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Army Prepares to Start Radio Competition

The U.S. Army is moving forward with plans to hold a competition to buy smartphone-compatible radios for troops.

The service this week outlined its plans in a draft notice, known in acquisition parlance as a request for proposals, or RfP. It plans to begin the competition this fall and award a single company with a production contract in 2014.

Potential bidders will include General Dynamics Corp., which is currently developing the so-called Rifleman Radio, and Harris Corp., among other companies.

"We're very happy to see the draft RfP," Dennis Moran, a vice president at the Melbourne, Fla.-based company, said in a telephone interview. "It's been a long time coming."

The Army initially expected to issue the draft notice in late June. The process was delayed by about two months while Frank Kendall, the Defense Department's top weapons buyer, reviewed the acquisition plans.

"It helped to make sure we have a full and open competition as successful as possible," Josh Davidson, a spokesman for the service, said in a telephone interview.

Unclear was whether automatic budget cuts known as sequestration are affecting the schedule. In response to the reductions, the Pentagon forced 640,000 civilian employees -- including contracting officers -- to take six days of mandatory unpaid leaves of absence, known as furloughs, before Sept. 30.

The Army eventually wants to spend as much as $750 million on the handheld radios, which are single-channel radios held or worn by soldiers. The devices are part of the Joint Tactical Radio System, a family of radios in development since the 1990s.

While the Defense Department in recent years has canceled or downsized other programs in the system, it has recently supported further development of General Dynamics-led program, known in military parlance as Handheld, Manpack and Small Form Fit, or HMS.

The Pentagon last year authorized the Army to buy a total of more than 19,000 Rifleman Radios from General Dynamics — about 10 percent of the program’s planned quantity — while holding a competition for the next and final phase of production.

The Army this spring deployed its first brigade of soldiers to Afghanistan with Rifleman Radios and smartphones such as the Motorola Atrix, which work together to display secure information such as troop movements. The smartphones are tethered to the digital radios via cables and are modified to block wireless connectivity.

“The Rifleman Radio is a key component of enabling our soldiers from the small unit level down to the individual dismounted soldier – especially in austere environments,” Col. Russ Wygal, the Army’s project manager for tactical radios, said in a statement.

“We absolutely encourage all vendors to participate and look forward to seeing the new and innovative ways they can meet this vital network requirement," he said.

The service will hold a forum for companies to learn more about the contest June 5 at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.

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