By Lt. Col. Keith Taylor
One of the things that makes the Network Integration Evaluations (NIEs) so valuable is that the Soldiers judging equipment are not part of a so-called “test unit,” but an operational brigade combat team, but that’s also one of the things that makes the NIEs so difficult.
The 2nd Brigade Combat Team (BCT), 1st Armored Division (2/1 AD) still has all of the responsibilities of a typical BCT: arms proficiency, physical training tests, developing the junior enlisted into noncommissioned officers and carrying out all of their standard training. At the same time, the Army requires them to learn and evaluate dozens of sophisticated communications systems, which happen to change every six months.
It is a lot to ask— so to help ease the burden, the acquisition community provides Trail Bosses who embed with the unit. Trail Bosses are acquisition professionals who serve as a link between 2/1 AD and government and industry organizations that contribute equipment to the NIE. Trail Bosses explain the operational intent of the systems being evaluated and make sure the unit has the proper equipment and training to conduct the NIE mission, as well as its other tasks.
Soldiers should be spending the NIE fighting the enemy, not the network. With the network remaining a cornerstone of Army modernization, the Trail Boss Team that ensures successful NIE execution is an integral part of the acquisition workforce.
This unique position in the NIE process is also a benefit to the larger acquisition enterprise. Once systems are approved for participation during decision point 2 of the NIE cycle, the Trail Boss Team becomes a one-stop source for all information regarding how to integrate into the NIE. As the acquisition community uses the NIE to gain valuable Solider feedback on systems, they have a team of acquisition professionals on the receiving end of that feedback to ease the process.
As the NIEs have evolved over the past two years, so has the concept of Trail Bossing, and the Trail Bosses themselves. Several officers have signed up to be Trail Bosses as their gateway to the Acquisition Corps, after joining from the test community, the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command and even 2/1 AD. In their new roles, they gain a skill set and “system of systems” perspective that will be valuable as they advance in their careers, as well as subject matter expertise on a variety of different network technologies. They learn a more “agile” approach to acquisition, in which the Army can revise requirements to more realistically meet Soldiers’ needs.
In turn, their diverse perspectives strengthen the support the acquisition community is able to provide to the unit and the Army. Armed with operational experience and the ability to “speak the Soldier language,” the Trail Bosses now essentially serve as the third field-grade officer for each battalion, a critical force multiplier for the unit. Building upon lessons learned and after-action reviews from previous NIEs, their role has also become the overarching coordinator of standing up the NIE network and sustaining it during the evaluation.
During the intense preparation period of each NIE cycle, when hundreds of vehicles are integrated with new network equipment, Trail Bosses are constantly in contact with their battalion staff and external stakeholders regarding integration and training schedules, property accountability, field support representative tasking and synchronization, unit requirements and project manager support. They follow standardized processes for each of these responsibilities and publish detailed schedules two weeks in advance after vetting them through the unit to ensure the plans are executable. Once the NIE itself is underway, Trail Bosses now operate right in the battalion footprint with their assigned units. When something goes wrong, the trouble ticket to resolve it goes through the Trail Boss.
As the Trail Boss Team has become more integrated with the NIE process, that has helped the acquisition community to forge a strong, trusting relationship with all levels of 2/1 AD. That, in turn, opens the feedback channels that foster continuous improvement.
A significant area of focus for future NIEs is maturing the connection between the NIE Trail Bosses and the Trail Bosses assigned to each BCT being fielded with Capability Set (CS) 13. CS 13, the mobile communications network vetted through the NIEs, is the Army’s first integrated fielding effort for network technologies that provide connectivity across the entire BCT formation. The challenges the embedded Trail Bosses face – synchronizing equipment deliveries, vehicle touches, training and other elements – are similar to what the NIE Trail Bosses encounter. Sharing more information between the two groups will further reduce the burden on units operating in a time-constrained environment.
Through the Trail Bosses, the Army has struck a balance between what 2/1 AD is required to do for its own mission and its support for the NIE mission. The acquisition community contributes subject matter expertise on the array of systems they must evaluate, while translating acquisition lingo into operational-speak and vice versa. To that unit, the Trail Bosses are the acquisition corps, and we will continue to evolve to live up to our task.
Lt. Col. Keith Taylor oversees the NIE Trail Boss Team as product manager, capability package integration for the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology System of Systems Engineering and Integration Directorate. He holds a B.A. in criminal justice from Mansfield University of Pennsylvania and an M.A. in acquisition and contract management from Florida Institute of Technology. Taylor is Level III certified in contracting and project management as well as a certified project management professional.