Claire Heininger, U.S. Army
FORT BLISS, TEXAS — With two units now readying for Afghanistan with the Army’s new tactical communications network, the service will continue to drive technology forward through its next Network Integration Evaluation this spring.
Soldier training, vehicle integration, system check-outs and other preparations are well underway in advance of NIE 13.2, which begins in May at Fort Bliss and White Sands Missile Range, N.M. It is the fifth in the series of semi-annual field evaluations designed to keep pace with rapid advances in communications technologies and deliver proven and integrated network capabilities to Soldiers.
The NIEs are not stand-alone events, but build on previous exercises by improving the Army’s integrated network baseline and incorporating Soldier feedback into system functionality and training methods. As the Army continues to field network capability sets with systems and doctrine vetted through the NIE, the events will further evolve to include joint and coalition involvement next year.
“The NIE offers us the ability to evaluate and improve the network incrementally,” said Maj. Gen. Harold Greene, the Deputy for Acquisition and Systems Management, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology, known as ASA(ALT). “It forces the community together in an environment where Soldiers are telling us what we did well and what we didn’t do well — very graphically, very visually, very obviously.”
From combined arms maneuver across more than 150 miles of desert to subterranean operations in mountain caves, NIE 13.2 includes mission threads designed to measure network performance at all echelons, from the brigade commander down to the dismounted Soldier. It will include an aerial tier to extend the range of communications and operational energy solutions to more efficiently power networked equipment.
“We’ve got some good questions, and the scenario will allow us to get at a lot of those operational pieces,” said Col. Elizabeth Bierden, chief of the Network Integration Division, Brigade Modernization Command, or BMC. “We’ve seen many of the systems before, but I think we just get the network better every single time.”
The main focus for NIE 13.2 is the Follow-on Test and Evaluation (FOT&E) for Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) Increment 2, the Army’s mobile network backbone. WIN-T Increment 2 provides an enhanced capability over the current Increment 1 version used today in Afghanistan, including unprecedented “on-the-move” communications capabilities down to the company level. A successful test will enable the Army to keep fielding WIN-T Increment 2 to operational units beyond Capability Set 13, which is now being delivered to select brigade combat teams (BCTs) preparing for deployment.
During the FOT&E, the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division (2/1 AD) will conduct the full range of military operations — from movement to contact to peacekeeping — and stretch the WIN-T network over even greater distances than during NIE 12.2, which was the unit’s first formal chance to assess the system. Following that evaluation in May 2012, the Army aggressively pursued and implemented corrective actions to address the areas identified for improvement, and 2/1 AD Soldiers have also become more comfortable and proficient with the equipment.
“The training is more hands-on, and with the knowledge we already have we’re able to go more in-depth,” said Spc. Erik Liebhaber, who has participated in three NIEs and said training for 13.2 incorporated specific scenarios that Soldiers had previously encountered in the field. “That’s a big part of the continuity.”
Other systems under formal test include Joint Battle Command-Platform (JBC-P), the Army’s next-generation situational awareness and blue force tracking technology; Nett Warrior, a smartphone-like system for dismounted leaders; the Area Mine Clearance System-Medium Flail, an armored vehicle designed for clearing large areas of anti-tank and anti-personnel landmines; and Tactical Communication and Protection System, designed to prevent hearing injury while allowing Soldiers to remain cognizant of their environment during combat. A dozen additional systems, such as those comprising the aerial tier, will receive less formal evaluations.
Both JBC-P and Nett Warrior have actively incorporated user feedback from several previous NIE cycles into their hardware and software designs.
“It’s gotten a lot simpler to use,” Staff Sgt. Lance Bradford said of JBC-P. “That was our largest suggestion to them — you’ve got to get this more user-friendly.”
Soldier feedback and lessons-learned from the NIEs not only affect the conduct of future NIE iterations, but have also been applied to the process of producing, fielding and training units on Capability Set (CS) 13, which is the Army’s first such communications package to provide integrated connectivity throughout the BCT. The NIEs informed all aspects of CS 13, from how network systems are installed onto a vehicle, to which training approach is most effective, to which Soldiers within a brigade are issued certain pieces of equipment.
Two BCTs of the 10th Mountain Division, now in the final stages of training before deploying to Afghanistan later this year, are receiving lessons-learned and recommended operational uses for the equipment that were developed during the NIE process. Serving as Security Forces Advise and Assist Teams (SFAATs), the units will rely on the new network as they work closely with the Afghan forces, take down fixed infrastructure and become increasingly mobile and dispersed in their operations.
While NIE missions to date have confirmed that CS 13 can support such operations, they have not been limited to the Afghan mission. The NIE 13.2 scenario will set the stage for future exercises that will include new offensive and defensive operations replicating what units may face in other regions, including joint and coalition involvement beginning with NIE 14.2 next spring.
“We are trying to set the stage for a joint and multinational effort in 14.2, and so we’re looking across functions at Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, close air support, air ground-integration, with the major objectives focused on joint entry operations and the joint network,” said Brig. Gen. Randal Dragon, BMC commander. “We’ll be in a position to look at a number of those joint functions and we’ll set the stage through the series of NIEs we have coming up.”