Defense radio project not practical or affordable, GAO says

Immature technologies, unstable requirements and aggressive schedules conspire to run up costs for joint tactical radios.

A decade-old Defense Department project to develop a line of software-based radios is neither practical nor affordable, according to a report released by the Government Accountability Office on Friday.

Comment on this article in The Forum.Defense launched its ambitious Joint Tactical Radio System program in 1997 to replace its multiple, single-purpose tactical radios with 750,000 radios that rely on software to meet myriad requirements, including broadband systems to support data-intensive battlefield systems.

But JTRS has foundered due to immature technologies, unstable requirements and aggressive schedules, all of which inflated development costs from $3.5 billion to $6 billion and delayed the fielding of the radios through 2011, according to the GAO report. For example, fielding of the JTRS Ground Mobile radio, which the Army and Marine Corps would use, slipped five years, from 2005 to 2010.

Estimated costs for JTRS radios are many times greater than the legacy radios they will replace, GAO also reported. The Ground Mobile Radio will replace the vehicle versions of the standard Army tactical radio: the Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System, and the Enhanced Position Location Reporting System used as a battlefield data radio. The two radios cost $20,000 each, compared with a price tag of $220,000 an individual Ground Mobile radio. Partly because of the higher price, the services scaled back their planned buys for the Ground Mobile radio by nearly 20 percent, from 108,086 to 86,512.

Delays in development of JTRS radio and requirements to support operations in Afghanistan and Iraq forced the services to spend $6.1 billion between 2003 and 2007 to buy more of the older radio systems, GAO noted. When the development cost of JTRS is added to the purchase costs of the older radios, the agency said Defense spent more than $12 billion on tactical radios during the past five years. That is more than the Army spent on its Future Combat Systems program ($10.4 billion), or what the Navy spent on production of Virginia-class submarines ($10.8 billion) during the same period.

GAO also concluded that a change in combat in Iraq increased the need for radios, including threats to supply convoys, which meant the services equipped almost every vehicle with a radio. According to GAO, radios purchased during the past five years have an operational life of between 10 and 15 years, and Defense needs to strike a balance between fielding new JTRS radios and maximizing its investment in recent purchases of older radios.

Defense should develop an investment strategy for its radios on near-term and long-term operational requirements, GAO recommended. The Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Networks and Information Integration has started to develop, but has yet to finish, a new JTRS migration and fielding plan.