Army tactical commo network tested and evaluated

Friday, June 01, 2012

From training soldiers to installing radios on vehicles, Army personnel are engaged in intense preparations for this spring’s major field exercise for the tactical communications network.

With the Network Integration Evaluation – NIE 12.2 – to take place at Fort Bliss, Texas, and White Sands Missile Range, N.M., the Army is laying the groundwork with up-front integration activities.

The NIE Project Manager Current "Trail Boss" teams have loaded and verified equipment for more than 40 different networked systems on 350 vehicles using realistic mission threads.

"Those threads serve as system checkouts, as well as network checkouts, to ensure those vehicles are ready to go and be delivered to the unit," Maj. Naim Lee, one of the trail bosses assigned to the Army’s System of Systems Integration Directorate, or SoSI, said.

Adding, "We debug and resolve all of the issues we can prior to actually handing it to the soldiers so they can successfully complete missions."

That is a change from the two previous NIEs that took place in 2011, when a shorter timeframe and fewer personnel prevented as much advance troubleshooting, officials said.

Now, the Army has formalized the NIE process and stood up an Integration Motor Pool dedicated to installing and validating network gear for several months prior to the start of the event.

The service has also created "Golden Vehicle" designs to standardize the configuration of different combinations of network equipment on various platforms.

"It’s not like an assembly line, but pretty close to it, to where it’s step by step so we’re not missing anything," Rich Dauz, a SoSI integration engineer, said.

SoSI, the Brigade Modernization Command, known as BMC, and the Army Test and Evaluation Command form a triad of organizations that execute the NIEs, a series of semi-annual field exercises designed to quickly integrate and mature the Army’s tactical communications network.

NIE 12.2 will be the most significant such exercise the Army has conducted, equipping the 3,800 soldiers of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, with the entire network architecture of Capability Set 13 – an integrated package of vehicles, network components, and associated equipment and software that will be fielded to Army brigade combat teams beginning in Fiscal Year 2013.

These technologies will for the first time deliver an integrated voice and data capability throughout the brigade combat team formation down to the tactical edge, even while moving across the battlefield.

"The network is an enabler for just about everything you’re doing," Col. John Morrison, director of the Army G-3/5/7 LandWarNet-Battle Command Directorate, said.

Adding, "We’re trying to provide those tools to our operational commanders and our operational leaders so they can execute their mission."

The NIEs collect soldier feedback on system performance in realistic operational scenarios, allowing the Army to make informed decisions about what equipment to send to the field.

The events are also forcing positive changes to Army acquisition practices through the Agile Process that allows the service to more quickly procure commercial technologies to meet defined capability gaps.

The NIEs and Agile Process also allow for revised requirements based on user needs, such as when Army leadership quickly restructured the Nett Warrior program to take advantage of the latest commercial technology following user feedback at NIE 11.2.

"The first Nett Warrior that we were working with was bulky and outdated," Staff Sgt. Juan Barajas, of the 2nd Brigade, said, while he described the new smartphone-like system he will use in NIE 12.2 as "a lot easier to use [and] a lot easier to carry."

"They’re actually listening to the suggestions we’re giving them," Barajas said.

Barajas joined users from several brigade maneuver companies for training sessions on Nett Warrior, which is a soldier-worn mission command system that connects with a tactical radio to provide dismounted leaders with increased situational awareness and mission-related "apps."

Soldiers who had not experienced the system previously said they found it easy to learn and looked forward to using it during the NIE.

"As far as our scout missions, I’ll be able to see where my dismounted patrols are and in case we are engaged in a firefight, I’ll be able to maneuver them and see exactly where they are maneuvering to," Staff Sgt. Cyril LeBoeuf said.

Adding, "I’ll be able to see where the enemy’s at and I’ll be able to maneuver my unit a lot faster."

Training for the NIE is conducted not only on individual systems, but also on an integrated basis so soldiers can get the most use out of the capabilities.

That approach is producing lessons-learned that will be valuable as the Army begins to field and train brigades with Capability Set 13, Brig. Gen. Randal Dragon, commander, Brigade Modernization Command, said.

"Even though we train the soldiers and we prepare them on an individual system, what we see in the evaluation is the integrated capability – the integrated training challenge, the integrated benefit that we get as opposed to the standalone systems," Dragon said.

He added, "From a training perspective I think [the NIE] will help guide the force, will help provide the specific task editions and standards that need to be developed, formalize those and get those into soldiers’ hands."

After training and integration activities are complete, the next step for NIE 12.2 will be communications exercise, or COMMEX, activities, after the brigade formally takes possession of the involved vehicles and systems.

For the first time, NIE 12.2 will connect the brigade to a higher-division headquarters, represented by the 101st Airborne Division operating out of Fort Campbell, Ky.

NIE operations from the 2nd Brigade at White Sands will require the brigade, battalion and company command posts to "jump" – or move in uncooperative and unpredictable environments – and quickly establish network connectivity.

A battalion-sized opposition force will be employed in dynamic scenarios with hybrid threats, including conventional forces, insurgents and members of the local population.

Following the NIE, the Brigade Modernization Command will consolidate soldier feedback and test data into thorough assessment reports that guide the Army’s decisions about the future network.

"This NIE will be the first time we have really deployed the tactical network that we intend as part of Capability Set 13 on an entire brigade combat team scale," Morrison said.

Adding, "That is a fundamental shift in how we’ve ever evaluated something before. The Army’s going to get a great look at the entire Capability Set 13 architecture so we can make smart decisions."

(Editor’s note: This article is based on a story by Claire Schwerin, U.S. Army.)