How competition works for the JTRS radio upgrade

Col. John Zavarelli, program manager of the JTRS Handheld, Manpack and Small Form Fit Radios, tells how the competitive acquisition strategy for joint tactical radio systems is reaping substantial benefits.

Army Col. John Zavarelli became program manager of the Joint Tactical Radio System's (JTRS) Handheld, Manpack and Small Form Fit (HMS) program in July. He began his career as an armored cavalry officer in 1986. Since transitioning into technology evaluation, acquisition, and project management in 1997, Zavarelli's assignments have included overseeing the interoperability requirements for the Future Combat Systems (FCS) program and serving as the director of Army Evaluation Task Force Integration and deputy of the Future Force Integration Directorate for Materiel at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., and Fort Bliss, Texas, where he worked to modernize Army brigade combat teams. Zavarelli shared his thoughts recently with contributing writer David Carr on the payoffs that have resulted from a focused acquisition strategy and carefully crafted business model for JTRS HMS.

The [JTRS] program is determined to deliver new capabilities to the warfighter at the best possible price, and I am proud to say we can point to an early success in applying the principles of market competition to drive costs down.

The [HMS] radios program is developing a series of HMS radios to the JTRS specifications. That includes a transitional product called the Consolidated Single Channel Handheld Radio (CSCHR). While the first true JTRS-certified products are still in the final stages of development, CSCHR radios are considered "JTRS approved," meaning that that they are National Security Agency certified, JTRS technology laboratory certified, Joint Interoperability Command certified, and Software Communications Architecture compliant. Meanwhile, they are compatible with deployed military radio standards such as Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System. So the CSCHR radios are useful now and will become more effective in the future as we transition to JTRS and common standards across the services for better joint communications.

Breaking with tradition

More than the technology, I want to emphasize the business model we are applying to JTRS radios. By breaking away from the traditional practices for procuring military hardware, we are showing that we can leverage some of the same competitive forces we see at work in the consumer electronics market. So far, we have achieved savings of more than $450 million, compared with [General Services Administration] pricing, by competing buys for CSCHR radios.

Instead of sole-source buys with one vendor for CSCHR, we picked two qualified vendors, Harris and Thales Communications, and let them compete for delivery orders. These competitions aimed to help the services procure the best product at the best price, within the specifications they defined. Over time, we plan to invite other vendors into this competition while ensuring that everyone adheres to the same standards and delivers a product with the same base functionality.

Competition is not a radical acquisition approach but not one consistently employed by the Defense Department until recently. In the past, the competition occurred up front in the bidding for a contract, and the winner became the sole-source producer. There are good reasons for this, particularly in complex developmental products that require innovation and are produced in low quantities.

However, military handheld radios can be thought of as being a little bit more like consumer cell phones — products that will be relatively mass-produced, at least as compared with F-22s, and for which the required technologies are well understood. To extend the analogy, with CSCHR, our approach was similar to the mobile phone network operator that dictates some base standards for radio interoperability and requires some standard software to be loaded on its phones, but then contracts with several handset manufacturers. Military requirements can be too exact for us to follow the consumer electronics model to the extreme, but it turns out we don't have to go that far to get results.

Subtle innovation

Although cost savings have been emphasized, there are other benefits. Even though the CSCHR effort is not a developmental program to find novel technological advances, we found that introducing competition led to more nuanced technological innovation. These vendors were charged with producing to a tight specification, but they would still do things to be more competitive — to go above and beyond the specification and demonstrate that their radio was the superior implementation. So each of these devices has additional capabilities not specified in the original competition.

Again, this is much like the way computer and consumer electronics manufacturers try to differentiate themselves even as the market they compete in dictates standards for compatibility. There will always be room for competition for those who can provide the best battery life or the most rugged casing, as long as all base requirements are met. When vendors are motivated to compete in that way, on their own initiative, we wind up getting the benefits of some research and development effort that we did not have to pay for.

Next, we plan to apply this competitive approach to a manpack system, a larger, more powerful backpack radio that, like CSCHR, will be in the transitional JTRS-approved category. We expect multiple vendors to be able to compete here as well, probably with upgraded versions of their existing manpack radios. In the process, we will be getting those vendors used to this new way of doing business with the military.

The first JTRS-certified radios, such as the Rifleman Radio we have under development, will make more of a technological leap forward by introducing IP-based, mobile ad hoc networking. The functional result will be greater flexibility for both voice and digital communications. Many of these capabilities will be delivered in software, without requiring us to procure a unique hardware design from a single vendor. We are demonstrating the clear advantages of avoiding sole-source proprietary solutions.

JTRS is a broad program that, among other things, will also bring new technology to vehicle and aircraft radios. JTRS plans to employ this competitive procurement model as broadly as possible. Likely, there are lessons here that can be applied elsewhere within DOD.

Delicate negotiations

If I am making it sound easy, that is only because our team has been working the process for some time and had figured out how to make it work before I joined the program. Significant effort has to be invested up front in defining the specifications and requirements and answering questions from the candidate vendors. Everything has to be clear to everyone involved.

Since the CSCHR effort consolidates purchases from all of the joint services, we also have to do some negotiating with them. They all have their unique requirements, which we would not dare to marginalize. However, we have to help them understand the benefits of competition, which can only be achieved by getting agreement on joint standards for radios we can procure for multiple services and missions, generating the volume that allows us to play several vendors against each other.

One consequence of the historical tendency for everyone to insist on unique technology has been needless incompatibility. As more and more of our missions become joint missions, we can no longer tolerate situations where an important message may not get through because one warfighter's radio can't connect with another's. In the JTRS program, we are establishing common, interoperable radio standards that work across every manufacturer and every branch of the service.

And so much the better if, in the process of setting those common standards, we can also use competition to deliver new capabilities to the warfighter at the best possible price.