Battlefield radio program costs could be halved, official says

Competition could cut the cost of a new broadband battlefield radio in half or more with at least seven vendors interested in the project, Army Brig. Gen. Michael Williamson, program executive officer for the Joint Tactical Radio System, told Nextgov.

Williamson, interviewed last week at the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association conference in San Diego, said average costs for a new Ground Mobile Radio now range from $60,000 to $80,000, a sharp drop from the $150,000 he estimated in October 2011.

He said these estimates reflect a $30,000 to $40,000 per channel cost for the new radios, which will feature a broadband channel that can transmit data at the rate of 2 megabits per second and a narrowband channel for lower data rate and voice communications with handheld and backpack radios.

The Army is the only service currently interested in buying the Ground Mobile Radio, Williamson said, but lower costs could attract the other services.

The Defense Department launched JTRS in 1997 to develop a common family of software-based radios for all four services and included shipboard and aircraft versions along with vehicle, handheld and backpack radios. Since then, costs have spiraled with few production radios delivered.

The Defense Department terminated the JTRS Ground Mobile Radio program last October, after costs had grown to $15.9 billion. The program office then turned to commercial suppliers that could run the government-developed and -owned software waveforms that manage frequency, modulation and data rates. In 2011, the Army estimated it would spend $1.5 billion on 10,000 of the radios by using the commercial suppliers, but the new estimate pushes the price even lower -- into the $600 million to $800 million range. JTRS plans to issue a solicitation for 10,000 Ground Mobile Radios in February.

The fate of the entire JTRS program is uncertain until the Defense Department releases its detailed budget next month, according to Williamson. If the program is canceled, Defense will lose its decade-plus investment in radios that finally have started to make their way into the hands of troops.

Williamson said tests of the JTRS handheld Rifleman Radio last November at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., demonstrated its maturity, and added Army Rangers are putting it through the ultimate test -- combat -- in Afghanistan.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno cited the service's battlefield network as a key investment priority in a Pentagon press briefing Friday, but did not specifically address either the Ground Mobile Radio or JTRS.

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