The U.S. Army, conducting the biggest test of its tactical communications network, is seeking to speed adoption of technology such as Apple Inc. (AAPL)’s iPhone and AeroVironment Inc. (AVAV)’s Puma drone.
The six-week exercise, called the Network Integration Evaluation, pits products in the military-development pipeline against available commercial technology in combat-like scenarios. It’s the first in a planned series of semi-annual events that officials said may change how the service buys equipment in a $6 billion market.
Some 3,800 soldiers in the exercise will assess about 35 systems -- many with subcomponents -- across thousands of square miles of terrain at Fort Bliss, Texas, and White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. The goal is to help the Army better integrate networked components and avoid costly delays that have plagued programs in the past, while taking advantage of rapid advances in the telecommunications industry, Army officials said.
The event, running through July 15, is a competition for Army dollars at a time of budget cutbacks and will draw major defense contractors such as Chicago-based Boeing Co. (BA) and General Dynamics Corp. (GD), based in Falls Church, Virginia.
“This is the Super Bowl,” said Dennis Moran, vice president of government business development for Melbourne, Florida-based Harris Corp. (HRS), which makes military radios and other products. “We are absolutely excited to be participating.”
The Army will spend the first four weeks testing equipment it’s been developing and the final two weeks testing products available in the market, including smart phones such as the iPhone made by Cupertino, California-based Apple, the Puma unmanned aerial vehicle developed by Monrovia, California-based AeroVironment, and the Rite 3G mobile wireless network developed by CACI International Inc. (CACI) of Arlington, Virginia.
“We must ensure we have the most current technology available so that ultimately we may get it into the hands of our soldiers as quickly as possible,” Army Vice Chief of Staff Peter Chiarelli said last month during a press conference at the Pentagon.
During the past decade, the military has rushed commercial radios and other communications gear into the field to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Any problems that arose, such as unexpected interference, were fixed in theater, straining forces on the ground, Chiarelli said.
With the creation of regular, brigade-level field tests in the U.S., “we will bear that integration burden, not our soldiers and commanders downrange,” he said.
Harris has benefited from the military’s need for more capable tactical radios. The company invested more than $300 million developing the AN/PRC-152 hand-held and AN/PRC-117G portable radios. The Defense Department has purchased more than 160,000 of the devices. Revenue growth in the company’s RF Communications segment, which includes military radios, has increased to $2.07 billion in 2010, from $1.51 billion in 2008.
The company wants the AN/PRC-117G, known as the “117 golf,” to compete against radios still in development as part of the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS), known as “jitters,” which has experienced delays and cost overruns.
“We think we’re going to perform extremely well,” Moran said in a telephone interview.
The Army will be scrutinizing five programs whose performance will play a role in production or fielding decisions, Paul Mehney, a spokesman for Program Executive Office Integration, the Army’s network modernization office, said in a telephone interview.
The five programs are the JTRS “manpack” radio developed by General Dynamics; Mounted Soldier System developed in part by Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based Rockwell Collins Inc. (COL); Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below (FBCB2) software developed by Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC); Early-Infantry Brigade Combat Team (E-IBCT) Network Interface Kit developed by Boeing; and the Spider XM-7 networked land mine developed by Providence, Rhode Island-based Textron Inc. (TXT), Mehney said.
Some of these systems have had significant delays, according to a recent Pentagon analysis of 40 acquisition programs.
A full-production decision on the Spider, for example, has been deferred six years because of problems found during operational testing, according to the Pentagon. Recurring deficiencies in the system include software that is complex and difficult to operate, the Pentagon found.
Three of the five systems originally slated for the Early- Infantry Brigade Combat Team, a system of sensors and unmanned vehicles designed to improve a brigade’s situational awareness, were canceled in December after users raised questions about their military value during testing, according to the Defense Department.
And full-production approval of the JTRS Handheld, Manpack, Small Form Fit (HMS) radios was pushed back two years due to deficiencies in reliability, range and battery life, according to the Pentagon.
Michael McCarthy, a program manager for the Future Force Integration Directorate at Fort Bliss, who has helped develop the Army’s smart phone initiative, Connecting Soldiers to Digital Applications, said the network test will include a total of 450 smart phones and tablets, made by companies such as Apple, Dell Inc. (DELL) of Round Rock, Texas, and Hewlett-Packard Co. (HPQ) of Palo Alto, California.
‘Strengths and Weaknesses’
Soldiers will use the devices to evaluate about 85 mobile applications, McCarthy said. Other products slated for review include the Rite 3G, a wireless network for the war zone, and the Puma, a small, low-altitude unmanned aircraft designed to improve surveillance for ground troops looking for the enemy nearby.
“Each of the systems has strengths and weaknesses and that’s what we’re trying to identify,” McCarthy said in a telephone interview.
The evaluation comes as pressure increases for the Defense Department to curb defense spending. President Barack Obama has proposed cutting $400 billion in anticipated defense spending through fiscal 2023, in addition to $78 billion in reductions for the next five years.
The Army has requested a budget of $6.17 billion for communications and electronics procurement in fiscal 2012, down from an estimated $7.23 billion in fiscal 2011 and $6.61 billion in fiscal 2010, according to budget documents.
The service earlier decreased the number of radios it planned to buy as part of the JTRS Ground Mobile Radio (GMR) developed by Boeing, to 10,293 from 86,209, according to a May 13 letter from Army Secretary John McHugh to lawmakers.
The move triggered a provision of the 1982 Nunn-McCurdy law, which requires the Pentagon to explain to Congress why an over-budget program should continue.
“The Army,” said General Chiarelli, “will buy what it needs, when it needs it, for those that need it.”