As several dozen soldiers from the U.S. Army’s Task Force Rock drove into Afghanistan’s Chowkay Valley one morning in March 2010, Taliban fighters immediately began moving into ambush positions along a higher ridge. The Force’s mission was to protect a U.S. reconstruction team as it met with local village leaders, but it was stuck in place as the Taliban reached their fighting posts.
What tied them down was their radios: a forest of plastic and metal cubes sprouting antennae of different lengths and sizes. They had short-range models for talking with the reconstruction team; longer-range versions for reaching headquarters 25 miles away; and a backup satellite radio in case the mountains blocked the transmission. An Air Force controller carried his own radio for talking to jet fighters overhead and a separate radio for downloading streaming video from the aircraft.
Some of these radios worked only while the troopers were stationary; others were simply too cumbersome to operate on the move. “Not good,” said Spec. Geoff Pearman, as he watched farmers scurry indoors from their wheat fields — a sure sign that fighting was imminent.
Task Force Rock’s vulnerability that morning is routine for U.S. forces in Afghanistan today. But it was never supposed to occur at all.
Almost fifteen years ago, the Army launched an ambitious program, the Joint Tactical Radio System, aimed at developing several highly-compatible “universal” radios. Together, the JTRS radios would replace nearly all older radios in the American arsenal, greatly simplifying communications and freeing up combat units “to tap into the network on the move,” according to Paul Mehney, an Army spokesman.
But JTRS, pronounced “jitters,” failed to live up to its promise.