WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has announced it is challenging Senate plans to gut a key U.S. Army networking program — General Dynamics’ Warfighter Information Network-Tactical — as part of the annual defense policy bill.

The White House, in a list of objections to the Senate’s proposed National Defense Authorization Act for 2018, defended the beleaguered program known as WIN-T, long touted as the backbone of the U.S. Army’s tactical network. The bill’s “severe funding restrictions” would “cripple” the U.S. Army’s plans to let soldiers communicate while on the move, the White House said Thursday.

The message comes as the Senate is set to debate the NDAA next week, led by Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz. The bill would provide none of the $420 million the president’s budget requested to develop and field the General Dynamics program. McCain has accused the U.S. Army of squandering $6 billion on WIN-T.

Also next week, the U.S. Army will unveil its new network modernization strategy at the Pentagon, and it’s likely far-reaching changes are in the works. U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley has publicly voiced concerns WIN-T can function as envisioned on behalf of combat troops, and earlier this year, he directed a “rigorous, thorough and painful” internal review of the U.S. Army networking programs.

[Senate zeros out funding for Army’s battlefield network]

On Thursday, Milley and senior U.S. Army budget officials made the rounds on Capitol Hill. That included an hourlong private meeting with McCain where they discussed WIN-T in broader talks that touched on NDAA provisions Milley wanted changed or maintained.

“We meet with the service chiefs that have their priorities and [have] discussions,” McCain told Defense News in a brief hallway interview afterward. “In this case, it was a couple of systems he’s really concerned with.”

Milley, who declined to comment on the record Thursday, testified in May on the critical need for a working network. The U.S. Army envisions scenarios in which it fights a near-peer enemy in contested environments that require small units, operating independently and moving constantly to avoid defeat.

[Congress divided on Army’s battlefield comms future]

Yet the first increment of WIN-T, while fielded, can only function — transmitting voice, video and data — when a unit is stopped. The second increment of WIN-T is supposed to provide an on-the-move networked communications capability, and it has struggled.

The latest annual report from the Pentagon’s office of developmental test and evaluation, dated 2016, faulted WIN-T’s technical performance, usability and vulnerability to enemy jamming.

Though the House-passed version of the NDAA calls for the program to be accelerated, Milley has resisted, saying he won’t do it unless he is convinced WIN-T can work in combat.

In a response to a question about Milley’s review on General Dynamics July 23 earnings call, CEO Phebe Novakovic said the company was ”working very closely with our customers to respond to any changing requirements” and that the company did not see any significant risk to this year’s estimated WIN-T orders—software and engineering support worth $35 million.

“To give you just a little bit more color, we have a long-standing, 20-year, networking expertise in land forces—tactical land forces network, and we think that positions us very well to work with our Army customer now and in the future,” Novakovic said.

On Thursday, the White House objected to provisions that restrict all funding for WIN-T and other battlefield network programs, arguing the provisions would delay delivery of critical capabilities to soldiers by at least two years.

“These constraints also would hamper the ability to provide reliable intelligence analysis down to the battalion level and to ensure that integrated sensors and weapons support current and future Air and Missile Defense systems,” the letter reads.

[House pressures Army to buy new missile defense radar that the White House opposes]

If the Senate’s punitive language survives debate on the floor next week, it will likely be subject to closed-door discussions as McCain and the three other leaders of the House and Senate armed services committees reconcile the House and Senate bills into a single bill for final passage by both houses.

A group of 178 House lawmakers signed a letter sent to Milley in April to encourage fielding the service’s WIN-T capability faster, proposing a new approach that would fund the procurement of six brigade sets of WIN-T Inc. 2 each year over the next five years. Several senators have sent Milley similar letters.

On Aug. 25, the SASC’s ranking member, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., joined Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., on a tour of the General Dynamics facility in Warren’s home state that makes WIN-T. Both lawmakers emphasized the economic impact of the program.

“The work being done here on WIN-T is cutting-edge research, but it also produces a lot of jobs right here,” Reed said.

Warren, at the May hearing, argued there is “no obvious substitute” for WIN-T should the U.S. Army decide to switch gears.

“WIN-T is the backbone of our Army’s communications and data system. By connecting commanders to troops by both satellites and radio, it makes a real difference on the ground,” Warren said at the May 25 tour. “I’m proud that it is manufactured right here in Taunton by General Dynamics.”

Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.

Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.

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