The Obama Administration has successfully transitioned a vital tactical-communications effort it inherited from centralized management to service-led development and fielding. Originally called the Joint Tactical Radio System, the program was conceived to deliver the benefits of internet-protocol communications and software-defined functionality to warfighters across the joint force. What all that jargon means in practical terms is that warfighters will no longer be alone and vulnerable on the modern battlefield, because they will be in constant contact with the rest of the force through a secure, resilient network that enables instantaneous transmission of voice, data and imagery. The new radios, which are now being delivered to soldiers in the field, will revolutionize military operations by lifting the fog of war — as I wrote in a commentary for Forbes this week.
However, the devil is always in the details when new warfighting technologies are being implemented, and as the lead service in deploying the game-changing radios, the Army gets first crack at turning a vision of digital connectivity into reality. Right now it is struggling with the challenge of how to keep delivering a pivotal part of the new battlefield network called the Manpack radio to soldiers despite the need to adjust its acquisition strategy. The plan had been to down-select to one provider, but as it approaches full-rate production of Manpacks, pressure is being exerted to sustain competition by keeping two or more industry teams on board. Keeping multiple teams engaged could be a good way to discipline price and performance, but it would really be unfortunate — in fact, downright dangerous — if the acquisition shift led to a delay in producing more radios.
That’s especially true in Afghanistan, where the drawdown of U.S. forces is leaving soldiers thinly spread across a vast and often hostile area. Manpack radios are a godsend in such circumstances, because they allow soldiers with handheld Rifleman radios to connect to the Army information backbone on the battlefield, known as WIN-T. Manpacks also can reach across diverse networks and levels of command, enabling more coherent command through constant connectivity and collaboration. Without the situational awareness provided by this technology, the likelihood of soldiers dying from enemy action or friendly fire would be significantly greater. So the faster Manpacks and all the other pieces of the new battlefield network can be fielded, the better.
The Army wants to extend the current low-rate production program for Manpacks until it can begin executing full-rate production on competitive terms. Given the bureaucratic delays associated with transitioning to full-rate production under a revised acquisition strategy — it could take two years — that is the smart thing to do. Pentagon policymakers should approve continuation of the current low-rate effort so that the flow of better communications devices to warfighters in the field is not impeded. Moving promptly to assure there is no break in production will minimize costs and maximize the likelihood that warfighters return home safely.
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