Failure to communicate: Inside the army's doomed quest for the 'perfect' radio

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Sgt. Ryan Pike, left, and Staff Sgt. Altaf Swati erect a tactical satellite radio antenna while on patrol in Afak, Iraq, Dec. 28, 2008.

Department of Defense

As several dozen soldiers from the U.S. Army’s Task Force Rock drove into Afghanistan’s Chowkay Valley one morning in March 2010, Taliban fighters immediately began moving into ambush positions along a higher ridge. The Force’s mission was to protect a U.S. reconstruction team as it met with local village leaders, but it was stuck in place as the Taliban reached their fighting posts.

What tied them down was their radios: a forest of plastic and metal cubes sprouting antennae of different lengths and sizes. They had short-range models for talking with the reconstruction team; longer-range versions for reaching headquarters 25 miles away; and a backup satellite radio in case the mountains blocked the transmission. An Air Force controller carried his own radio for talking to jet fighters overhead and a separate radio for downloading streaming video from the aircraft.

Some of these radios worked only while the troopers were stationary; others were simply too cumbersome to operate on the move. “Not good,” said Spec. Geoff Pearman, as he watched farmers scurry indoors from their wheat fields — a sure sign that fighting was imminent.

Task Force Rock’s vulnerability that morning is routine for U.S. forces in Afghanistan today. But it was never supposed to occur at all.

Almost fifteen years ago, the Army launched an ambitious program, the Joint Tactical Radio System, aimed at developing several highly-compatible “universal” radios. Together, the JTRS radios would replace nearly all older radios in the American arsenal, greatly simplifying communications and freeing up combat units “to tap into the network on the move,” according to Paul Mehney, an Army spokesman.

But JTRS, pronounced “jitters,” failed to live up to its promise. Overly ambitious, poorly managed and saddled by incompatible goals, the program burned through $6 billion dollars while producing little working hardware. Delays forced the Army to spend $11 billion more on old-style radios to meet the urgent demands of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The Army eventually reduced the planned purchase of JTRS radios and cut the types of radios in development. In October, it canceled the vehicle-mounted version of JTRS, the most important of the new radios, which by then had grown to the size of a dormitory-sized refrigerator. For all practical purposes, JTRS is dead — at least in its original guise.

But the need for simpler battlefield communications remains. After an investment of 15 years and $17 billion, today the Army is still struggling to build better radios and estimates it may need to spend another $12 billion to get what it needs. The U.S. taxpayer has paid the bill, but frontline soldiers like those from Task Force Rock bear the true cost.

JTRS’ history is one of grand but naive technological ambition colliding with the unbending laws of physics and the unforgiving exigencies of modern warfare. After years of work, the Army discovered for itself what experts had been warning all along: It’s impossible for a single radio design to handle all the military’s different communications tasks.

The more capabilities that the Army and prime contractor Boeing packed into JTRS, the bigger, more complex and more expensive it became — until it was too bulky and unreliable for combat. In its relentless drive for conceptual simplicity, the Army found itself mired in mechanical complexity.

The Army wasn’t alone in its doomed pursuit of a technological pipe dream. The past decade has by many accounts been an era of grand ambition, flawed management and wasted treasure for all the military branches. A lengthy Harvard Business School study for the Pentagon concluded in April that despite many attempts at reform, “major defense programs still require more than 15 years to deliver less capability than planned, often at two to three times the planned cost.”

But the Army has arguably had more failures than other services. An internal report in 2010 noted that every year since 1996, the Army has spent more than a billion dollars annually “on programs that were ultimately cancelled” – including 15 cancelled since 2001. More than a third of its weapons development funds over the past seven years were spent on weapons systems deemed unusable in the end.

“I feel sorry for the Army,” said Thomas Christie, the Pentagon’s top weapons tester from 2001 to 2005. “Everything they’ve touched has turned to crap.”

Now the Pentagon faces a round of budget-cutting. So if the Army is to acquire new radios to keep its forces moving, it must do so on the cheap. That means reforming the vast, slow-moving bureaucracy entrusted to developing, testing and buying new military gear — a goal the Army is finally taking steps to reach. But it also means separating the good ideas from the bad ones at the outset, an ability that independent experts say continues to elude the world’s most powerful ground fighting force.

A Program Born in Frustration

The Army’s latest plan for overhauling its battlefield communication system was forged after the ground war to liberate Kuwait from the Iraqi Army in February 1991. While preparing for the lightning Left Hook drive north and east in southern Iraq, Pentagon planners were frustrated by their need to decide everything in advance because of the Army’s inability to communicate well on the move.

