NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The U.S. Army may take a new tack to the procurement of radios, launching an “as a service” pilot that officials say can drive down costs and increase communications adaptability.
The as-a-service effort would kick off in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2023, according to Undersecretary Gabe Camarillo, who spoke last week at the Army’s Technical Exchange Meeting 9 in Nashville, Tennessee. Under the model, the service contracts with a vendor who provides “a minimal number of radios for training,” centrally stores or leases radios for operations and would “upgrade software as required,” he said.
The approach differs from the service’s traditional means of buying and maintaining radios, which can be hamstrung by hardware limitations. Instead, it’s more similar to the subscription model offered by some makers of consumer products and mirrors as-a-service deals in which companies furnish goods or services on a rolling basis and keeps them operating and up to date. The thinking initially encompassed software and information technology, but has since expanded to a wider range of wares.
The idea is preceded by a “need to experiment with different buying models, especially for our capabilities in which technology trends do not support the serial process of defining a requirement, entering a development phase and then pursuing a continuous fielding process of that exact same version of a capability over a long period of time,” Camarillo said.
The Army has some 350,000 radios — a stockpile too massive to quickly and cost-effectively modernize, given looming security deadlines and competition with China and Russia.
The two technologically savvy world powers employ sophisticated signals intelligence and electronic warfare capabilities, which can put in harm’s way U.S. soldiers relying on outdated lines of communication. The Russia-Ukraine war has proven the need for more-insulated networks as well as the dangers posed by indiscriminate cell phone use to relay battlefield information, defense officials said earlier this year.
Network modernization is among the Army’s top priorities, and intimately ties into the Pentagon’s push for a wholly connected miltary, known as Joint All-Domain Command and Control.
While the as-a-service model could jeopardize the Army’s ability to surge radios in the event of a large-scale fight, the potential cost savings, flexibility and software upgrades are “a really compelling reason” to experiment with it, Camarillo said.
Army Lt. Gen. John Morrison, deputy chief of staff, G-6, backed what the undersecretary said at the conference, warning that “whatever we build today, 20 years from now, it better not be in the force because it will be so antiquated. We won’t be able to use it.” An as-a-service arrangement could prove less stagnant.
“It is ironic to me that we would actually come up with any IT program where we think we’re going to be fielding the same capability for decades,” Morrison said.
The Army is seeking input from industry about the as-a-service pilot as well as what, exactly, companies can provide to meet requirements for a low-cost, single-channel, secure-but-unclassified radio.
The feedback, provided via requests for information published earlier this month, will shape how the Army proceeds.
“Maybe it works, maybe it won’t,” Camarillo said. “But I think we’ve got to try something different.”
The Army this spring selected two companies, L3Harris Technologies and Thales Defense and Security, to furnish voice and data radios as part of its combat net radio modernization program. The arrangement is worth as much as $6.1 billion.
More than 1,100 radios, including those to be used for quality checks and preliminary testing, had been ordered as of April, according to the Program Executive Office for Command, Control and Communications-Tactical. L3Harris secured $20.6 million of the initial order. Thales got $18.2 million.
The program, the Army said, supports Pentagon and National Security Agency cryptographic goals as well as the service’s unified network strategy.
Colin Demarest is a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covers military networks, cyber and IT. Colin previously covered the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration — namely Cold War cleanup and nuclear weapons development — for a daily newspaper in South Carolina. Colin is also an award-winning photographer.