Center of the storm

By June 18, 2017August 30th, 2018Acquisition, Army ALT Magazine
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‘Trail bosses’ in evolving NIE, JWA seize the chance to grow professionally as their roles expand in planning and executing the large-scale exercises.

by Ms. Nancy Jones-Bonbrest

The Army’s Network Integration Evaluations (NIEs) and Joint Warfighting Assessments (JWAs) were meant to be fluid and flexible, adaptable to current demands. In keeping with that design, both events are undergoing sweeping changes that will improve the integration of emerging technologies and meet the call for readiness in an ever-changing global threat environment. As the Army shakes up the process, the people who conduct the NIEs and JWAs are also adapting their roles and responsibilities—and making the most of the opportunity to burnish their skills.

The NIE and JWA are Soldier-led, complementary exercises designed to integrate and mature the Army’s tactical network and emerging capabilities in an operational environment. Through simulated combat missions, including combined arms maneuver, counterinsurgency and stability operations, the Army has been able to integrate, assess and improve hundreds of government and industry technologies using Soldier feedback. Since its inception, the combined NIE and JWA process has made possible the evaluation of more than 270 capabilities with the execution of more than 130 other demonstrations and risk reduction events.

At the center of it all are the NIE and JWA trail bosses, acquisition professionals who serve as the vital link between the operational units that put on the events and the many government and industry stakeholders that provide capabilities for evaluation. Trail bosses communicate the operational intent of the various systems, ensure that the proper training and equipment are in place, and conduct end-to-end integration and planning to execute successful exercises. From a talent management perspective, trail bossing is a rare and valuable chance for a junior or midcareer acquisition officer to interact with multiple capabilities and stakeholders in a high-profile setting.


The new evaluation construct of NIEs and JWAs has elevated the trail bosses’ interaction with the test unit, making them “more of a planner to senior leadership” than before, said trail boss Maj. Carlito Flores, right, shown talking with Soldiers during the VALEX phase of the NIE 16.1 at Fort Bliss in October 2015. (Photos by Vanessa Flores, SoSE&I CPD)


Indeed, as the NIE and JWA evolve, even the term “trail boss” no longer describes the full scope of these officers’ duties. What began as an assignment to guide the unit through the validation exercise (VALEX) and operational evaluation has evolved to include a heightened level of planning, preparation and coordination akin to the job of a program manager responsible for guiding a portfolio of products through development and fielding. Reflecting this change, some trail bosses now have the formal title “assistant product manager” (APM).

“It used to be about getting the unit through the validation exercise that shows how the network works prior to an NIE,” said Maj. Carlito Flores, APM with the System of Systems Engineering and Integration Directorate’s Capability Package Directorate (SoSE&I CPD). Previously, Flores served as the APM for Nett Warrior with the Program Executive Office (PEO) for Soldier at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. “Now, we are able to see the larger operational picture by being part of the whole planning process. We’ve stepped up our role in interacting with the unit, and serve as more of a planner to senior leadership.”

This year, for the first time since the inception of the NIEs in 2011, the operational test unit will no longer be the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division. Instead, the Army will rotate in other formations to meet readiness goals and provide fresh perspectives on new technologies. At NIE 17.2, to be held in July at Fort Bliss, Texas, the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (2/101), a light infantry unit based at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, will serve as the test unit. Next spring, JWA 18.1 will take the changes a step further when the event moves to Europe and features the 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division along with a large cast of joint and multinational partners.

And that’s only the latest twist. In 2016, the Army changed the NIE from a biennial event to a yearly event and introduced the newly established Army Warfighting Assessments (AWAs, now called JWAs), which also take place once a year. While the NIEs focus primarily on formal system test events, the JWAs’ primary focus is on concepts and prototypes. Together, they pack a one-two punch of operational assessments that provide Soldier feedback on emerging concepts and capabilities to improve the combat-effectiveness of the joint force.


Trail bosses, from left, Maj. Carlito Flores, Maj. Paul Santamaria and Maj. Alicia Johnson review plans for JWA 18.1 during an April meeting at Fort Bliss. JWA 18.1 is scheduled for May 2018 in Europe. Trail bosses are tasked with developing schedules and budgets, as well as leading design, integration and VALEX coordination efforts with a variety of partners, including Army and joint organizations.

Amid all of these changes, the trail bosses serve as ambassadors for the acquisition community. They link the acquisition side of the house—including the cost, schedule and performance constraints that project managers must abide by—with the operational effects of introducing new technology to training scenarios, while also meeting the needs of other stakeholders, such as the test community and industry.

The change in operational units means that they are no longer working in established relationships, said APM Maj. Alicia Johnson of the SoSE&I CPD. Before taking this assignment, