During the Cold War, America’s military services acquired a diverse collection of radios without much oversight or coordination. As a result, the joint force today is saddled with an aging inventory of incompatible systems that often fails to provide adequate communications in combat. The sheer cost of maintaining so many different radios is huge, but the bigger burden comes when warfighters can’t reach each other in life-threatening situations. Some of them die. Or they lose fights that might have been won with better connectivity.
The Bush Administration had a solution to this problem, called the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS, or “Jitters”). The idea was to substitute agile software for diverse hardware, so that one radio could operate up and down the spectrum without special antennas, batteries and so on. Each military department planned to buy versions of the radio suited to its operational needs, but the radios all could have talked to each other effortlessly, communicating voice messages, digital data and other information across the boundaries that previously divided them.
That was then, but this is now: the Air Force and Navy have proposed to kill their versions of the new radio, which are being developed under a program called JTRS-AMF (AMF standing for air, maritime and fixed station). The Army still plans to go ahead with its own version of JTRS, but let’s face it — if the radios on Air Force planes and Navy warships aren’t compatible, much of the value is lost. Whatever near-term savings this awful move might generate will be bought with the lives of warfighters who can’t get a timely connection in the future.
Part of the problem here is that few policymakers and politicians grasp how important it is to bring tactical communications up to the standards of the internet age. They don’t realize how unreliable battlefield communications can be today, and how much cheaper it would be for everybody in the force to use the same interoperable radios. But the larger problem is that when budgets get tight, military bureaucracies begin defaulting to insular priorities rather than doing what’s right for the whole joint force. The fact that JTRS-AMF is on schedule, that it is proven to work, and that it will save lives gets lost in the process. It will be interesting to see whether the Obama Administration can look beyond the near-term need to balance budgets, and grasp the consequences of destroying such a vital program.
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