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Radio Wars: General Dynamics Strikes Back

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

General Dynamics employees building AN/PRC-155 Manpack radios for the Army.

General Dynamics employees building AN/PRC-155 Manpack radios for the Army.

WASHINGTON: Defense contractor General Dynamics has taken hits from the Army, from the Pentagon’s independent Director of Operational Test & Evaluation and from us about its role in the troubled Joint Tactical Radio Systems program. Now, in an interview this morning, the president of GDC4S (that’s General Dynamics Command, Control, Communications, & Computer Systems), Chris Marzilli, laid out the company’s advantages in three coming Army radio competitions.

These competitions have been the subject of intense and sometimes underhanded lobbying on Capitol Hill. Last year, General Dynamics lobbyists pushed legislative language that would have effectively kept a major rival, Harris, out of the running for the backpack-portable “Manpack” variant of Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS Manpack), and sympathetic legislators quietly filed a proposed amendment to the annual National Defense Authorization Act but then hastily withdrew it. This year, GD’s partner on the Manpack, Rockwell Collins, seems to have led the lobbying effort to restrict competition — so far without apparent impact on the NDAA language now going through Congress — but General Dynamics still played a significant supporting role. With the House Armed Services Committee marking up the NDAA next week — June 5 — it will be very interesting to see if members offer amendments to support the incumbents or Harris.

Political clout certainly does affect decisions, but General Dynamics has substantive advantages too. Arguably GD’s greatest asset is that it’s the only company that builds systems at every level, from the 1.7 lb Rifleman Radio on a foot soldier’s hip to the Warfighter Information Network – Tactical (WIN-T) backbone that connects company, battalion, and brigade commanders to each other and back to the States.

That said, General Dynamics has repeatedly faced cuts to the WIN-T program, and it is currently lobbying against a $128 million bite in the Pentagon’s recent reprogramming request, which shuffles funding among programs to cope with the impact of the automatic budget cuts known as the sequester. WIN-T suppliers swarmed Capitol Hill in April, while sympathetic legislators – mostly from Massachusetts and Arizona, GD’s home states – wrote letters to the Pentagon.

The cut is “not at all” a sign the Army has lost faith in the WIN-T technology, however, said Col. Rob Carpenter, the Army’s director for systems integration, when asked about the cut in a recent call with reporters: “A lot of it was based on obligation rates,” he said – that is, on how much of the money that Congress had appropriated for the program that the Army had not yet put on contract, funds that are always low-hanging fruit for budgeteers seeking to shift costs into the following year.

That doesn’t make GD less unhappy. The Army was already planning to buy only half as many of the current WIN-T version, called “Increment 2,” as it did of the previous WIN-T Increment 1, aka the “Joint Network Node.” If the reprogramming cuts go through, Marzilli said, “the National Guard and Reserve won’t get this equipment for more than a decade at this pace of fielding.”

The automatic spending cuts known as sequestration also looms over WIN-T in 2014. The Pentagon has requested almost $1.28 billion for WIN-T for fiscal year 2014, up from $1.22 in ’13 (down to $1.01 if the reprogramming cut goes through) and $1.02 in ’12, but the president’s 2014 budget assumes a politically unlikely “grand bargain” makes the sequester cuts disappear. So does the congressional mark-up process now underway to turn that budget into the annual defense authorization bill, which means any lobbying successes General Dynamics and other contractors score may well be moot when the real spending figures come out.

Whatever the rate at which the Army acquires WIN-T, however, it’s still committed to GD for the wireless backbone into which every other communications system has to fit. Looking at all three radios up for competition in the next 10 months, “the best way to think of those is as an extension of the WIN-T network to the edge [of the battlefield],” Marzilli said: The individual foot soldier’s Rifleman Radio connects to a more powerful backpack-portable “Manpack” or vehicle-mounted radio. That, in turn, connects to WIN-T. General Dynamics offers all of those.

To break the various competitions down, General Dynamics is competing for the Army’s new vehicle-mounted radio, the MNVR (Mid-Tier Networking Vehicular Radio), with an announcement of the winner expected at any time: “We’re waiting with baited breath,” Marzilli said. GD is already building 50 percent of the 19,000 Rifleman Radios already on order and 50 percent of the 3,8000 Manpack radios. (Thales builds the other half of the Riflemans, Rockwell Collins the other half of the Manpacks). Both those radios are currently in low-rate initial production (LRIP) contracts; competitions for who gets to build all of the full rate production Rifleman and Manpack radios will likely kick off this fall, with Marzilli expecting awards on both by roughly March 2014.

Incumbency, however, is a mixed blessing when it comes to anything to do with the Joint Tactical Radio System program, JTRS – inauspiciously pronounced “jitters.” Many of the components of the overall system have been cancelled. “That’s old news,” Marzilli insisted. But the General Dynamics-Thales Manpack radio came under fire from the Director of Operational Test & Evaluation for its performance in tests just last year.

“There are always issues,” Marzilli acknowledged, but the radio has been redesigned and the Army is satisfied. (Indeed, after berating GD over the Manpack in a public forum last year, Army Test & Evaluation Command chief Maj. Gen. Genaro Dellarocco said that  “the doggone thing’s going to work.”) Said Marzilli, “The radio’s now very, very mature. The hardware is rock solid, and they continue to test radios with the advanced waveforms.” (A waveform is essentially the software-controlled way the radio hardware actually communications in a secure and reliable manner, making these ongoing tests critical to the system’s success).

“The Army’s not unhappy. They’ve placed a significant order in the fourth quarter, and we’re delivering [Manpack radios],” said Marzilli. As for the Rifleman Radios, he added “those are actually going out at about a thousand a month between ourselves and Thales.”

It’s true that the Army is issuing a competitor’s radio, the Harris AN/PRC-117G, to the 10th Mountain Division and the 101th Airborne as part of the “Capability Set ’13” (as in 2013) modernization package, with the Harris radio serving as an “interim” system alongside the General Dynamics/Rockwell Collins Manpack. But the Harris radio only has a single channel, and “the second channel is absolutely imperative” for the future force, Marzilli said: The Manpack has to bridge the gap between foot soldiers’ Rifleman Radios and commanders’ WIN-T systems, with one channel talking to subordinates and one to superiors. Harris says it’s finishing work on a two-channel version of its PRC-117G, but for now, said Marzilli, “we’re fielding the only two-channel Manpack on the market today.”

Whoever wins the Manpack competition will have a lock on backpack-portable Army radios for years to come: The Army plans a winner take all award to just one company for five years’ production, although it has left itself some exit ramps. While Harris and some on Capitol Hill have expressed concern about this commitment to a single vendor, Marzilli said General Dynamics is fine with that approach. “We support the Army’s strategy and follow it entirely,” he said. “It makes perfect senses both fiscally and logistically.”

The stakes are high. Civilians tend to think of electronics as virtually disposable nowadays, with new gadgetry coming out constantly as processing power per dollar doubles every 18 months in accordance with Moore’s Law. That’s not quite so for Army radios. “The devices that run on this network are the things that are typically subject to Moore’s Law, the smart phones and the smart displays,” said Marzilli. “The infrastructure that a Rifleman and a Manpack [radio] bring doesn’t change all that much,” however: They’re the network hardware which could accommodate all sorts of software upgrades over the years. “In fact,” said Marzilli, “these things could be used for decades.”

What do you think?