They developed a plan to create a “cyberwar” force on the battlefield, upending a tradition that only leaders carry radios, and information flows not between individuals, but between squads, platoons, companies, and other units. Instead of merely pointing their rifles and scanning with their eyes, every soldier in the networked force would be an information node with his own cameras, GPS tracker and radio, all communicating perfectly with others.

The Army formally started the program in 1997, calling it the “Joint Tactical Radio.” The JTR — the “S” for “System” was soon added — was to be compatible with all previous Army radio models plus almost every radio used by the Marines, Air Force, Navy and even civilian organizations such as local police departments.

The architecture was meant to be flexible, matching the communications needs of every imaginable user, from an individual private soldier lugging a rifle across the battlefield to top generals in their high-tech headquarters deep inside friendly territory. JTRS would even work in space.

The new radio, moreover, was a key component of an even more ambitious program — a collection of new lightweight armored vehicles and weapons-carrying robots collectively known as the Future Combat Systems. They would be fast-moving, widely-spread and plugged into a vast information network. Each would carry its own JTRS radio, as would every soldier riding inside.

After a series of war games to refine the cyberwar concept, in June 2000 the Defense Department awarded Chicago-based Boeing, America’s number-two defense contractor after Lockheed Martin, a $2-million contract to begin preparing JTRS blueprints. By Pentagon standards, it was a tiny contract. The overall JTRS program, including design and production, was expected to cost at least $6 billion over the first 10 years — and up to $40 billion by the time every last JTRS radio was bought, many years later.

For Boeing, that first contract was a foot in the door for both JTRS and Future Combat Systems, which by itself was expected to cost at least $120 billion over a period of decades. Boeing was not an experienced radio maker, nor did it manufacture armored vehicles. But the company sold itself to the Army on the strength of its intellectual prowess and management skills, stressing in a press release its “proven experience in large-scale system design, development and deployment.”

A little over a year later, 9/11 opened the floodgates for defense spending. After a series of high-level Pentagon meetings in 2002, the Army got a green light to give Boeing the major contracts for both JTRS and Future Combat Systems. Under the latter contract, Boeing was to receive 10 to 15 percent profit margins, regardless of the program’s success or eventual cost.

During the review, Christie, the Pentagon’s top weapons tester, warned top officials that the Army’s plans were unrealistic. “I said there’s no way this is going to happen,” he recalls. “But they got the go-ahead anyway, by claiming there was little technical risk.”

One Size Does Not Fit All

The Army figured it would need 230,000 copies of the main JTRS radios to replace 750,000 of its older radios and lighten unit commanders’ loads. The other military branches together would buy another 90,000 or so radios, and they would all connect with a quarter-million related devices. The new radios had to be phased in gradually due to manufacturing constraints, which meant each JTRS radio had to be compatible not only with other JTRS radios and the radios belonging to the other armed services, but also with all the Army’s old-style radios.

Achieving such broad compatibility posed a daunting challenge. Traditionally, the size and shape of military radios is determined by their task. A vehicle-mounted radio piping in data from some distant headquarters is large enough to accommodate a larger antenna, more processing power and more sophisticated encryption. A radio for an infantry squad is small enough for one man to carry; it has less range, power and encryption.

In addition, radios must be equipped to interpret particular radio “languages” known as a “waveforms,” tailored for specific types of transmissions. Some are better for moving data; others are better for voice or a mix of data and voice. The Army wanted JTRS to be compatible with the 30 or so most important military waveforms, including several ideally suited for the new radios. But it gradually grasped that it was impossible for a single radio design to handle all tasks and all waveforms.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all,” admits Brig. Gen. Michael Williamson, who since March has overseen the rapidly fading JTRS program. So JTRS split into several sub-programs between 2000 and 2004, each developing a different version. Boeing handled the bulk of the work in California and Missouri, but other defense contractors – including BAE Sytems in New Jersey and Rockwell Collins in Iowa -- got slices, as well. There were sea-, air- and space-based versions.

The ground-combat branch settled on one major JTRS radio, the so-called “Ground Mobile Radio” meant for vehicles, plus a smaller version for small units marching on foot, and the handheld version for individual soldiers. The ground radio was the main focus, a key to getting Army units talking on the move to each other, to aircraft overhead, to the Navy offshore and to senior commanders far away.

