When President Bush took office nearly seven years ago, his vision of how the military needed to change could be summed up in one word: transformation. Bush shared with many other observers a belief that the defense establishment inherited from cold war years was too Balkanized and ingrown to cope with emerging threats. He directed defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld to fashion a plan for transforming the joint force into a more integrated, collaborative enterprise that could respond quickly and precisely to conventional and unconventional challenges alike. New technologies, especially new communications technologies, were expected to play a pivotal role in this transformation.
One high-tech investment that the administration identified as crucial to creating a more agile, integrated force was the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS, usually pronounced “Jitters”). JTRS was to be a network of software-reconfigurable radios, meaning that adjustments in computer code would enable them to do multiple tasks traditionally requiring diverse hardware. That was important because radios then in use by the joint force often could not talk to each other, and there was growing demand on the battlefield for new media such as digital imagery. Software-reconfigurable radios would allow the military to deploy a wireless battlefield network capable of tying together previously incompatible communications gear and media. It wasn’t just that the new radios would work better than older ones — they would be able to communicate with many of the older radios, avoiding the huge cost of buying everyone new gear.
This vision of low-cost, universal connectivity on the battlefield was so appealing that all the services began investing in it. There would be a cluster of radios for ground vehicles, another for aircraft and ships, still another for backpacks. All would function according to the same standards, spawning a robust, self-healing network instantly accessible to every warfighter. Once barriers to communication came down, soldiers, sailors and airmen could begin to share a “common operating picture” — a boost in situational awareness potentially saving thousands of lives and billions of dollars.
But then the vision of what might be possible began to dim. A weak joint program office produced fragmented contracting arrangements. Software development problems on an initial ground vehicle radio led to increased costs and decreased performance goals. Funding for work on radios beyond the troubled ground vehicle cluster was cut as budget planners searched for billpayers. Warfighters began clamoring for new radios before JTRS was available, threatening to drain away more money to interim solutions. The future of the entire program became uncertain.
With many proponents of transformation now departed from the Pentagon and the military engaged in a multi-front war, it is hard for policymakers to stay focused on the promise of the Joint Tactical Radio System. But without JTRS, the joint force will never achieve the full measure of agility and awareness necessary to minimize casualties on the modern battlefield. Despite problems, parts of the JTRS efforts have progressed smoothly. For example, demonstrations conducted last year proved the maturity of design ideas for the radios to be carried on aircraft and ships. It would be tragic to delay the program any further by cutting funding or deferring contract awards, because the cost of outmoded communications gear will be paid for with the lives of America’s warfighters on the battlefields of the future.
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