L-3 Subsidiary Under Criminal Investigation Over Radio Units
Boeing subcontractor L-3 Communications is under federal criminal investigation after Interstate Electronics Corp., one of its subsidiaries, supplied defective parts used in CSEL emergency radios to locate downed military pilots.
Interstate Electronics Corp. purchased many of the parts from lower-level suppliers, but it is responsible for supervising the manufacturing process, testing the parts and verifying they meet quality standards.
Pentagon criminal investigators and contract-management officials now suspect that Interstate Electronics may have supplied thousands of other, potentially substandard parts over the years to a wide range of Army and Air Force weapons systems. The Los Angeles U.S. attorney’s office is leading this investigation, and its expansion means that L-3 could be subject to greater penalties if found guilty of wrongdoing. The US government (primarily the military) accounts for more than 75% of the company’s business.
What Is CSEL?
The Combat Survivor/Evader Locator (CSEL) is a joint services program with the Air Force as lead agency. The goal of CSEL is to remove the ‘search’ from search and rescue missions.
The program was started in the late 1990s with the intention of providing up to 53,000 radios to aircrews in all four services, as an extension of the successful experience rescuing downed F-16 pilot Scott O’Grady in Bosnia. By using his radio plus a hand-held GPS, O’Grady had managed to transmit nearly his exact location to the rescuers.
What CSEL and related programs are attempting to do is duplicate this ability, and also extend U.S. forces’ ability to act within ‘the golden hour’. Statistics indicate that most downed pilots are captured within that first hour, so the ability to find combat survivors immediately and coordinate their rescue in real time was given a high priority.
The key feature of these new survival radios is their ability to provide search and rescue forces with the capability to locate, authenticate and communicate with downed aircrew worldwide. Canned messages such as “Capture is imminent,” or “Injured but can move,” along with GPS-derived location, can be sent to rescue response cells via communication satellites. CSEL thus includes precision GPS-based geoposition and navigation data, two-way over-the-horizon (OTH) secure data communication via satellite to Joint Search and Rescue Centers (JSRC), OTH beacon operation, and Line-of-Sight (LOS) voice communication with swept tone beacon capabilities once rescuers are within range.
CSEL is more than the radios, however. It is a complex aerospace command and control system that includes hand-held radios, unmanned base stations, and rescue center workstations. It relies on support from UHF satellite communications, the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRnet), national systems, Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking (SARSAT) system, and the Global Positioning System (GPS). The hand-held radio features line-of-sight UHF/VHF voice, beacon, GPS, and over-the horizon data modes for worldwide coverage. The over-the-horizon segment includes four unattended UHF base stations that control satellite communication links with hand-held radios and interface with national assets, the SARSAT system, and Joint Search and Rescue Centers (JSRC) via the SIPRnet. The ground segment displays and prepares data burst messages for transmission to/from the hand-held radio via UHF base stations.
At a cost of approximately $10,000 per radio, the CESL program could be worth over $500 million to Boeing and its subcontractors.
Federal Computer Weekly (FCW.com) reports that in their FY 2006 budgets, U.S. Army officials have asked for $15.7 million to buy CSEL radios (FY 2005 CSEL budget: $31.1 million). U.S. Air Force officials have asked for $24.7 million for CSEL radios in their FY 2006 budget (FY 2005 budget: $13.9 million), and U.S. Navy and Marine Corps officials did not request CSEL funding in their fiscal 2006 budgets.
Oddly, a March 24, 2005 news release from Boeing noted that The U.S. Air Force had awarded Boeing a $43.6 million full-rate production contract for 5,053 CSEL hand-held radios by October 2006. It was not possible to reconcile these figures before press time.
FCW.com also noted that Boeing has delivered 2,971 CSEL radios to the four U.S. services, with roughly 300 planned for delivery each month.
CSEL Development Issues
The CSEL program has suffered a series of stumbles prior to this investigation, including development delays, shortcomings in operational tests and a price tag that nearly doubled over a few years to about $10,000 per.
The program has come under sharp criticism from Thomas Christie, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) Director of Operational Test and Evaluation. In his 2004 annual report, Christie said the emergency radio was not suitable for fielding. During tests of the emergency radios in 91 recovery scenarios, the satellite links from the pilot to the rescue center worked 96% of the time, but communications from the rescue center worked only 58% of the time.
The GPS Joint Program Office blamed the figures on incorrect orientation of the radio in relation to the communications satellites; nevertheless, a change was made to upgrade the software at the base station to continue sending messages until an acknowledgment is received from the pilot’s CSEL unit.
L-3 Communications’ Interstate Electronics division provides Boeing with spoofing-resistant GPS receiver modules that are incorporated into the handheld radios carried by aircrews. A Boeing spokesman said the defective parts under investigation are printed circuit boards in the GPS modules.
