The $6 Billion Military Software Project That Came to Nothing

Illustration for article titled The $6 Billion Military Software Project That Came to Nothing

The Joint Tactical Radio System was an amazing concept put forward by the US military. It was designed to future-proof the entire communications system used by all US defense organizations, which is why it required 15 years of work and the investment of $6 billion dollars. Sadly, things didn't go to plan.


Ars Technica has a wonderful feature about how the US military came to blow such a huge stack of cash on the project. It sought to create a universal "operating system" for military radios, one that would simplify the use of radio in the field, and make systems cheaper and easier to upgrade. Sadly, it reached a little further than it was able to manage. From the article:

"Military technology often pushes at the edge of the doable-that's why agencies like DARPA exist. But when JTRS was originally conceived in 1997, the Army's most significant previous work on software-defined radio was an Army project called SpeakEasy-the first version of which took up the entire back of a military truck. Clearly, an ambitious project like JTRS had plenty of basic research to chew through before it could produce anything useful. In hindsight, the military badly underestimated the challenges before it."

A lack of experience and, not least, understanding meant the project was doomed from the get-go. The only output from the project was a radio device which weighed in at a staggering 207 pounds, which wasn't so practical out in the field. For a further look into the project, the Ars Technica feature makes a really entertaining read. [Ars Technica]

Image by US Navy



This is just the tip of the iceberg. If you were to look at all types of government software contracting, you'll see all kinds of waste. Part of that stems from the system of RFPs (Request For Proposals), which outline the exact specifications that the agency wants to see from the vendor. However, specifications are not synonymous with functionality.

For example, ask any average doctor's office what they think of EHR (Electronic Health Records) and most will start pulling their hair out. They understand how it would be useful, but so many EHR vendors put out products that meet the specifications set by the Feds, but are altogether non-functional. Most out-of-the-box solutions simply don't work, and it's been difficult for many doctor's offices to have a productive dialogue with vendors to get their products to actually work.

All of that boils back to a software market defined by pre-determined specifications. Now, this shouldn't be misinterpreted to mean "All government is bad! blah blah blah"; I believe government has an important place in regulating markets and checking against fraud and abuse. However, its role should be to regulate the market, not create it. I can understand why the system exists, though; it's a belief that, "we're the one's who are using this, so obviously we should know what we want". However, that's often what is wanted right now - 2-5 years down the line when the product is actually ready to be put into production, that can easily change. "It's really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them."