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‘Fatal Flaws’ in Army Radio Fixed, Hughes Says

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A year ago, Hughes Aircraft Co. was bogged down in a potentially lucrative program to develop a sophisticated radio system that was supposed to assist soldiers on the high-tech battlefield of the future.

The company’s Ground Systems Group in Fullerton was behind schedule in developing an Enhanced Precision Location Reporting System (EPLRS), a fancy name for a mobile data communications network that could secretly transfer orders, help troops find their location without relying on landmarks and pinpoint friendly troops.

In testing at Ft. Huachuca, Ariz., the control systems were proving unreliable, the radios were difficult to use and soldiers in different brigades weren’t able to communicate even when they were near each other on a mock battlefield, the company acknowledged.

“The radio systems had fatal flaws,” said Col. Leland Hewitt, project manager for the Army’s Data Distribution System program in Ft. Monmouth, N.J., which oversees the program. “There were detractors who wanted to kill the program, and we did not take the criticism lightly.”

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So, in September, Hughes brought its radio system back from the Arizona desert to a research laboratory in Fullerton, where it began fixing the problems one by one, according to Wayne Doughty, a Hughes’ program manager. Over the course of eight months ending in April, the company revamped the system’s software and installed a new computer system to control the network of radios.

Using new computer chips developed by American Telephone & Telegraph Co., the company increased the flow of data that can be transmitted on the radios several times over, cut the number of components in half and reduced the costs of a key component by 25%, Doughty said.

In parks throughout Orange County, Hughes engineers competed with transients for benches to set up mock battlefield tests of the radio systems.

Now Hughes and the Army say the flaws have been ironed out. The Ground Systems Group has been awarded a $107-million initial production contract to build 600 radios, with options to build 1,243 more. If the Army exercises those options, the contract’s value would increase to about $210 million.

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“The program is in good shape now,” Doughty said. “We’ve cleared a major hurdle.”

While the contract is not nearly as large as those for some other programs at the Fullerton plant, Doughty said it is important because the 26-pound radios are to serve as the communications backbone for the Army, enabling battlefield commanders to pinpoint friendly troops and minimize the risk of casualties from “friendly” fire.

Hewitt and Doughty said they expect the program to survive despite cuts in the Pentagon budget and expected reductions in Army troop levels. But the program is likely to face possible stretch outs or cuts in procurement levels, they said.

After a decade of research, Hughes officials say they hope their work on the high-tech radio will pay future dividends if the Army decides to outfit all its divisions with it. But a decision to go ahead with full-scale production would not guarantee Hughes a stream of future revenue since the Army has put the contract out for competitive bids.

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Hughes, which has 225 people working on the program in Fullerton, expects to receive its first $50-million option to build radios using the AT&T; chips within the next 30 days.

Dan Reeder, a Hughes spokesman in Fullerton, said the program is out of any danger of cancellation. “This program will survive,” he said, “because information is power on the modern battlefield. Whoever can move it fastest has an advantage.”


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