Boeing rivals pitch cheaper radio for $39 billion combat system

  • Chicago-based  Boeing Co. and General Dynamics Corp. face a challenge from rivals offering less costly radios for troops and armored vehicles as part of a military-wide system estimated to cost $39 billion.

    Chicago-based Boeing Co. and General Dynamics Corp. face a challenge from rivals offering less costly radios for troops and armored vehicles as part of a military-wide system estimated to cost $39 billion. Associaed Press

Updated 7/28/2011 12:38 PM

Boeing Co. and General Dynamics Corp. face a challenge from rivals offering less costly radios for troops and armored vehicles as part of a military-wide system estimated to cost $39 billion.

The Joint Tactical Radio System, a family of digital radios conceived in 1997 and still in development, has had repeated delays, cost overruns and performance shortfalls, according to government auditors.


Now, the military is taking steps to encourage more competition in the system's ground programs. It has asked industry for information on "low-cost, reduced-size" vehicular radios and has begun testing the compatibility of portable radios from vendors such as Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman Corp.; ITT Corp. of White Plains, New York; and Harris Corp. of Melbourne, Florida.

The military will own the software applications, known as waveforms, for the computer-based radios provided by industry.

"We don't really care who builds the box to carry the waveform," Army Vice Chief of Staff Peter Chiarelli told reporters May 23 at the Pentagon.

Boeing, based in Chicago, leads a team developing radios for trucks and armored vehicles called Ground Mobile Radios (GMR), the most expensive part of JTRS at $19.5 billion. General Dynamics, based in Falls Church, Virginia, heads a team developing portable radios as part of the $5.8 billion Handheld, Manpack, Small Form Fit (HMS) program. Other parts of the system are slated to cost $13.7 billion.

The estimates come from the Defense Department's Selected Acquisition Report summary table published in December, the most recent available. The Army has since decreased the number of ground mobile radios it plans to buy, to 10,293 from 86,209 and increased the number of handhelds, to 50,000 from 19,000.

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The Army opted for fewer four-channel radios because of changing requirements, officials said.

After then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2009 canceled the $159 billion Future Combat Systems, "our requirement for the GMR program went away," Army Lieutenant Colonel Fredrick Ludden said in an interview. "It took the Army a few years to come to that realization that they needed to adjust their network architecture."

After asking industry about smaller, low-cost alternatives to the ground mobile radio in May, the military received responses from "about eight" companies, Navy Captain Jeff Hoyle said in a telephone interview. He declined to identify the companies.

Northrop is developing a radio for blast-resistant trucks and armored vehicles called Freedom 350, according to Colin Phan, the company's director of business development for network communications systems. The fifth-generation, software-defined radio incorporates lessons learned from building radios for the F-22 and F-35 fighter jets, he said.

The Army's recent Network Integration Evaluation, a six- week operational test of the tactical communications network conducted at Fort Bliss, Texas, and White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, proved troops "are not happy with the performance of the hardware running the waveforms," Phan said in a telephone interview.


"There's an opening here," he said. "If you can provide a computer that doesn't crash every 10 minutes, that can run those applications, that's what they're looking for."

At least some soldiers who tested General Dynamics' 13- pound manpack radios in 100-plus-degree temperatures at the dusty outposts reported the device being too hot and heavy to carry on their backs, preferring instead the company's handheld, walkie-talkie-like Rifleman Radio, an official said.

Another soldier said Boeing's ground mobile radio, which looks like a stack of home stereo equipment, was difficult to use and unreliable. "It's not soldier friendly and it's not easy to use by any means," Staff Sergeant Heath Jewett said in an interview. "We have to babysit it on an hourly basis because it's unstable."

Jerry Tyree, the lead technical director for the Army test, said the ground mobile radio runs up to four waveforms simultaneously, allowing users to communicate with a range of equipment from simple handheld radios to satellites.

"The commonality of it in terms of configurations is a beautiful thing," he said in an interview.

Commanders can use the ground mobile radio to issue mission instructions, chat and send text messages for greater situational awareness across the network, according to Boeing spokeswoman Cheryl Sampson.

Feedback on the software performance "has been positive but the official Army report is due later this summer," Sampson said in an e-mail.

Boeing has received about $2 billion since fiscal 2002 under a contract to develop ground mobile radios with partners Northrop Grumman, Rockwell Collins Inc. of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, BAE Systems Plc of London and Harris Corp., according to the Federal Procurement Data System.

Boeing intends to compete for any follow-on version and has responded to the government's request for information, Sampson said. "Our experience and knowledge," she said, "makes us competitive in this market."

The request asked companies to estimate costs assuming the military would buy between 10,000 and 25,000 radios for vehicles such as tanks, troop carriers and armored trucks from fiscal 2013 through fiscal 2022, including 2,000 in 2013 and 2014. The radios must be capable of running the Soldier Radio Waveform, which streams up to 1 megabyte of data a second, and the Wideband Networking Waveform, which streams up to 5 megabytes a second.

In May, the military for the first time lab-tested the compatibility of a JTRS radio running the Soldier Radio Waveform -- General Dynamics's Rifleman Radio -- with industry products, including Northrop's Software Defined Multi-Function Device, ITT's Soldier Radio and Harris's Falcon III AN/PRC-117G, Hoyle said. The test was successful and will lead to larger field tests later this summer, he said.

"It's a very exciting time," Hoyle said. "We're sort of at the tipping point" where enough vendors have invested in building radios running the non-proprietary software, he said. "Now the government can take advantage of that and leverage that to deliver capability sooner and more affordably."

Bill Rau, a spokesman for General Dynamics C4 Systems of Scottsdale, Arizona, part of General Dynamics, said the company welcomes the government's testing of JTRS radios from other vendors.

"Our heritage of identifying leading-edge technologies and creating innovative ways of putting those technologies into soldiers' hands uniquely qualifies us to succeed in the competitive JTRS environment," Rau said in an e-mail.

General Dynamics since fiscal 2004 has received about $780 million to develop Handheld, Manpack, Small Form Fit radios with partners BAE Systems of Wayne, New Jersey, part of BAE Systems, Rockwell Collins; and Thales Communications Inc. of Clarksburg, Maryland, part of Thales SA of Neuilly-Sur-Seine, France.

Dave Prater, vice president for JTRS at ITT Communications Systems of Fort Wayne, Indiana, part of ITT Corp., said he sees "several opportunities" in the Army's tactical radio market, which he estimated at $4 billion.

"There's going to be calls for more focused networking appliances that may not be these grandiose, multichannel form designs," Prater said in a telephone interview.

Dennis Moran, vice president of government business development at Harris RF Communications, part of Harris Corp., said its Falcon III AN/PRC-117G, is poised to receive certification to carry the Soldier Radio Waveform and "is going to play well with the other radios."

The military testing, Moran said in a telephone interview, shows "you can have different flavors of hardware platforms to provide interoperable communications on the battlefield."