Criminal probe looks at pilot radios

Defense Department officials are conducting a criminal investigation into defective parts used in emergency radios designed to help rescue downed pilots.

Aircrews with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division operating in Iraq are equipped with Combat Survivor Evader Locator (CSEL) radios, a spokeswoman for the Air Force's Global Positioning System Joint Program Office at Los Angeles Air Force Base told FCW.com.

Flight crews operating from the USS John Stennis aircraft carrier during its recent Pacific deployment were also equipped with CSEL radios, as are some crews flying with the Air Force Special Operations Command, the spokeswoman added.

The criminal investigation focuses on defective parts manufactured by L-3 Communications, which acts as a subcontractor to Boeing, the lead contractor on the CSEL program, a Boeing spokesman said. The program was started in the late 1990s with the intention of providing up to 53,000 radios to aircrews in all four services.

L-3 Communications' Interstate Electronics division provides Boeing with GPS receiver modules that are incorporated into handheld radios carried by aircrews.

The specialized modules include anti-spoofing capabilities to guard against fake transmissions of location data from GPS satellites. The Boeing spokesman said the defective parts under investigation are printed circuit boards in the GPS modules. L-3 Communications officials declined to comment.

Last September, Boeing recalled 1,400 CSEL radios that could have been assembled with defective parts, the spokesman said, adding that as far as he knows, radios currently used by combat forces do not have any defective parts.

The CSEL program has also come under sharp criticism from Thomas Christie, DOD’s director of operational test and evaluation. In his 2004 annual report, Christie said the emergency radio was not suitable for fielding.

CSEL is based on a complex architecture that uses satellite links to relay messages between a downed pilot and Joint Search and Rescue Centers. Once rescue aircraft are within range of a downed pilot, they begin direct communications via a line-of-sight radio link.

During tests of the emergency radios in 91 recovery scenarios, the satellite links from the pilot to the rescue center worked 96 percent of the time, but communications from the rescue center worked only 58 percent of the time, which led to the "not suitable" rating, according to Christie's 2004 report.

The spokeswoman for the GPS Joint Program Office said the low success rate was due to incorrect orientation of the radio in relation to the communications satellites. To increase the probability that a CSEL radio will receive messages, software at the base station will be upgraded to continue sending messages until an acknowledgment is received from the pilot's CSEL unit, the spokeswoman said.

Boeing has delivered 2,971 radios to the four services, with roughly 300 planned for delivery each month, the spokeswoman added.

In its fiscal 2006 budget, Army officials have asked for $15.7 million to buy CSEL radios, or roughly half of its fiscal 2005 CSEL budget of $31.1 million. Air Force officials have asked for $24.7 million for CSEL radios in their fiscal 2006 budget, or almost double the $13.9 million they plan to spend on the radios in fiscal 2005. Navy and Marine Corps officials did not request CSEL funding in their fiscal 2006 budgets.

General Dynamics has produced a radio that competes with CSEL -- the AN/PRC-112 "Hook," which incorporates a GPS receiver module in a voice radio but lacks the satellite communications capabilities of CSEL radios. General Dynamics has sold 14,000 Hook radios to date, a company spokeswoman said.

The 2004 report from Christie's office found technical and usability issues with Hook radios but concluded that a combination of Hook and CSEL radios could meet the military's needs until officials can field a rescue radio based on Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) technology.

Officials in the DOD chief information officer's office and the Joint Staff are conducting investigations of the troubled JTRS program. Funding for initial clusters of JTRS radios was zeroed out in the proposed fiscal 2006 budget.

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