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October 1, 2013: The U.S. Army has decided on a new vehicle mounted radio for its combat units. The MNVR (Mid-Tier Networking Vehicular Radio) provides networking (including Internet-like capabilities) to army units. Each army combat brigade has 50-100 of the MNVR radios, which will be used to establish a brigade network that hundreds of other military radios (of all sizes) can link to.

MNVR is a replacement for the JTRS (Joint Tactical Radio System) Ground Mobile Radio (GMR), which was cancelled in 2011. The GMR program cost over $6 billion and was a major embarrassment for the U.S. Department of Defense. Actually, JTRS still exists, on paper, but its goal, to provide better combat radios, has been accomplished by adopting civilian radios that do what the troops needed done and calling it JTRS. That’s what the new MNVR does, as it is a modified commercial radio. In the time the army spent working on JTRS some $11 billion was spent on buying more radios using existing designs and a lot of off-the-shelf equipment incorporating stuff JTRS was supposed to do.

The delays in the GMR program forced the military to use an off-the-shelf design (the AN/PRC-117G). This is a 5.45 kg (12 pound) radio that can be carried or installed in vehicles. About a third of its weight is the battery. It has a maximum output of 20 watts and handles FM, UHF, and VHF signals, including satellite based communications. On the ground max range is 20 kilometers (depending on hills and the antenna used). These cost about $40,000 each. MNVR is basically an improved AN/PRC-117G and will cost $56,000 each. That includes development costs (for the wish list of tweaks and upgrades the military wants). The initial MNVR order is for 2,500 radios. The manufacturer (Harris) must deliver 232 MNVRs for field testing within a year. If the military sticks to what works, and does not make the kind of demands and requests that sunk JTRS, the MNVR should arrive on time and be functional enough for the troops. The U.S. has been using the AN/PRC-117 since the late 1990s as an interim radio and found it a solid piece of equipment. The AN/PRC-117 is based on a commercial design (the Falcon series) that several foreign armed forces and many civilian operations use. The AN/PRC-117 has been regularly upgraded in that time (going from version A to the current G).

JTRS was yet another example of a military development project that got distracted, and bloated, trying to please everyone. There was, in a word, no focus. JTRS was the poster child of what usually goes wrong and how it impacts the combat troops. After all, radios are something everyone in the military uses a lot. The main problem with JTRS was that the troops needed digital (for computer stuff) and analog (traditional radio) communications in one box and it had to be programmable, in order to handle new applications and the need to communicate with other radio types. That's what JTRS was supposed to do but it never happened. The procurement bureaucracy and government contractors consumed over 6 billion dollars but never quite got anything useful out the door.

Meanwhile, the war on terror gave the U.S. Army a chance to buy new radio technology they needed from wherever they could find it and that's what they did. In the last decade the Department of Defense has spent over 6 billion dollars just on new hand held and backpack radios, to tie the infantry into a battlefield Internet, as well as larger radio sets for headquarters and vehicles. This is more than 5 times what the Department of Defense spent on new radios in the 3 years before September 11, 2001. Back then everyone was holding off on buying new radios because JTRS was to be available in 2007. Well 2007 came and went, with no JTRS in sight. How did this happen?

There are many problems getting all the services to agree on "Joint" (for all the services) standards. Then there are the usual problems with the software. The Department of Defense insisted that manufacturers use specific software tools and supporting software for JTRS. Rather than just tell manufacturers to, "make it work," the Pentagon bureaucrats insisted on getting into the details. This backfired, as it usually does when bureaucrats do that sort of thing. It has happened before. In the 1970s, when the Pentagon tried to force defense contractors to use a new software language, ADA, for all military related work, much confusion and missed deadlines ensued.

The Pentagon was very reluctant to admit error, or defeat, in these matters. The procurement bureaucrats tend to feel it's much better to spend billions more and let the needed equipment arrive late and missing important capabilities. It's something of a tradition. And you know how some people in the military, even Pentagon civilians, can be about tradition.

Meanwhile, the military took the JTRS concept and had radio manufacturers adapt commercial designs, quickly, for military use. An example of this is SOCOM (Special Operations Command) buying half a billion dollars' worth of AN/PRC-150 radios. These cost about $2,500 each and all of them were delivered on schedule. The 4.6 kg (ten pounds, without batteries) radios are very flexible (are used in vehicles or backpacks) and are able to use several different types of transmission (including bouncing signals off the ionosphere, for longer range or just to get a signal out of a built up area). Digital transmissions allow for data to get through under poor atmospheric conditions or when in a built up area. The radios also have good encryption and the ability to send and receive all forms of digital data. These radios are also now used by the army.

A similar situation occurred back in the 1990s, when SOCOM realized it needed a new personal radio for its troops and JTRS was supposed to take care of that as well. Rather than wait SOCOM got together with a radio manufacturer, told them what they needed, and within two years they had MBITR (which soon got official sanction as AN/PRC-148). When the rest of the army saw MBITR many troops bought them with their own money. After Iraq army units began buying the AN/PRC-148 on their own. Soon, over 100,000 MBITR radios were in use.

With JTRS behind schedule, over budget, and under review the customers decided that JTRS was not the future. Originally the services pledged to buy nearly half a million JTRS radios. Those orders fell to about 148,000 and now to zero. All that remains was the basic JTRS idea, talked to death by the committees that were supposed to make it happen. But because of the war the radios needed got developed anyway, under realistic conditions and largely outside the JTRS bureaucracy. It's a battle that was largely unreported, but at least the good guys won.

SOCOM's efforts to go out and get the radios they need indicates they didn't expect the long awaited JTRS, which is designed so that all services can use it, to arrive any time soon. JTRS was never short of development problems but the troops needed digital (for computer stuff) and analog (traditional radio) communications in one box right now and it had to be programmable, in order to handle new applications.

The army and marines followed the lead of SOCOM, as they often do when the procurement establishment lets them down. The troops have improvised, as they are frequently forced to do, and new radios continue to show up, often despite JTRS.

 

 


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