In 1997, the Defense Department began its quest for the perfect family of radios: software-defined radios that, like computers, could be reprogrammed for different missions and could communicate with everything the US military used. Digital signal processing could adaptively use available radio spectrum based on the needs of the moment, turning soldiers, tanks, planes, and ships into nodes of a broadband radio-based network.
The goal was to solve radio problems like this one in Afghanistan, detailed by the Center for Public Integrity in January 2012. Soldiers who watched an ambush forming on a ridge nearby found themselves limited by the hugely variable needs of their many radio systems:
They had short-range models for talking with the reconstruction team; longer-range versions for reaching headquarters 25 miles away; and a backup satellite radio in case the mountains blocked the transmission. An Air Force controller carried his own radio for talking to jet fighters overhead and a separate radio for downloading streaming video from the aircraft. Some of these radios worked only while the troopers were stationary; others were simply too cumbersome to operate on the move.
But the program meant to fix the mess, called the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS), instead became a massive 15-year software and hardware development mess of its own, involving five sub-programs and multiple multi-billion dollar contracts. It has been a financial disaster for the DOD. Billions were thrown away on technology that will never see the light of day, despite multiple heroic efforts to pull the project back from the brink of disaster.
JTRS provides a textbook case of what not to do in a technology development program, proving that even a few great ideas can’t save a project that has been over-specified and under-tested, and that remains blinkered to what’s going on in the world around it.
I’ll leave it to Craig to decode the technical aspects of this piece. It’s all gobbledygook to me. The most technically advanced radio I worked with was a PRC-77.
But JTRS is another example of the tendency of the acquisition process to aim for a large integrated program, rather than small, discrete purchases. The size and complexity of those programs mean a drawn out development timeline, and not surprisingly, during that time, much of the original concept is rendered obsolete, either by the state of the art, or the needs of the warfighter.