Boeing gets the call for DOD radio

The Army last week awarded Boeing Co. an $856 million contract to spearhead the development and initial production of the first generation of joint tactical radios, which will open the lines of communications among the military services.

The Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) uses software-centric radios that can be programmed to patch users into various radio frequencies. Radios in use today were designed to work in a specific frequency range, with each service using its own frequency.

Take a situation in which an Army sergeant, burrowed in his foxhole, needs air support from an Air Force fighter jet and radios in his position.

Normally, communicating that information would take minutes and require a middleman because the Army and Air Force radios operate on incompatible systems and different frequencies. JTRS is aimed at making that Army call go directly to the Air Force pilot.

"There are about 750,000 radios in the [Defense Department] today that were basically developed in stovepipes," said Col. Michael Cox, deputy director of the JTRS Joint Program Office. "JTRS is a basic change to that concept."

Cox likened the new software-defined radios to desktop computers on which users can load different programs and quickly begin reaping the benefits.

In the case of radios, the focus is on waveforms — that is, the particular signal format a radio is designed to read. Unlike traditional radios, which have been hard-wired to receive particular waveforms, joint tactical radios can be programmed for any waveform in use today or any that might be developed in the future.

Users can program JTRS radios to work with waveforms of current radios, making Channel One available for communications in the 30 MHz to 88 MHz communications range and Channel Two for satellite communications, Cox said.

"You can then connect the two channels for functionality that has never been there in radios before," he said. "You can load the waveforms and tie into the legacy radios and crossband or connect the different radios together."

John Pike, a former defense analyst at the Federation of American Scientists and now director of the nonprofit, said that when JTRS is fielded, "it's going to represent a major improvement in battlefield communications."

He said the security concerns normally associated with wireless communications on the battlefield are not really issues with JTRS because "the military has decades of experience in radio communications security and encryption and key management."

DOD officials worked with more than 30 partners from industry and academia to develop the software communications architecture that enables the waveforms to be loaded into JTRS, Cox said.

"What's clear is that the Army, like the rest of the services, is moving toward the network-centric strategy of warfighting, which means fewer people covering more ground and being more effective through the sharing of information," said Jack Spencer, a defense analyst with the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank. "JTRS advances that idea."

Spencer said JTRS would enhance the "interconnectedness" of all elements of the combat force, though he acknowledged that such a goal is many years away. He added that the foundation of DOD's ongoing transformation efforts is a joint command, control and intelligence infrastructure, which JTRS should also contribute to.

JTRS units could also support homeland security applications, Cox said, noting that the program is open to other government agencies. The second phase of JTRS development, or Cluster 2, which will focus on special forces and warfighters, would be the most logical fit for those homeland security missions.

Boeing will be responsible for designing and integrating the JTRS architecture, integrating existing waveforms and developing a new wideband networking waveform.

According to Boeing, the system development and demonstration phase should last nearly four years, with early operational testing expected during the summer of 2004 and low-rate initial production expected to begin in 2005.


Just the beginning

The Joint Tactical Radio System will replace existing radios with software-programmable devices, enabling the different services to communicate. Radios will be delivered in four clusters:

Cluster 1: Radios on ground vehicles and rotary wing aircraft.

Cluster 2: Handheld radios.

Cluster 3: Maritime radios.

Cluster 4: Air-based radios.


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