In a Dec. 22, 2004 memo distributed to other military organizations late last year, the Defense Criminal Investigative Service (DCIS) said some of the parts failed to “meet the aerospace quality standards” required by the Pentagon, and Interstate Electronics “allegedly concealed” certain test failures from both Boeing and the Defense Department.
Boeing had told Air Force contracting officials months earlier that the L-3 unit failed to make sure that correct manufacturing and inspection procedures were in place. In September 2004 Integrated Electronics Corp. and Boeing had voluntarily recalled more than 1,400 radios, dubbed “survivor locator units,” for use by pilots.
Sources indicate that aircrews with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division operating in Iraq are equipped with CSEL radios, as were flight crews operating from the USS John Stennis aircraft carrier during its recent Pacific deployment and some crews flying with Air Force Special Operations Command.
Boeing’s spokesman has said that as far as he knows, radios currently used by combat forces do not have any defective parts. Nevertheless, investigators are pushing L-3 and Boeing to recall the rest of their CESL radios, some of which are slated to be installed in ground vehicles.
L-3 and Interstate Electronics Corp. state that they took appropriate action as soon as the quality-control problem was discovered. They have disciplined some employees, switched parts suppliers implemented enhanced quality-control safeguards, continue to evaluate further steps, and “fully intend to stand behind” their products. Even so, investigators are looking into why it took months for the unit to take aggressive action to determine the quality of all the parts coming from the same suspect vendor.
It is still too early to tell how widespread the problems stemming from Interstate Electronics’ alleged quality-control lapses may be. As noted above, Pentagon DCIS investigators and contract-management officials also worry that poor quality control practices may also have been present as Interstate Electronics supplied thousands of other parts over the years to a wide range of Army and Air Force weapons systems. The Excalibur GPS-guided artillery shell has been mentioned in this context, and the Pentagon is busy reviewing its component data and trying to compile a list of the programs that might be affected.
L-3 “has provided all information that we have to government representatives,” but has blocked public release of a list of programs for which the unit, Interstate Electronics Corp., supplied parts, saying it is proprietary information.
Once the Pentagon has its list, of course, it may choose to release that list at its discretion.
CSEL Competitors & Related Programs
The Department of Defense’s plan was a dual one in which two different systems, the General Dynamics’ Hook 112 and the CSEL, are being developed simultaneously. Though often derided as less efficient, this may be one case where the redundancy created by such overlap proves wise.
General Dynamics’ AN/PRC-112B “Hook-112” was an amalgamated system that essentially duplicates the functions used by Scott O’Grady in Bosnia. The Hook-112 radio integrated a GPS receiver into the older PRC-112 radio, but lacked the satellite communications capabilities of CSEL. General Dynamics has moved to close the gap with CESL in the AN/PRC-112G “Hook 2”, which has a satellite communication option, two-way text messaging, and encrypted GPS (though not the CSEL’s SAASM anti-spoofing module or military GPS compatibility, it seems), as well as features like integration with its QuickDraw search and rescue technology.
One CENTAF study focused on a numerical analysis of a 720 hour operational period of Operation Iraqi Freedom from March 19 to April 18, 2003, during which 7 manned coalition aircraft (four AH-64D Apache helicopters, two AH-1W Super Cobra helicopters, and one A-10A Warthog close support aircraft) were lost to enemy fire with 13 additional aircraft lost to “other causes.” The report notes that the Air Force flew 191 rescue sorties and that space operations reported 40 “Hook Bursts” from SATCOM-upgraded Hook 2 systems.
General Dynamics reports that it has sold nearly 30,000 Hook 2 compatible PRC radios to date. The radios are currently used by all U.S. armed services, U.S. Special Operations Command, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Spain, Sweden and Portugal.
The 2004 report from DoD Director of Operational Test and Evaluation Thomas Christie found technical and usability issues with Hook radios, but concluded that a combination of Hook and CSEL radios could meet the military’s needs until officials can field a rescue radio based on Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) technology.
Funding for initial clusters of JTRS radios was zeroed out in the proposed fiscal 2006 budget, and JTRS cluster 1 has program problems of its own these days.
Meanwhile, the L-3 investigation continues to develop.
Sources & Additional Readings
- L-3’s most recent quarterly results, released April 26, 2005. They include figures, trends, and a listing of major projects they are involved in both within the defense industry and outside of it.
- Dow Jones: L-3 unit probe said to widen
- Federal Computer Weekly: Criminal probe looks at pilot radios
- U.S. Air Force AIM Points: L-3 faces federal criminal probe on defective pilot-radio parts
- CESL: Boeing’s Official Site
- GlobalSecurity.org: Combat Survivor/Evader Locator (CSEL)
- General Dynamics Decision Systems AN/PRC-112G “Hook 2”: Official Page.
- General Dynamics’ Decision Systems Hook 2 System brochure [PDF Format]
- Military Aerospace Technology: Hook ’em, Dano