There’s a saying among psychotherapists that when every other remedy fails, the mere passage of time can work wonders. Unfortunately, that wisdom doesn’t apply to weapons programs, especially the complex networking projects favored by today’s military. The efforts are so closely intertwined that problems in one part tend to spread to other parts, and soon the whole enterprise is at risk.
So it is with the Joint Tactical Radio System — JTRS, or “Jitters” to Pentagon insiders. Jitters was conceived to equip diverse military users with a family of interoperable radios that would allow seamless communication of voice, data and video under the most trying circumstances, regardless of whether they were stationary or moving, airborne or surface-bound. The radios are “software-defined,” which means their performance can be enhanced by downloading new digital instructions rather than replacing hardware.
It’s a neat idea, but like some other ideas favored by proponents of military transformation, it isn’t working out. The Army is threatening to cancel Boeing’s contract for the core cluster of radios, which was supposed to provide enabling software and waveforms for other members of the JTRS family. (Waveforms are the characteristics of signals that permit them to perform specific functions, like avoiding enemy interception.) The program is confusingly organized, but there are basically two other clusters — an Air Force/Navy cluster for which Boeing and Lockheed Martin are competing, and a reduced-weight/handset cluster run by General Dynamics.
Boeing’s core cluster would have provided radios for Army and Marine ground vehicles, and helicopters, but its more important goal was to generate that framework of software and waveforms that ties all the clusters together in a single network. Boeing is having trouble delivering those items, which is hardly surprising given how ambitious the Army’s original vision was. The software was expected to support 20 unique waveforms that would allow easy communication with virtually every radio the military has ever bought.
It’s easy to see why the Army wants such a system. The C-130 cargo planes that carry its Stryker armored vehicles are equipped with over a dozen different radios. What a boon it would be to have one radio that could do everything. But it’s time to start thinking more modestly, because Congress is signaling impatience with delays in the program. The place to start is by bringing all the industry players together to figure out whether the necessary software and waveforms are really feasible. If they aren’t, then the clusters need to be untethered and focused on achievable goals.
General Dynamics has plenty of experience with software-defined radios, so letting it go do its own thing on manpack radios is not a problem. Lockheed Martin has worked around the lack of products from Boeing’s Army/Marine Corps cluster by using alternative waveforms for the Air Force/Navy cluster. So now the Army needs to rethink what it is trying to accomplish in the initial cluster. Obviously, this isn’t shaping up to be the bold vision with which Jitters began, but there’s still plenty of room for progress if planners can learn to be more practical about their goals.
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