AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Now a story about the challenges of military communication on the battlefield.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO COMMUNICATION)
BLOCK: This is radio traffic from an Army convoy in eastern Afghanistan that's having trouble communicating.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO COMMUNICATION)
BLOCK: For the past 15 years, the Army has spent billions on an ambitious program to develop new radios that would allow simpler, integrated battlefield communications. It was called the Joint Tactical Radio System, or JTRS. But the Army has scrapped most of that program after finding that the radios didn't work as hoped and had grown too big to be useful in combat.
Military writer David Axe has been looking into the failure of JTRS and he's written about the program for the Center for the Public Integrity's website, IWatchNews.org.
David Axe, welcome to the program.
DAVID AXE: Thanks. Thanks for having me.
BLOCK: Why don't you explain the idea behind these radios? What problems were they supposed to solve?
AXE: So presently, the Army possesses about - oh, I don't know - a hundred different models of radio. And it's not just the Army; it's the Air Force, the Marines, the Navy, and other government agencies that work with the military. Together, have scores and scores of different radio types for doing different things.
And as warfare grows more complex, the communication infrastructure grows more complex to the point where today, if you imagine an infantry company, say, a hundred guys on the frontline in a place like Afghanistan. When they go out for a mission, they may carry along with them a dozen different types of radios. And when it comes time to communicate, their radio infrastructure is weighing them down.
In a very literal sense, it weighs them down - makes them static. They have to hold still to talk. And when you hold still in a place like Afghanistan, you become vulnerable.
BLOCK: When you say they would have to hold still to be able to communicate, I mean clearly we were just listening radios that were mounted in vehicles. So there is that capability.
AXE: Oh, right. But in a place like Afghanistan you have to get out of your vehicle to patrol and to fight. And not a lot of roads, and that's typical across many battlefields. And the handheld radios only got a limited range, especially when you're in a valley - you're surrounded by mountains. And in situations like that you either need a very high-powered radio or unique satellite communications, which requires its own sort of complex antenna that you have to deploy.
But to get all of those radios working, all at the same time, you pretty much have to hold still.
BLOCK: And the idea, as you've described it, was for these JTRS - this new system - to be compatible whether it's a radio in a vehicle, they were designed, some for use in by units on foot, others for individuals soldiers that would be held by hand, right?
AXE: Yes, the idea was to create a universal radio. And I think the Army realized early on that that was hopelessly ambitious. It aimed to be too universal and to pack too many capabilities into one radio box. The best example of that is the main JTRS radio, something called the GMR, the Ground Mobile Radio. And that was the radio for trucks. It had to perform a lot of different functions and it had to do that while encrypting the communications, and also not using too much power and fitting inside the vehicle.
And all these competing demands made it technically impossible to pack all of those capabilities into a box of size and weight that could realistically be carried by existing vehicles.
BLOCK: Now, Boeing got the original contract back in 2000. It was just $2 million to start, that's chump change for the military. How much did that balloon to over time?
AXE: For the Ground Mobile Radio and the main JTRS equipment, about $6 billion to the present day.
BLOCK: And of that cost, anything to show for it for the military?
AXE: Well, yes. Not as much as the military would like, certainly not as much as responsible taxpayers would like. The Ground Mobile Radio itself has been canceled. But some of the smaller JTRS radios survived. The handheld versions are still in development and some are being bought in small quantities for the frontline troops.
The airborne version, still in development. And these may yet bear some real fruit. But the main effort, the main hardware, sure - canceled.
BLOCK: It does seem like a reasonable expectation and a good idea that the Army would try to find one radio system that would work across all these different platforms, in a sense. How much of the trouble do you think was foreseeable from the outset? And how much was it just, you know, a technological hope that didn't work out but was worth trying?
AXE: A lot of this is rooted in the 1990s, and in this attitude that the whole military adopted in the '90s, of a heightened faith in technology that ran headlong into a couple ground wars in Asia, that has since sort of forced the Army to take a reality check, I guess you could say.
BLOCK: Meaning what exactly?
AXE: Well, the Army no longer has this ambition of replacing all of its radios with one universal radio. Instead, the Army is now going out to industry and saying: Do you have something that's slightly better than existing radios? If you do, we'll buy a few thousand of them and then in a couple of years we're going to ask you again. So it's an evolutionary approach instead of a revolutionary approach.
BLOCK: David Axe, thank you very much.
AXE: Thank you.
BLOCK: David Axe's article is titled "Failure to Communicate." It's on the Center for Public Integrity's website, IWatchNews.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.