Army Plan For Competing Radios Makes Sense

There was a time when Army acquisition meant buying 100,000 jeeps from Ford for $800 each. Things aren’t that simple anymore. As warfighting technologies have become more sophisticated, so have the service’s ideas for how to get the best deal. Today, new weapon programs typically unfold according to a carefully constructed plan that continuously assesses progress through design, development, testing, low-rate production, full-rate production and fielding. Competition among potential suppliers occurs not just in the development phase, but also when production and sustainment contracts are being awarded.

That’s the approach the Army plans to follow in purchasing 260,000 “Handheld, Manpack and Small Form Fit” (HMS) radios for dismounted soldiers over the next decade. The radios will enable foot soldiers to leverage the full potential of modern communications technology on the battlefield, using lightweight devices to connect with everyone else in the joint force and thereby achieve unprecedented situational awareness. Initial design and development of the radios was competitively awarded in 2004, and now another competition will be held to see who gets to produce them.

However, while the HMS program was progressing smoothly to a full-rate production decision, the broader Joint Tactical Radio System program — often referred to among cognoscenti as “Jitters” — was coming unraveled. The Army decided to start over on a bigger, heavier radio for its vehicles, while the Air Force and the Navy decided to cancel their own systems. The requirements and standards didn’t go away, but the programs did because they were looking too unwieldy to execute at an acceptable cost.

None of which has anything to do with the highly successful HMS program, except for this: contractors who don’t like the way HMS is trending are trying to take advantage of the resulting confusion to shape an acquisition strategy more to their liking. At the top of that list is Harris Corporation, which has done a good job of supplying the Army with radios in Afghanistan but may be challenged to meet all the functional specifications set forth in the final HMS solicitation. That isn’t surprising, because the Army long ago settled on using specific signals, called waveforms, that were uniquely suited to transmitting diverse data in future conflicts — conflicts that may impose much different operational demands than the Afghan campaign.

The latest gambit launched by companies that feel disadvantaged under current Army plans is to convince legislators there is a need for more competition in buying the HMS radios. Competition is a key part of the Army’s acquisition strategy, but the concept sometimes is misused by lobbyists on Capitol Hill to benefit contractors who can’t win on the merits — you know, by actually satisfying the military’s validated needs. That may explain why one of the congressional committees has moved in its 2013 military spending plan to restrict money for HMS until the Army certifies it has an acquisition strategy that “promotes full and open competition to the maximum extent practicable.”

The committee language sounds reasonable enough, but at some point opening up the competition to as many companies as possible means abandoning features of the radios that might one day save soldiers’ lives. Secretary of the Army John McHugh confirmed in a November 29 letter to Congress that the service has fashioned a production strategy for HMS providing “full and open competition that is open to commercial radios that are determined qualified pursuant to successful testing conducted by the Army and certified by the NSA.” In other words, any company can compete if it is actually capable of satisfying the Army’s requirements. That should be the end of the discussion — unless someone thinks that awarding the contract to a particular company is more important than giving soldiers what the Army says they need to survive on future battlefields.