WASHINGTON - Boeing's new computer system for battlefield communications within the Army's combat brigades has demonstrated high cost and "poor reliability and performance," according to lawmakers.
The Boeing system “has yet to demonstrate desired performance levels in testing, has very large power, space and cooling requirements, and is projected to cost $450,000 each,” said a statement by the House and Senate armed services committees. There would be 81 systems per brigade.
Combined with the Army’s new Joint Tactical Radio, the Network Integration Kit costs $970,000 per vehicle. That “may be unaffordable to procure and deploy” to the Army’s 45 active duty brigades, according to the statement accompanying the fiscal 2011 defense authorization bill spelling out policy.
“The committees urge the Army to re-evaluate its requirements,” and the panels said the service instead “could pursue upgrades” to the 88,000 vehicle-tracking systems bought from Northrop Grumman.
Among the issues during combat tests in September, the NIK system “did not provide secure voice communication” and, overall, the Army test unit “expressed little confidence in the NIK performance,” said a Dec. 16 Pentagon test report.
The language and test reports are a setback for the No. 2 defense contractor as it tries to rebound from Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ April 2009 cancellation of its $159 billion Future Combat System for the Army.
Boeing retained a role on only one program of five created after the termination. It involves overseeing construction and integration of the NIK network, small unmanned drones and a robotic ground reconnaissance system for detecting an enemy.
Boeing received a $138 million contract in February 2010 to equip one Army brigade with the computer system. The Defense Acquisition Board, the Pentagon’s top weapons purchasing panel, is scheduled to review the program along with several other Army projects.
The panel will review the program’s progress and assess whether the Army should buy two additional brigade sets of equipment from Boeing.
Boeing Defense, Space & Security unit spokesman Matthew Billingsley said the company is working closely with the Army in preparation for the review “so it would be premature to comment” or speculate on the potential price of any more contracts.
“The program has made significant improvements in system performance, usability, and reliability over the last year and we are working with the customer to meet program affordability goals,” he said.
The integrated computer network is intended to host the latest communications, radio systems and software. It’s designed to ease the transmission of voice communications, still pictures, videos and data from ground sensors to troops.
“We will continue to work closely with the Army on the development and fielding of its tactical network, including completing the delivery of the first brigade capabilities in early 2011,” Billingsley said.
Army spokesman Paul Mehney said in an e-mail the Pentagon review “will take a careful look” at the system’s “maturity, military utility and affordability.”
Army testers “identified significant information assurance vulnerabilities” when the Boeing system was hit with simulated cyber attacks, said the report obtained by Bloomberg News.
The system “experienced a frequent degradation” in audio volume and quality, forcing units to use older radios “or in some cases, runners,” to convey battlefield messages, said the test report.
The system also has long re-boot and start-up periods that contributed to complex trouble-shooting procedures, limiting its “usefulness in supporting tactical operations,” the report said.
The network improved its reliability over 2009 tests but still fell short of its requirement – demonstrating it could operate a “mean time” of 79 hours between aborted missions – against a threshold of 112 hours, the report said.