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No Lessons Learned

Because I’m fascinated by the causes and ubiquity of socio-technical project explosions, I try to follow technical press reports on the status of big government contracts. Here’s a recent article detailing the demise of the DoD’s Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS): How to blow $6 billion on a tech project.

Even though the reasons for big, software-intensive, multi-technology project failures have been well known for decades, disasters continue to be hatched and cancelled daily around the world by both public and private institutions everywhere – except yours, of course.

What follows are some snippets from the Ars Technica article and the JTRS wikipedia entry. The well-known, well-documented, contributory causes to the JTRS project’s demise are highlighted in bold type.

When JTRS and GMR launched, the services broke out huge wish lists when they drafted their initial requests for proposals on individual JTRS programs. While they narrowed some of these requirements as the programs were consolidated, requirements were constantly revised before, during, and after the design process.

In hindsight, the military badly underestimated the challenges before it.

First and foremost was the software development problem. When JTRS started, software-defined radio (SDR) was still in its infancy. The project’s SCA architecture allowed software to manipulate field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) in the radio hardware to reconfigure how its electronics functioned, exposing those FPGAs as CORBA objects. But when development began, hardware implementations of CORBA for FPGAs didn’t really exist in any standard form.

Moving code for a waveform from one set of radio hardware to another didn’t just mean a recompile—it often meant significant rewrites to make it compatible with whatever FGPAs were used in the target radio, then further tweaking to produce an acceptable level of performance. The result: the challenge of core development tasks for each of the initial designs was often grossly underestimated. Some of those issues have been addressed by specialized CORBA middleware, such as PrismTech’s OpenFusion, but the software tools have been long in coming.

When JTRS began, there was no WiFi, no 3G or no 4G wireless, and commercial radio communications was relatively expensive. But the consumer industry didn’t even look at SDR as a way to keep its products relevant in the future. Now, ASIC-based digital signal processors are cheap, and new products also tend to include faster chips and new hardware features; people prefer buying a new $100 WiFi router when some future 802.11z protocol appears instead of buying a $3,000 wireless router today that is “future proofed” (and you can’t really call anything based on CORBA “future proofed”).

If JTRS had focused on rapid releases and taken a more modular approach, and tested and deployed early, the Army could have had at least 80 percent of what it wanted out of GMR today, instead of what it has now—a certified radio that it will never deploy.”

Having an undefined technical problem is bad enough, but it gets even worse when serious “scope creep” sets in during a 15-year project.

Each of the five sub-programs within JTRS aimed not at an incremental goal, but at delivering everything at once. That was a recipe for disaster.

By 2007 (10 years after start) the JTRS program as a whole had spent billions and billions—without any radios fielded.

In the fall of 2011, after 13 years of toil and $6B of our money wasted, the monster was put out of its misery. It was cancelled on October 2011 by the United States Undersecretary of Defense:

Our assessment is that it is unlikely that products resulting from the JTRS GMR development program will affordably meet Service requirements, and may not meet some requirements at all. Therefore termination is necessary.

And here’s what we, the taxpayers, have to show for the massive investment:

After 13 years in the pipeline, what those users saw was a radio that weighed as much as a drill sergeant, took too long to set up, failed frequently, and didn’t have enough range. (D’oh! and WTF!)

  1. RevioCTO
    June 22, 2012 at 5:15 am

    Amazing. The worst part is that they should probably have cancelled it several years and billions ago.

    • June 22, 2012 at 5:20 am

      Amazing is right on. It’s amazing that no one saw the disaster till 13 years later. Actually, I’m sure hundreds did “see” it unfold, but they were either “put in their place”, marginalized, or fired in order to keep the gravy train rolling.

  2. Mark Wilson
    June 22, 2012 at 7:49 am

    Really interesting, Anthony.

    • June 22, 2012 at 8:19 am

      Thanks, and please call me Tony. Anthony is too classy fer me 🙂

  1. June 26, 2012 at 6:02 am
  2. January 23, 2013 at 1:00 am
  3. March 2, 2013 at 5:05 am

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