approved by NSA in a significantly shorter amount of time than it otherwise would take.

And we are also complimentary with JITC in that we have JITC representation within the laboratories that specifically focus on these kinds of radios. Essentially we collaborate on the information [necessary] to get the JITC certification, because JITC certification in of itself is not sufficient across the board as far as maintaining the interoperability downstream. So what we provide is more of a compendium of items for checking out the software, configuration management upgrades, etc., so we don’t overlap with each other.

The JTNC products and services

  • WNW: Wideband Networking Waveform provides a high-capacity, mobile ad-hoc IP network for secure tactical data communications. This capability conserves radio frequency spectrum through dynamic bandwidth sharing among nodes, making the capacity of WNW approximately 10 times that of currently fielded systems.
  • SRW: Soldier Radio Waveform provides networked wideband communications that enable simultaneous integrated combat net radio voice, data and video capabilities. SRW is optimized for size, weight and power-constrained platforms.
  • COALWNW: Coalition Wideband Networking Waveform will provide secure, scalable, tactical communications in an on-the-move network architecture, enabling secure interoperable exchange of wideband voice, video and data with coalition forces.
  • JENM: Joint Enterprise Network Manager (JENM) is a single software solution for secure tactical radio management. It consolidates and improves the capabilities of two previously developed tactical radio managers: the SRW Network Manager and the JTRS WNW Network Manager.
  • MUOS: Mobile User Objective System provides beyond-line-of-sight communications to warfighters at the tactical edge. It uses secure voice, video and data applications in a way similar to how the commercial industry uses cell-phone technology.
  • TTNT: Tactical Targeting Network Technology provides high data rate and long-range communication links for airborne participants. As a complement to the existing Link-16 tactical data link network, TTNT adds to the current airborne network capacity and provides an low message delivery timeline. The minimal network planning requirements of TTNT will enable participants to enter and exit the network without extensive preplanning.

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