The Army is set to begin its fourth in a series of exercises to test new technology for the battlefield. At the same time, soldiers are learning how best to use the IT from previous exercises as they prepare to head into theater in the coming weeks.
Both of these events are a result of the Army’s new approach to agile acquisition in the Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) process.
What the Army calls Capability Set 13 is made up of roughly 600 separate systems, mostly focused on battlefield networking technology. It was developed and put together into a deployable package of technology through the NIE, an exercise the Army now conducts twice annually in the desert environs of Fort Bliss and the adjacent White Sands missile range in order to determine which new capabilities can fit into operational networks, which ones need more work, and which ones need to be jettisoned entirely.
The Army is about to start the fourth in its series of exercises at Fort Bliss, Texas, that are now the gatekeeper for technology on Army tactical networks.
Meanwhile, soldiers elsewhere are training on the new agile acquisition process.
Two brigade combat teams preparing to head to Afghanistan from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division have just started training on that new assemblage of gear, which the Army developed as the first set of capabilities through earlier iterations of the NIE.
Brig. Gen. Dan Hughes, the director of the Army’s System of Systems Integration directorate, said that fact in and of itself is a significant departure from how his service has deployed battlefield technology over the last 11 years.
“It’s an integrated capability, unlike what we’ve done before where we layer program after program into the field, one at a time. These soldiers in the field are training on pieces that are already put together,” he said. “The commanders of those two units don’t have to worry about integrating systems, because they’re integrated before they get them. They get to train on the integrated capability. They get to think about warfighting versus thinking about how to put the systems we’ve given them together once they’re out there. It’s a real win.”
Among the major new capabilities the two brigades will take with them to Afghanistan for the first time are the WIN-T system, which will let commanders operate and communicate on the Army’s network while moving from place-to-place, and the Nett Warrior program, which will bring networking down to the level of an individual squad leader.
Agile lessons learned
But Maj. Gen. Genaro Dellarocco, the commander of Army Test and Evaluation Command, said apart from fielding individual acquisition programs, the NIE process is teaching the Army how to do more agile, more cost-effective purchasing in the IT arena.
“We’re learning how to do things right and how to do things better in terms of leader development, in terms of tactics, techniques and procedures, it’s across the board,” he said. “The beauty of this is we’re shaking out these systems stateside instead of on the battlefield. That’s saving taxpayers a ton of money. The logistics lines are all in the continental United States, the field service representatives are local, and nobody’s shooting at us with real bullets or IEDs. We have an environment that’s simulating operational conditions, but in a much more cost-effective manner.”
The Army said Capability Set 13 fulfills 11 separate urgent needs expressed by commanders in Afghanistan. At the same time though, it’s thinking about the next decade and beyond and how to be flexible enough to respond to contingencies it hasn’t yet imagined.
Hughes said the service is trying to meet current warfighter needs in ways that provide plug-and-play capabilities for future systems.
“Each one of the programs has a set of capabilities they provide, and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of making each of the programs flexible. But if you bring them together in an integrated fashion, it allows the commander to use the individual pieces to fight the fight he’s in,” Hughes said. “The communications-on-the-move capability we’re going to provide to the commander of 10th Mountain Division allows him to spread his force out further than the guy that’s sitting in Afghanistan right now. It makes him far more agile and flexible.”
Infrastructure coming down
That agility and mobility especially will be important over the next couple years in Afghanistan, the Army said. As the military continues drawing down out of the country, it will remove more and more bases and other permanent infrastructure.
“That communications infrastructure is going to get pulled down, but those soldiers and training teams are still going to need to communicate,” said Col. Mark Elliott, the director for LandWarNet/Mission Command on the Army’s headquarters staff. “It’s great to have a capability to do that without having to have an infrastructure in place that took years to build.”
Going forward, the Army says it’s learned from the NIE process that it has some work to do when it comes to making sure the platforms it builds allow new systems to be plugged right in as technology advances.
Hughes said the Army’s IT community is working with vehicle designers to make sure that future combat vehicles are ready to have new technology installed as it becomes available.
“We don’t want to run into another scenario like what we have now with the M-ATVs. I have to do a tremendous amount of touch labor to make sure the network fits in and that everything works inside there,” he said. “So we’re building into the vehicle specs, up front, how we’re going to fit networking equipment inside the platforms from the get-go so we don’t have to rewire everything. It’s going from putting appliques on everything to building systems that are inherently interoperable. We’re trying to change that paradigm.”
The Army has run into interoperability challenges not just with physically mounting networking equipment inside vehicles, but making sure pieces of the network itself are interoperable. The NIE has shown the Army it needs to ruthlessly enforce technical standards on any system that’s allowed onto the battlefield network, said Jennifer Zbozny, the technical director for the Army’s Program Executive office for Command, Control and Communications-Tactical (PEO-C3T).
“Today’s network works, and it’s integrated. But we could do better in terms of making sure that, for example, all radios are running the same routing protocols or our network operations applications are working to the same standards so we don’t have to have so many different boxes out there,” she said. “We’re working very hard on those standards right now, and we’re putting together a roadmap for those integration enhancements so that we can put those out to industry and other PEOs and say, ‘OK, here’s the standard. This is what we’re looking for in the next set of radios, applications or whatever.’ That will allow us to be able to bring in additional components without some of the pain we have to go through today to make it all work together.”
Tom Temin is the host of The Federal Drive, which airs from 6-10 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, D.C. region and online everywhere. Tom has 30 years experience in journalism, mostly in technology markets. Before coming to Federal News Radio, he was a long-serving editor-in-chief of Government Computer News and Washington Technology magazines.