“JTRS would largely lift the fog of war,” Loren Thompson, an analyst with the Lexington Institute in Virginia, crowed on his blog in December 2010. The Lexington Institute receives funding from Boeing and other military contractors, and Thompson now describes JTRS as “a mixed bag.”

JTRS’ collapse began when reality intervened, after unit commanders in the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq struggled to stay in contact while on the move. Just as the Army’s war needs expanded the demand for innovation, software problems with the new radios slowed testing. So the Army had no choice but to buy non-JTRS radios from other manufacturers -- 300,000 radios in all, worth nearly $11 billion through 2006.

Frustrated by the delays and freshly equipped with new copies of old-style radios, the Army began losing its appetite for JTRS. Between 2006 and 2008, the Army scaled back its JTRS purchasing plans by 20 percent and decided the new radio would understand just eight waveforms instead of 33.

The reductions shaved billions of dollars off the cost of developing JTRS, but also increased the overall pricetag for each one, including research and development expenses. The Army suddenly expected to pay up to $300,000 for each JTRS ground radio — roughly double its estimate in 2002. By comparison, a factory-fresh, vehicle-mounted, non-JTRS radio from another major military supplier, the Harris Corp., costs just $57,000.

Technical Problems Worsen

The technical challenges of transmitting huge amounts of data over complex new waveforms became so acute that in 2005, the Army briefly ordered Boeing to stop work on JTRS. But the Pentagon has a hard time cancelling any program – often because the contracts it signs impose steep penalties on the government for any major change of heart -- and so the Army decided to reorganize the management office while allowing Boeing to proceed.

The program did not improve. Col. Dan Hughes, who oversaw ground radio development between 2006 and 2009, watched the radio grow in complexity and cost, while continually missing design deadlines. “We tried to make it better and better and better,” he says. But in the first two years after full-scale development was approved, the number of pages in the blueprint for the ground radio design tripled, according to a Government Accountability Office report in 2005. The radio also tipped the scales at 207 pounds — several times the weight of existing radios.

Plans to hand over prototypes to the troops for realistic testing got bumped back one year, then two, then three. With each delay, the Army was forced to buy more old-style radios for soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Manufacturers took the opportunity to upgrade their existing radio designs with enhanced processors, software and encryption and new waveforms, bringing them closer to the ground radio’s specs.

The Harris firm tweaked one of its popular radios to accommodate the main JTRS waveforms, and quickly sold 16,000 of the new radios, mostly to the Army.

Then, in 2010, the Army assembled 1,000 battlefield veterans at a desert training range at Fort Bliss, just outside of El Paso, to try out the key bits of JTRS technology. They criticized its size, its weight, its short range and its tendency to break down. Michael Gilmore, the Army’s top weapons tester, cited the soldiers’ complaints in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee. He said the ground radio “demonstrated little military utility.”

Meanwhile, the federal government’s ballooning deficits prompted several rounds of defense cuts that shaved billions from the Army’s research and development accounts. Future Combat Systems was killed first, around the same time the evaluation troops were testing JTRS.

In October, the Army also canceled the ground radio. “The technical challenges of mobile, ad hoc networks and scalability were not well understood due to the immaturity of technology at that time,” Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall explained in letters to the chairmen of the congressional armed services committees, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Rep. Howard McKeon (R-Cal.)..

Aspects of the overall JTRS program survive. The two main JTRS waveforms are still in development. So are the air-, sea- and space-based versions of the radio, plus some of the smaller Army models — in particular, the soldiers’ hand-held version. “We don’t want more monolithic programs,” says Col. John Morrison, who oversees the Army’s network-based battle-command efforts. Under the best of circumstances, the GAO estimates, the radios will cost another $12 billion to complete.

Although the Pentagon sometimes tries to recoup money invested in failed weapons, in the case of the ground radio, the Army said it would simply allow the Boeing contract, which was good through 2012, to lapse. Boeing would not be paid to continue ground-radio work — nor would the company be penalized.

A spokesman for Boeing, Matthew Billingsley, declined to say if the nonpublic contract allowed for the company to be penalized. He said that Boeing was disappointed at the program’s cancellation, and that the company looked forward to “applying our experience and knowledge in future competitions.”

Task Force Rock, anchored to the floor of Afghanistan’s Chowkay Valley by its radios in March 2010, was lucky. It escaped an attack by fleeing the valley under the cover of U.S. helicopters firing white phosphorus rockets. Burdened with radios the Army has spent more than 20 years trying to replace, other American combat units might not be so lucky.