U.S. Army Builds Off of Abandoned Radio Technology Efforts

by

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army continues to turn its information technology acquisition strategy on its head, further distancing itself from the Future Combat Systems, with the Ground Mobile Radio (GMR) becoming the latest victim of the service’s new strategy to buy more commercial, off-the-shelf solutions.

The Joint Tactical Radio System’s GMR stands as the latest example, but it is only one of many changes rippling through Army plans to buy its next communications systems.

It started with the Network Integration Evaluation (NIE), which will launch its second iteration Oct. 31. Army acquisition officials have already heralded the exercise, stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas, and White Sands Missile Range, N.M., as “transformative” after its first run in May and June.

The inspiration for the exercise is simple: Get the network and radios into soldiers’ hands earlier rather than later to see if they are useful. And soldiers test the communications network comprehensively rather than as separate parts.

The NIE is transformative because all of this gear is being tested together as one system to see how each piece of equipment affects another, Heidi Shyu, acting Army acquisition executive, said. It also introduces operational testing much earlier in the acquisition cycle, giving early feedback on the systems’ requirements.

“It tells the Army how well it’s fitting the soldiers’ needs versus the engineers’,” Shyu said.

GMR in its current form overheated too often and left soldiers frustrated. Now, it is on the FCS scrap heap. Army officials say that is not a sign of failure but an opportunity to take what the service learned in GMR development, redo certain requirements, and then build a cheaper, more capable system that keeps pace with technological advances.

The Army will launch a nondevelopmental effort to replace GMR, allowing the service to buy a cheaper, less sophisticated two-channel radio. This all comes after Army leaders slashed their GMR order drastically, thus increasing the program’s unit costs and causing a breach of the Nunn-McCurdy acquisition law.

After investing $1.6 billion in the GMR program over the past decade, the Army decided not to recertify the current program and instead open the competition up to other companies. Rather than cancel Boeing’s GMR contract, the Army chose to let it expire next March and instead harvest technologies from the program for future efforts, Brig. Gen. Michael Williamson, the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) program executive officer, said.

“This approach allows us to get a lower-cost solution faster than we would have been able to had we stuck with the original program,” Lt. Gen. Bill Phillips, military deputy to the Army’s acquisition executive, said. “There are many companies that have the ability to deliver GMR-like radios.”

Focusing on the fact that GMR will not be fielded in its current form misses the bigger picture of massive changes in the Army’s network acquisition strategy, Army leaders said. Those changes are highlighted by current and future organizational shifts.

As of Oct. 1, PEO Integration, the latest Future Combat Systems holdover office, closed. Col. Dan Hughes, nominated for promotion to brigadier general, took over as the Army director of System of Systems Integration (SOSI), which replaces PEO Integration. By design, SOSI is not a program executive office, meaning it owns no products and no longer has a stake in the outcome of individual product evaluations, Col. John Wendel, military deputy to the Army’s new director of SOSI, said.

Development of Army radios is now overseen by the Program Executive Office for Command, Control and Communications-Tactical (PEO C3T), with the exception of the JTRS office — for now. The headquarters for SOSI is at Aberdeen, Md., co-located with PEO C3T.

Two program managers fall under SOSI: PM Capability Package and PM Futures. PM Capability Package oversees the physical execution of the NIE, while PM Futures is in charge of the preparation and lab assessments for all of the gear used in the evaluation.

The Army will put the network’s wave forms to the test in the next NIE, Williamson said, adding that establishing the wave forms remains the service’s top network priority.

He compared it to the cell tower and architecture investment made by cellphone companies. These companies then depend on other companies, such as Apple, to keep developing the latest phones. The wave forms are the Army’s cellphone towers.

“If we can get the wave forms right, then we set ourselves up for success,” Williamson said.

What left Army leaders optimistic about the GMR program, even while it was having problems during the NIE, was the performance of the Soldier Radio Waveform and the Wideband Networking Waveform, which Wendel called the “gold nugget” of the first NIE.

Both wave forms provide the backbone for the Army’s future network. The soldier wave form supports soldier-to-soldier and small-unit communications, while the wideband wave form connects ground and air vehicles.

Once the Defense Department establishes its wave forms, it will have a standard on which industry teams can build radios and communications systems. Shyu said the Army will rely more on existing rather than “leap-ahead” technologies.

In December, the JTRS program set up a red team assessment examining JTRS programs of record and other vendors’ plans. The team found some companies have their own alternatives that could be delivered faster and for less money, Wendel said.

The Army recently spent $66.3 million to buy more Falcon 3 AN/PRC-117G radios, which received high marks from the soldiers who tested them during the NIE. The radios connect dismounted soldiers and vehicles to command-and-control posts on the battlefield.

Williamson said he is interested to see how the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) performs in the second NIE. Not expected to go through formal testing until 2012, more than a dozen sets of WIN-T Increment 2 will be used by soldiers. The system provides on-the-move network communications down to the company level.

Soldiers with the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, the brigade assigned to the NIE, have started to train on the WIN-T and other systems the Army will test.

Training soldiers on the new equipment is crucial, Wendel said. If the soldier does not know how to use the system, he may give it a poor grade, which could result in the Army not buying something useful.

The Army is working with industry to provide proper guidelines about what kind of training package needs to be delivered with each new system. The Army learned from the first NIE that it needs to request the training package earlier.

”We’ve proven that what these soldiers say matters, so it’s extremely important we give them the training so they know how to use this equipment properly,” Williamson said. “That’s another benefit of the NIE. We can train them under realistic scenarios.”