Radio shortage compromises crew safety

In the midst of doubling its air armada operating in Kosovo, the Defense Department is experiencing a "critical shortage" of survival radios used by aircraft crews to call for help, according to internal DOD documents.

This shortage, which resulted from design problems with the radio, including a susceptibility to water damage, caused the Army to issue a message - which has not yet been rescinded - last August saying that in multiple-crew aircraft only the pilot in charge would be issued a radio, and the remaining crew members would have to rely on "foliage penetration flare kits and/or a signal mirror" to call for help.

Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) called the shortage of survival radios a "misguided policy of putting our men and women in harm's way with inappropriate and technologically deficient equipment." Weldon added that he plans to introduce language into the fiscal 2000 Defense authorization bill that is "designed to force DOD to come clean [with Congress] to replace these systems."

The standard survival radio used by air crews to call for help, the AN-PRC-112A, manufactured by Motorola Inc., also features an on/off switch so big that the radios often were inadvertently turned on when pilots slipped them into the pockets of their flight suits, according to a Navy official.

Supplies of an advanced version of the PRC-112A - with a Global Positioning System receiver module to help a downed pilot pinpoint his location and automatically transmit it to search and rescue aircraft - are so limited that military officials conceded there are not enough of these systems to outfit all air crews operating over Kosovo, let alone the pilots of aircraft patrolling the skies over Iraq.

The Army, which manages repairs for the PRC-112A, recently kicked off a crash program to upgrade and repair all 16,000 PRC-112As in its inventory, according to a spokeswoman for the Army Materiel Command. The Tobyhanna, Pa., Army depot will start 24-hour-a-day operations this week to fix the radios. This effort will include "resurfacing the radios" to prevent "water damage found in radios [that] caused concern they might not work properly when needed," according to an internal Army message.

An official at the Naval Air Systems Command (Navair), Patuxent, Md., who manages survival radios for the Navy said the Tobyhanna "upgrade" program also calls for replacement of a component that helps control the frequency-hopping capability of the radios - a key technology to help avoid detection of radio transmissions by an enemy. The ramped-up PRC-112A repair schedule at Tobyhanna will not do the Navy much good, this official said, because the Navy "has already used all our fiscal '99 money for upgrades."

Motorola officials declined to comment on the PRC-112A, saying, "Our contract with the Army precludes us from discussing anything about the product."

Miscommunication between Army aviation units in Europe and the Tobyhanna facility and its parent organization, the Army Communications-Electronics Command, Fort Monmouth, N.J., also contributed to the shortage of radios, according to another internal Army message. In that message, James MacElderry, Cecom's project leader for the PRC-112A, said, "We do not have any radios available to fill shortages. I have been told that Europe is not returning radios to Tobyhanna. The customers are being told there is no repair program.... Since there is obviously a critical shortage of these radios, this is obviously not the way for these assets to be handled."

The newer version of the radio, the PRC-112B, which incorporates the GPS module, also is in tight supply because the Air Force bought 500 of the radios for its users and 500 for Navy users as an "interim" solution until fielding an advanced radio, the Combat Survivor Evader Locator. The CSEL was scheduled for fielding in 1997 but has been delayed until 2002 because of a $150 million jump in costs and poor test results.

The PRC-112B is supposed to be used by forward-deployed units, such as those operating over Kosovo and Iraq, but the number of aircraft and air crews operating in those theaters has far outstripped the number of PRC-112Bs available to fixed-wing and helicopter air crews. When asked if the Navy had enough radios to support all the Navy and Marine aircraft and crews for operations over Kosovo and Iraq, the Navair official said the "math probably does not work."

A spokeswoman for the Air Force said, "Every pilot flying today has survival radios in each and every aircraft, and [PRC-112B] is one of those radios." However, when asked specifically if the number of advanced PRC-112B radios is enough to meet current Air Force requirements in Yugoslavia and the Persian Gulf, officials from the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition said the answer "relates to operational issues and procedures that cannot be addressed."

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