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Army’s New Radio System Faces Technical Hurdles, Budget Cuts

Aug. 28, 2012 - 11:19AM   |  
By PAUL McLEARY   |   Comments
A Marine uses an HMS Manpack radio as soldiers observe during the Network Integration Evaluation 12.2 capability assessment.
A Marine uses an HMS Manpack radio as soldiers observe during the Network Integration Evaluation 12.2 capability assessment. (Defense Department)
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Questions about several component technologies have the U.S. Army rewriting part of its plan to equip brigade combat teams with a new suite of battlefield communications technologies.

One of the concerns is a new delay to the Joint Tactical Radio System’s HMS Manpack radios.

“We are now studying potential options while also looking at fielding schedules to ensure any option can meet the timeline established. Those assessments are currently underway,” said Paul Mehney, spokesman for the Army modernization program.

Senate appropriators, apparently unconvinced, have proposed to cut more than half of the Manpack program’s 2013 funding. Meanwhile, the network backbone that will connect the new radios, the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, has become embroiled in its own high-stakes budgetary drama.

On July 26, the Defense Acquisition Board decided to delay a production decision for the Manpack radio, which was recently criticized by the Pentagon’s director of operational test and evaluation and whose support among congressional appropriators has recently come under fire. The panel pushed the decision to September, giving the Army and Manpack maker General Dynamics some time to make some critical fixes and conduct further evaluations, according to a source with knowledge of the DAB meeting.

DOT&E director Michael Gilmore wrote in his July 20 report that the radio “is not operationally effective” when running the Single Channel Ground Airborne Radio Systems waveform. Specifically, there were compatibility issues between two-decade-old SINCGARS and the state-of-the-art Soldier Radio Waveform.

The Multi-service Operational Test and Evaluation took place during the May/June Network Integration Evaluation event at the White Sands Missile Range, N.M., and Fort Bliss, Texas. According to Gilmore’s report, the Manpack radios running SINCGARS suffered from “poor, garbled, and unintelligible” voice quality and were able to transmit data “at less than half the range achieved by legacy SINCGARS radios.”

The radios failed because of a software problem General Dynamics and the Army were able to fix during the NIE event, according to an Army official.

The source said the glitch “contributed to some of the range and communications issues that Gilmore identified in the report.”

In the wake of the NIE event, General Dynamics conducted more tests under the supervision of the Army Test and Evaluation command and staffers from Gilmore’s office, according to the official, who said the radio had passed all of those follow-up evaluations. That information didn’t make it into the report, the official said.

The Manpack radio has long been a key component of the Army’s Capability Set program, which seeks to modernize tactical communications by allowing soldiers down to the squad level to push data up to battalion headquarters and beyond, all while on the move. Deployed units cannot do that. The two-channel radio can use high-bandwidth waveforms for line-of-sight and beyond-line-of-sight communications with soldiers on foot or in vehicles.

So far, General Dynamics has delivered 165 Manpack radios, and is awaiting DAB approval that would allow the Army to award up to 4,500 more.

Schedule slippages have already barred the Manpack radios from going along when the Capability Set 13 equipment package debuts with two brigade combat teams in October. Instead, the two teams will get Falcon III 117G radios made by Harris.

The Manpack radio is scheduled to be shipped to the third brigade in June.

“HMS is still a key and critical part of Capability Set 13,” said Mehney, the Army spokesman.

Still, as part of its Aug. 2 markup of the 2013 defense bill, the Senate Appropriations Committee cut $190 million from the Army’s $287 million request for the Manpack system. The committee noted that the Manpack program still has $30 million in unobligated funds from 2012 and urged the Army to look for commercial solutions to its communications needs.

In language accompanying the markup, the committee wrote that it “encourages the Department of the Army to leverage commercially available technology and competitively award procurement funds to ensure that Joint Tactical Radio System certified advanced technology can be integrated into the program.”

The network backbone of these radios is the developmental Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, or WIN-T, program, which is undergoing budget drama of its own.

In June, the Army asked lawmakers’ permission to take $334 million of the $865 million requested for WIN-T in the 2012 budget and spend it elsewhere. In their reprogramming request, Army planners wrote that development and evaluation costs had proved lower than expected and said their proposed reduction did not “affect the Army’s planned fielding of eight Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) in FY 2013” and that it provided “sufficient BCT sets of WIN-T capability to round-out fielding of six BCTs in FY 2014.”

That drew a sharp response from General Dynamics, which oversees development of the WIN-T program.

“We fully understand that the Department of Defense and the Army have difficult budget decisions to make, but sacrificing the strategic advantages that this system provides to a segment of warfighters may not be the right answer,” Chris Marzilli, president of General Dynamics C4 Systems, wrote in an emailed statement.

By early August, after heated discussions with General Dynamics and members of Congress, the Army’s reprogramming request appeared to have shrunk to $54 million, according to reports.

But even if WIN-T’s 2012 funding is finally set, a legislative axe is dangling above its 2013 funding. On Aug. 2, the Senate Appropriations Committee submitted a budget markup that would chop the Army’s $892 million WIN-T request to $546 million. The reason? The program might create too many jobs.

In its report accompanying the markup, Senate appropriators wrote, “The committee is concerned that the Army is too focused on equipping capability sets and does not take the vendor’s production capacity into account when budgeting for this program.” They went on: “The funding the Army requested would force the WIN-T vendor to hire additional workforce and invest in additional production capacity that would not be fiscally sustainable in the next budget request.”

While it appeared at press time that the WIN-T program would not be funded at original levels, the exact numbers were still a matter of debate.

Meanwhile, Army leaders continued to express commitment to the network backbone. At a July 19 lunch event, Brig. Gen. Dan Hughes, who oversees much of the Army’s modernization program, said the reprogramming request “was just a rephrasing of the program, but we’re fully committed to fielding WIN-T. WIN-T is our baseline, so that was a movement to align better to what we’re fielding, versus any impact on the program. We’re fully supportive of that program.”

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