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Debate Boils Over Whether Army’s JTRS Radio Can Be Jammed

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

The Army’s attempt to reboot its troubled Ground Mobile Radio program has hit yet another snag, with accusations that the revised requirements omit a crucial capability to protect soldiers’ signals from enemy jamming and accidental interference. As a result, wrote defense analyst, consultant, and AOL contributor Loren Thompson in a recent blog post, “soldiers dependent on timely, life-saving information carried on battlefield radios might lose their connection during the most dangerous moments of a fight.” On background, however, Army officials insist the anti-jamming capability hasn’t gone away at all. (An official explanation is expected early this week). So who’s right?

Thompson says he got his information from two different companies competing for the contract, and an industry official from yet a third company confirmed it independently to Breaking Defense. The Army may think it’s got anti-jamming covered, Thompson told Breaking Defense, “but when [some of] the main competitors think the requirement is not in the solicitation, something has been lost in the communications here.”

Why does this kind of detail matter? Radios aren’t exactly rocket science, but they’re plenty complex. The program the Army’s trying to reboot, the Ground Mobile Radio cancelled last October, is a particularly problematic part of the immensely ambitious Joint Tactical Radio System. JTRS – inauspiciously pronounced “jitters” –was launched way back in 1997 to replace the military’s existing assortment of often-incompatible radios with a family of advanced digital devices that could convey not only the human voice but digital data. A JTRS device isn’t just a radio; it has to provide a high-bandwidth, high-security, and entirely mobile network connection – battlefield wi-fi – for military units that have become ever more reliant on data from unmanned drones hunting the enemy, GPS locators tracking friendly units, and other intelligence sources.

The largest and smallest members of the JTRS family have actually come along fine: Lockheed Martin’s unfortunately named “AMF” variant – short for “airborne, maritime, and fixed [installation]” – is being tested on the Apache helicopter, and the handheld “Rifleman Radio,” built by General Dynamics, entered service in Afghanistan in January with the famed 75th Ranger Regiment. But the mid-size radio meant for Humvees, tanks, and other ground vehicles, the GMR, overloaded on high-tech ambitions that drove up power requirements, weight, and cost beyond what the Army could bear.

The Army has already selected an “interim” replacement for the cancelled GMR, the Falcon III from Harris, and is testing longer-term alternatives. But getting a new radio at a manageable cost means giving up some capabilities on the original wish-list. Thompson thinks the baby got thrown out with the bathwater. “It may have been oversight, it may have been an attempt at economy,” he told Breaking Defense. Either way, he said, it’s a mistake.

Part of the problem is that the easiest way to overcome interference – whether deliberate jamming by an enemy or accidental interference from friendly electronics – is simply to up the power; but that requires having more power available in the first place, which ups cost and weight. One industry official suggested that some would-be competitors for the GMR replacement were trying to scale up man-portable radios which simply lacked the power to burn through interference, leading the Army to drop the anti-jamming requirement so they could compete. That gives the military more choices to get a new radio into the field faster – but a future adversary more electronically sophisticated than the Taliban might figure out how to exploit its Achilles’ Heel.

Carlo Munoz contributed to this story.

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