Joint Tactical Radio Isn’t Just Better, It’s Cheaper

Last month the co-chairmen of the President’s bipartisan deficit reduction commission offered a series of recommendations for trimming federal spending, including defense cuts that would total $100 billion annually by 2015. I thought the proposed defense cuts were reasonable. However, the two chairmen undercut their case by offering a compendium of “illustrative” program reductions that was embarrassingly shallow and misleading. One of their worst errors was to propose cancellation of the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS), a move that if implemented would result in higher costs and casualties for the joint force.

JTRS, often referred to as “Jitters,” isn’t an easy program to understand. It was conceived during the Clinton years as a way of replacing dozens of incompatible legacy radio systems with a single family of versatile communication devices. Not only would everybody in the force be able to talk across organizational and functional boundaries for the first time, but they would be able to send images and other digital data using the kind of “internet protocol” communications that automatically route transmissions around gaps in the network. And because the whole system is driven by software rather than highly specialized hardware, upgrading performance is accomplished by downloading more computer code rather than laboriously installing new amplifiers and antennas.

Like I said, the program isn’t easy to understand. The co-chairs of the deficit panel clearly don’t get it, and some of the companies that have been left out of the program don’t want them to get it. Those companies would rather sell the military less capable radios that plug the holes in existing capabilities. The military has been doing precisely that since 9-11, but there’s a limit to what interim solutions can accomplish. Right now, it is devilishly difficult for diverse elements of the force to communicate quickly because they inherited radios from an era when each of the military services bought equipment without much regard to what the other services were doing. In other words, the joint communications network is fragmented in a way that can cause unnecessary setbacks and loss of life when the bullets start flying. JTRS would largely lift the fog of war by providing assured, secure communications to all American forces in a war zone.

Recent warfighting simulations using the JTRS variant being developed for aircraft and warships demonstrate the potential of the system. Compared with existing communications gear, JTRS delivers a 300 percent gain in situational awareness, a 1000 percent gain in the speed of command, and a thousand times greater transmission capacity in any given period of time for vital targeting information and intelligence. The ground-mobile version of the radio designed for Army and Marine armored vehicles is also said to have performed well in recent tests. But the ground version illustrates the kind of political challenge a new system like JTRS faces, because some elements in the Army say it is too capable (and therefore expensive) for current warfighting needs, while the tech gurus in the Pentagon’s research and engineering bureaucracy say it could be more capable.

The simple reality, though, is this: if the Joint Tactical Radio System is not kept on track, then the U.S. military will lose any possibility of having high-capacity, secure battlefield links between all elements of the force for a generation. Billions of dollars will have been wasted on a multi-decade development program, but tens of billions more will have to be spent supporting outmoded radio gear already in the force and buying short-term solutions to bridge the most dangerous gaps in the existing network. When you factor in the functionality and efficiencies that would be lost by killing JTRS, it is apparent that the government would spend more money over time for less capability than if it simply stuck with the plan. But this is one instance where the word “killing” does not apply in just a metaphorical sense: if JTRS is not fielded, many American warfighters will eventually die unnecessarily because they didn’t have the vital intelligence they required in a timely fashion. Budget cutters should look elsewhere for savings.