A short-lived and largely under-the-radar dustup last week over a $500 million radio contract for the U.S. Army might not sound like much in the context of a $600 billion 2013 defense budget. But the scrap offers a glimpse into the future of austerity-era defense contracting, where new work will be even more hotly contested than ever before.
On May 15, a bipartisan amendment was introduced to the House Armed Services Committee’s defense authorization markup by Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, and co-sponsored by Trent Franks, R-Ariz., that would have barred the Army and Navy from procuring tactical radio systems “that depend on proprietary waveforms and have not been or are not procured through full and open competition.”
The amendment did contain an out clause for the services, however. It stated that the secretary of defense “may waive the limitation under subsection (a) if the secretary submits to the congressional defense committees written certification that procurement of certain tactical radios is required to meet urgent operational needs.”
Industry insiders said the language appeared to disqualify Harris’ Falcon III 117G radio, which runs the company’s proprietary Adaptive Wideband Networking Waveform, and is competing for more Army business with the system. Harris won a $66 million contract from the Army in October for its two-channel 117G radios to replace the canceled Ground Mobile Radios that were slated to be issued to up to eight brigade combat teams this fall.
And by disqualifying Harris, the language in the amendment appeared to favor General Dynamics, Harris’ main competitor for Army radio work. Loebsack, who introduced the amendment, represents a district in Iowa that’s home to Rockwell Collins, which partners with General Dynamics on several of its radio programs. Likewise Franks’ district in Arizona is home to a General Dynamics facility.
One source familiar with the issue said Loebsack included the amendment as a pre-emptive strike to another thought to be coming from Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J., who is said to have been targeting the funding for the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS). The source said Loebsack was looking to protect the radio program.
Once the amendment was inserted, Harris responded by sending urgent emails to the press claiming favoritism, followed by phone calls from General Dynamics shooting those charges down.
By the afternoon of May 16 — just one day after the amendment was introduced — the amendment had been withdrawn.
Joe Hand, spokesman for Loebsack, said the congressman saw industry efforts to “bias the contract competition, and the congressman feels it shouldn’t be biased, and then once we saw that the efforts to bias the competition ended, then we pulled it.”
He said he was not aware of any other amendments concerning the JTRS program.
Dennis Moran, a retired U.S. Army major general who is Harris’ vice president of government business, said that “it is Harris’ belief that Congress sees the need for full and open best-value competition in the ground tactical radio market. The draft language in the [2013 defense budget] continues to articulate that desire for competition, and we absolutely think that is the right way to go.”
A General Dynamics spokeswoman wrote in an email that “the JTRS HMS program is in production and able to deliver now a two-channel Manpack radio capable of running all of the government-owned waveforms in the [Joint Program Executive Office] repository. It only makes fiscal sense that there should be a moratorium placed on proprietary and/or sole-source radio purchases.”
At issue were two versions of the JTRS: the Mid-Tier Networking Vehicular Radio and the HMS tactical radio. The radios are envisioned as a way to connect soldiers in the field to higher headquarters while on the move. Current battlefield communications systems only allow soldiers to connect to the network while stationary, and then only to their immediate superiors.
Both radios are being evaluated by the Army as part of its Network Integration Evaluation at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
While the initial contract isn’t huge, it is significant in that the radios will help form a communications backbone for the Army’s brigade combat teams. As such, it could lay the foundation for steady work into the future, as the service plans to purchase relatively small batches of new hardware every several years in order to stay abreast of developments in the commercial communications market.
And more is expected this week, when the Defense Business Board meets to discuss the future of the JTRS program.
Paul Mehney, a spokesman for the Army’s modernization initiative, emailed from White Sands to say that any promising technology that comes out of the NIE process will be acquired through full and open competition. “Only, in select cases, if an emerging technology fills an immediate [war-fighting need] then other acquisition methods may be employed to quickly procure the capability.”
Concerning the scuttled amendment, Mehney added that the language supports the Army’s acquisition strategy of holding a “full and open competition, and essentially says that the government will continue to use primarily government-owned (purpose rights) waveforms (non-proprietary) that are contained in the DoD Information Repository.”
The Army will continue to “encourage and work with industry and the Services to take and insert these government-owned waveforms into new developmental technology that industry can bring back to the government through the Agile Process.”
While “it appears that Harris won the day,” one industry source said, this latest congressional-industrial spat is indicative of things to come as defense budgets tighten and contracts become fewer and further between, a defense expert said.
“We’re going to be operating at a very high level historically of defense spending over the next few years, even if sequestration occurs,” said Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, which is now part of the Project on Government Oversight. “That said, the manufacturers are going to be squabbling all the more loudly over a stable or slightly declining amount of money, because it can’t feed a system that demands ever increasing amounts of money.”
When putting the opening salvos in the current defense budget drawdown in its historical context, Wheeler said that “this one so far has been much milder than the ones in the past in terms of dollars, but the political system has evolved to a place where it’s much more selfish and strident, and it’s very unpredictable how the political system will react to less money this time around.”