Defense secretary Robert Gates has taken a lot of grief for killing programs. But the worst idea for killing a military program this year did not come from Secretary Gates. It came from the Air Force and Navy. They want to cancel their versions of the Joint Tactical Radio System for airborne, maritime and fixed-station users, called JTRS AMF. That proposal wouldn’t just kill a program, it would kill warfighters. It would also waste billions of dollars down the road by sticking with the joint force’s historic pattern of haphazardly purchasing a patchwork of incompatible radios.
JTRS was conceived during the Clinton years as a way of removing communications barriers between diverse warfighting communities. It substitutes agile software for hardware, so that one radio can communicate on many different channels without needing special antennas or other items. It also substitutes “packet switching” digital technology for outdated circuit switching, thereby enabling the efficient transmission of many kinds of information (voice, data, images) across limited bandwidth. This combination of a software-defined radio with packet switching — employing the same standards that made the Internet possible — would produce a revolution in military communications.
C-130 airlifters would no longer need to carry multiple radios to communicate with all the warfighters relying on their services. No one would ever again have to use an AT&T calling card to get around incompatible communications gear. Each joint radio would become a relay and router in a resilient battlefield network that could communicate not only with other JTRS devices, but also with legacy devices operating on the most widely used channels. The end result would be versatile, timely communication that eliminates the deadly gaps and delays of the past — problems frequently cited in after-action reports from Iraq and Afghanistan.
But like any other revolutionary idea, JTRS requires some vision to grasp. Unfortunately, vision is usually in short supply during Pentagon budget deliberations, where hard numbers figure more prominently than big ideas. So the fact that JTRS AMF could save thousands of lives gets short shrift, because there’s no way of quantifying those gains. The cost of sustaining obsolete legacy radios gets lost too, because that’s a different part of the budget. And the likelihood that losing the airborne and maritime versions of JTRS would wreck plans for a ground version doesn’t get addressed either, because that’s a separate line item.
So the short-sighted proposal to cancel JTRS AMF needs to be informed by some battlefield experience and some understanding of how the world is changing. If we throw away JTRS AMF, we will end up wasting lives and money while handing the future of warfare to our adversaries.
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