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Army Radios: Contractors Lobby Congress Against Competition

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

Paratroopers from 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, use Joint Tactical Radio System radios to communicate during a field exercise at Fort Bragg, N.C., in March.

As the Army prepares to choose the new builder of its handheld digital radios, the incumbent contractors are tryiing to convince Congress to keep other companies out. The incumbents are General Dynamics, which publicly apologized to the Army over its half of the program last year, and Rockwell Collins. The Army’s own chief of acquisitions, Lt. Gen. William Phillips, told the Senate Armed Services Committee just yesterday that “the industry partners that were not a part of the program of record” — i.e.  the troubled JTRS (Joint Tactical Radio System) program, which had contracted Rockwell and GD — provided “radios that were cheaper, better capability and met almost all of our requirements in most cases”. The service, he said, was committed to “full and open competition.”

We saw a similar play already last year, albeit slightly later in the legislative process, when Reps. Dave Loesback and Trent Frank offered an amendment – later withdrawn – that would have required competitors to meet stringent conditions that effectively ruled out radio-builder Harris and other outsiders, thereby protecting General Dynamics. This time it is co-incumbent Rockwell Collins, which splits the current contract with GD, that’s leading the charge.

General Dynamics is no shrinking violet, circulating its own briefing on Capitol Hill saying the “radios have built-in competition [already]” between it and Rockwell Collins, who have “the only radios that have met the joint services’ requirements, having successfully competed rigorous testing exercises.” Within those rather strict limits, GD endorses “full and open competition.” The original requirements were drafted in 2004.

But Rockwell Collins’s approach is far less subtle. “‘Full & Open’ re-compete strategy is less effective than ‘Dual Sourcing’” – i.e. the current split between Rockwell and GD — read slides the company is circulating all over Capitol Hill. “‘Winner Takes All’ (WTA) strategy impacts Industrial Base…. Losing vendors may exit the Army ground networking market…. Reduces competition for the radio system the Army wants.”

Rockwell Collins does have a point that the Army’s current competition strategy could have anti-competitive consequences long-term. The Army would conduct an all-comers competition this year, true, but then it would lock in one winner for, in effect, five years. That takes the competitive pressure off the winner for an unusually long time, at the end of which, when the next competition runs around, its potential rivals may well have given up or gone bust.

It’s not just Rockwell and GD that are leery of the five-year lock-in, one congressional source says: “It’s safe to say Harris has laid out similar concerns on the five year, one vendor proposed approach.” Of course, Harris is perfectly happy with the part of the Army’s plan that lets it compete, while the incumbents are not.

“It’s a reasonable argument against the approach the Army is considering (five years, one vendor) for HMS Manpack [i.e. backpack-sized radio],”the source said. “Right now, no other JTRS-derived radio is proposing that long a production run by a single vendor before a new competition, so it would be unusual.  However, the Army’s final contracting strategy is not set, so it may end up not being an issue.”

In a conference call today to brief journalists on the Army’s latest Network Evaluation Integration (NIE), the service’s twice-annual field test of digital technology from a host of vendors large and small at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, two field-grade officers emphasized the importance of competition.

“We’re trying to drive competition,” said Col. Rob Carpenter, the director for systems integration in the office of the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics, and technology, aka ASA(ALT). “The more people I bring to the table, the more opportunities I can have for making a product better and driving down cost [and getting] better ideas,” Carpenter said. JTRS currently “has directed competition” between the two contractors for particular lots of radios, he went on, “but when the next production run comes, it’ll be opened up again to multiple vendors.”

Amidst all this inter-corporate kerfuffle, it’s important to note the NIE is about testing new tactics, not just new technology. “I am more interested in the intellectual part of how do you fight in combat than I am in this piece of equipment that you want to sell,” said Col. Dave Miller, the deputy chief of the Brigade Modernization Command at Fort Bliss, Tex., addressing industry in general. “The only thing I care about the specific piece of equipment is how well it allows me to fight.”


Updated 4:25 pm to expand quotation from Lt. Gen. Phillips.

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