6 May 2015

Harris, Thales Win Army’s Rifleman Radio; Goodbye, GD

[UPDATED 8:00 with Loren Thompson comment] This afternoon, the Army announced it had chosen Harris and Thales to make its Rifleman Radio, the 21st century walkie-talkie that links foot troops into the Army’s command network. General Dynamics and Thales had split production of the first 21,379 radios under a Low-Rate Initial Production (LRIP) contract, but GD had decided not to bid on the Full-Rate Production (FRP) contract.

So it will be Thales and Harris that split the next five years of Full Rate Production. It won’t be a 50:50 split, but rather an ongoing competition: Assuming that both Thales and Harris pass Army testing, the service will then buy radios in lots, with both companies competing to offer the lowest price. The Army will ultimately buy more than 150,000 FRP Rifleman Radios, but after five years, there’ll be a new competition, so Thales and Harris hardly have a perpetual lock on the program.

The award marks a historic shift in how the military buys radios — a shift that may be replicated in other areas. General Dynamics is a classic defense contractor: Its divisions build everything from nuclear-powered submarines to armored ground vehicles to the Army’s command-and-control network, WIN-T — but it builds them all for the armed forces. Harris just builds radios, but it builds them for everybody: fire, police, and the general public, as well as for the military. Media-wary General Dynamics had been the much-criticized incumbent developing the troubled Joint Tactical Radio System; media-savvy Harris elbowed in with commercial technology.

As Moore’s Law races ahead, high-tech has become a commodity, and with Rifleman Radio, the Army is buying it as such. Modern digital, software-defined radios are essentially computers that communicate wirelessly — something the civilian IT world builds far better than most traditional defense contractors. So instead of developing military-specific systems like JTRS, only to have the commercial sector lap the Pentagon procurement process and render the military tech obsolete on arrival, the Army is buying the radios as Non-Developmental Items (NDIs).

The crucial question is whether the military can replicate this model and take better advantage of competition and commercial innovation in other areas. That’s one of the things Defense Secretary Ashton Carter went to Silicon Valley last week to find out.

[UPDATED: Defense industry analyst and consultant Loren Thompson struck a more skeptical note:]

“The Army’s tactical communications roadmap has been through so many twists and turns at this point that it is hard to know what to make of the award,” he wrote in an email. “It may be a significant win for Harris and Thales, but recent experience suggests that the Army — or the Congress — could change its mind again next year about what the troops need.”

As for reaching out to commercial technology, Thompson said, “purchasing non-developmental items may accelerate fielding, but it increases the likelihood that useful feature will not be present in the baseline configuration. When you buy off the shelf, somebody else decides what your options are.”

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