26 May 05. By Stephen J. Hedges OF THE Chicago Tribune reports that for years the U.S. military has cursed its radios, units that fail at key moments and don’t allow Army soldiers on the ground, for instance, to talk to Air Force pilots flying overhead to support them. Signals must be relayed through third and even fourth parties, sometimes resulting in tragic mistakes, as recent cases of friendly-fire deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown.
The simple solution, the Pentagon decided, was a new radio system for all military services, one that would allow everyone to talk, and fight, together.
It’s a logical concept, but it’s one that has come to haunt Boeing Co., the Chicago-based aerospace and defense industry giant that was given the lead role for developing the first of the new radios for the Army.
On Wednesday, Boeing offered the Army its plan for saving what has become a multi-billion dollar headache after the Army last month gave the company 30 days to “show cause” why the contract shouldn’t be terminated.
Known as the Joint Tactical Radio System, or “Jitters” by Pentagon insiders, the project’s cost has grown from $15 billion to $21.6 billion. Boeing and its subcontractors are far off a schedule that once required them to field a prototype of the new radio by this fall, and to have the units in the hands of soldiers by 2007.
Though Congress has weighed in, few industry analysts expect Boeing to lose the radio project. But several said the Army would likely order dramatic changes, and even the involvement of new companies to work with Boeing.
There is, however, more at stake in this contract for Boeing, and the Army, than improved communications.
The radio system is one of the primary building blocks for the Army’s Future Combat System, a more than $120 billion plan to build new vehicles and weapons that will be lightweight, easily transportable and digitally linked–in large part by the new radio system, which will transmit voice, video and data communications.
Boeing is the lead contractor on the Future Combat System, and it has run into the same sorts of troubles on that contract–slipping schedules, rising costs and increased scrutiny from the Pentagon and Congress.
If Boeing can’t deliver on the radios, that will slow development of the combat system. And if that happens, the delays could affect Boeing’s larger, more lucrative role as the combat system’s primary contractor.
“The stakes have gone up for the Future Combat System,” said Paul Francis, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the Government Accountability Office. The radio system “would be nice to have to replace whatever other [older] radios they have out there, but [the combat system] has to have this to work.”
In a statement, the Pentagon’s recently established Joint Program Executive Office for the radio system would only say that it will “work closely” with Boeing to “ensure the successful delivery” to the military.
Delays affect other projects
Boeing confirmed in a statement that it delivered a proposal for restructuring the radio system program to the Army on Wednesday. “The response Boeing delivered to the government carefully reviewed all of its concerns and addressed them in a detailed and forthright manner,” the company said. “This Boeing response is the first step toward developing a realistic plan for moving forward and meeting all of the government’s requirements.”
Delays in the development of the radio system for the Army forced the Pentagon this year to halt work on other versions of the radio system being developed by the Navy and Air Force. Boeing’s troubles with the radio have also affected the development of future unmanned aerial drones, according to a Congressional Research Service study in April; they would also rely on signals from the technology.
The radio system concept is at the heart of the Pentagon’s ambition to create a joint military, one that allows all of the servic