Pentagon promises faster JTRS waivers

The Defense Department's chief information officer assured congressional leaders that combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan will not be frustrated by a Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) program policy that prohibits the services from buying existing radio systems without a waiver from the JTRS Joint Program Office.

Despite this often-cumbersome process, a radio industry official estimated that in the past year alone the services have spent close to $500 million to acquire tactical radio systems.

The waiver process has resulted in some combat units going around the program office and the military procurement systems by buying commercial two-way radios online or at the local Radio Shack before they deploy. DOD officials require commanders to submit waiver requests before buying new radios because of the JTRS program.

Linton Wells, DOD's CIO, told congressional leaders in a letter last month that combat units would welcome the updated waiver policy. In a letter sent in late January to key congressional committees, Wells said, "All steps are being taken to ensure expeditious approval of urgent operational requirements."

Wells said his office can turn around an operational request for a JTRS waiver often in less than 24 hours. He added that efforts to ensure quick fielding of tactical radios to units in Iraq and Afghanistan are continuing.

Wells said he considered suspending the waiver process, but said the new approach to it "balances the need to meet urgent operational requests against valid concerns about the long-term effects of the unlimited acquisition of legacy radios."

JTRS was designed to develop a family of software-defined radios that would replace hundreds of hardware-based ones. The new radios use software to easily change frequency and modulation and support both narrowband voice and broadband data requirements. They also allow for easier updates.

JTRS has not fielded deployable hardware since the program was started in 2001, forcing units to obtain waivers to buy radios urgently needed for combat requirements.

A Federal Computer Week review of approved JTRS waivers shows that the military services have received approval to buy tens of thousands of radios from December 2003 through May 2004, the last date posted on a JTRS waiver approval Web page that FCW was able to access.

The services are on pace this year to match or exceed the $500 million spent on tactical radios in 2004, with two contracts totaling $105 million awarded in the first two months of 2005.

Those awards include a $75 million Marine Corps contract awarded last month to Thales Communications for its AN/PRC-148 squad radio and a $30 million Army contract with Harris for that company's AN/PRC-150 high-frequency, single-sideband radio. The DOD 2005 supplemental spending bill passed March 3 includes $186.5 million in funding for purchasing tactical radios this year.

These contracts are dwarfed by a $2.5 billion, seven-year contract awarded last December for Single-Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System radios, which the Army and Marine Corps use as primary tactical radios. ITT Industries produces them. The value of that contract exceeds a Congressional Budget Office estimate of $2.3 billion for the cost of the JTRS from 2003 through 2007.

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