Air Force plan to cut its JTRS military radio program may acknowledge developments in private industry

By John Keller

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) plan to upgrade military radio communications by injecting software defined radio (SDR) technology into land, sea, and airborne RF transceivers is taking a hit with news that the U.S. Navy and Air Force are seeking to cancel their JTRS programs in an effort to save at least $1.8 billion.

The Air Force in its new five-year budget plan is proposing to eliminate its JTRS military radio program, and the Navy is proposing similar cuts to its JTRS radio communications initiative, according to published reports. The Air Force's five-year plan also calls for cutting a program to upgrade avionics software for the C-130 turboprop transport aircraft, as well as eliminating several other programs.

It just might be that JTRS is like the Army's Future Combat Systems (FCS) program -- too juicy a target to succeed, instead of too large a program to fail.

Not only that, however, but it seems clear that private industry -- on its own initiative and in response to market demand -- is outpacing the DOD on software defined radio technology that lies at the heart of JTRS.

In fact, it could well be that the DOD no longer needs the JTRS technology-development program at all. Nearly everything that U.S. military forces need in software-defined radio capability is available, or emerging, in the private sector.

Perhaps the Air Force's proposal to cut its JTRS initiative is an acknowledgement of superior industry development of software defined radio technology.

This is an indication, after all, of what the DOD intended in its shift to commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology back in the early 1990s. DOD, with its COTS initiative, sought to harvest the best technologies from the private sector, rather than develop its own, which in the old days often resulting in re-inventing the wheel.

Software-defined radio these days has a lot of momentum behind it -- and not just from potential military applications. First responders, civil transportation, and even private communications stand to benefit from advances in SDR technology.

With so much attention, and so many resources from private investors going into software defined radio, it simply no longer makes sense for DOD to devote serious resources into this technology -- except where the military needs unique SDR waveforms or other technology that will not be available on the private market.

Improvements and additions to software-defined radio technology are common, from radio systems manufacturers like Harris RF Communications, Rockwell Collins, and Thales, to embedded signal processing specialists like Pentek, TEK Microsystems, and Nallatech, to real time software providers like Green Hills and LynuxWorks.

I think we'll see additional cutbacks in other DOD JTRS programs as top military leaders realize they can put resources into other more crucial areas.

The Air Force's newest five-year plan also proposes suspending the Boeing Wideband Global high-speed communications satellite system after the company finishes a constellation of six satellites; eliminating the Northrop Grumman Corp. program to build new engines for the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft, better known as Joint STARS; stopping the Boeing Small Diameter Bomb program -- a 250-pound satellite-guided munition; and building eight more Global Hawk long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles, rather than 22 more of the unmanned aircraft as had been planned.

President Obama is putting pressure on DOD to reduce its long-term budgeting plans, and U.S. military leaders are scrambling to protect the programs they consider crucial to long-term national defense.

The Air Force's five-year plan is putting high priority on protecting the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Air Force's V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, and an initiative to build a new aerial refueling tanker.

The DOD has asked the Air Force to reduce its budget by about $24.2 billion, or about 3.8 percent, from the current five-year plan. Air Force officials have been told not to cut spending on salaries, personnel housing, science and technology, building infrastructure.

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-- Posted by John Keller, jkeller@pennwell.com. www.milaero.com.

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October 2014
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