Development of the Army’s revolutionary Ground Mobile Radio (GMR) is 95% complete, and is entering government testing to verify its performance features. GMR is the leading edge of a family of “software-defined” radios that can easily switch among various modes and functions by using agile computer code in place of specialized hardware. The Army and other services currently must buy multiple radios, antennas and other equipment to provide the links afforded by a single GMR system, and even with all that hardware installed they cannot match the versatility of the new radio. For example, it would take over a hundred legacy radios to equal the amount of information that can be carried on GMR’s wideband networking channels.
The Ground Mobile Radio was the first of several radio types begun under the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS, or “Jitters”) program during the Clinton years. The basic idea is to replace dozens of incompatible Cold War radios with a single seamless battlefield network using software that can be quickly downloaded into any radio meeting JTRS specifications. Boeing is leading the team that will deliver radios for Army vehicles, Lockheed Martin is leading the team for aircraft and warships, and General Dynamics is working with Thales on smaller man-pack versions. All three teams must produce radios utilizing the same software and hardware specifications so that when they are fielded the services can communicate with each other effortlessly, eliminating communications barriers that in the past have at times led to death and defeat. Other members on the Boeing team include Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems, Rockwell Collins and Harris.
Although the Joint Tactical Radio System program has been criticized for cost increases above the original baseline — a common problem in cutting-edge technology programs — at this point all versions of the radio seem to be progressing smoothly. GMR alone must meet 2,000 separate user requirements, many of which are focused on the need to transmit diverse information quickly to warfighters on the move without being susceptible to jamming or interception. Boeing has designed security and resilience into the software, so that enemies cannot exploit the dependence of U.S. forces on an internet-like battlefield network for their own purposes. The Ground Mobile Radio will have seven different “waveforms” — specially shaped signals — that collectively can communicate with an array of legacy radios while also conveying vast amounts of information at unprecedented speeds (the formal specification for GMR’s wideband network is two megabits per second, but much higher rates are possible under favorable circumstances).
With hardware and software development progressing nicely, the main political issue facing the program is what each radio will cost. The current estimate is $90,000 per radio for GMR if the Army uses an efficient buying strategy for all 86,000 radios it plans to buy. That sounds like a lot of money for a “radio,” but what the Army is really buying is a secure, multi-function battlefield network that will minimize casualties and maximize force performance. The cost probably does not greatly exceed the expense of maintaining so many incompatible legacy radios in the force, since it costs the service about $20,000 per radio for every dedicated radio channel that it fields. Boeing says that supposedly cheaper alternatives to GMR either don’t meet warfighter requirements for radio performance, or entail hidden costs for ancillary equipment that drive up the price the Army must pay. Army leaders appear to agree with that assessment.
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