During the late 1990s, at the height of the dot.com boom, the U.S. military was seized with an enthusiasm for networked warfare and all things digital that produced a series of big “system-of-system” development programs. Two of those efforts, the Air Force’s Transformational Communications Satellite program and the Army’s Future Combat Systems program, were recently canceled. A third, called the Joint Tactical Radio System, survives but is facing both budgetary and technical challenges. JTRS, or “Jitters” as it is often called, is an appealing vision of future communications that would enable diverse warfighters to exchange large amounts of data effortlessly in the midst of battle, using software reconfigurable radios. A software reconfigurable radio substitutes agile computer code for hardware, so that one radio can communicate with many different users.
It isn’t hard to see why such a concept would appeal to military planners. One of the most persistent problems in warfare is the difficulty of establishing secure communications with all the friendly forces in a fight. JTRS has the potential to cut through the fog of war, not just with voice communications, but with data, imagery and other useful content. But JTRS has a problem that has dogged other big networking initiatives: it is at the cutting edge of new technology, and therefore is taking many years and billions of dollars to develop. Unfortunately, while the program is gradually making progress, political and technological developments are unfolding at a faster pace, potentially overtaking the vision of future warfare that originally spawned the effort.
A case in point is the Ground Mobile Radio being developed under the JTRS program for surface vehicles, which has proven too hard to integrate in its original baseline configuration and even in scaled-down form looks likely to cost several hundred thousand dollars per unit. At that price, it will not be feasible to field the system in large numbers across the force. A different version of JTRS being developed for airborne and maritime platforms is progressing more smoothly, but both of the sponsoring services sought to cancel it during deliberations on the 2011 budget, which raises doubts about its bureaucratic longevity. Thus, despite its undeniable appeal, policymakers need to consider the possibility that the current Joint Tactical Radio System program of record may not come to fruition as planned.
The solution isn’t to cut funding — the requirements for the program still exist — but to assure there is some fallback position if the primary effort falters. There are a variety of interim options available in the marketplace that are compatible with the basic JTRS architecture, but can be fielded sooner for less money. They aren’t better than the program of record, and in fact may be significantly inferior, but they offer an 80% solution at a time when fiscal conditions are making the 100% solution look less and less feasible. Policymakers need to assure that these backup options, imperfect though they may be, are not swept away before the survivability of the overall JTRS plan is assured. Aside from providing today’s warfighters with a partial solution to their most pressing connectivity needs, near-term options may end up being the only communications gear the military can afford in the tighter budgets of tomorrow.
Find Archived Articles: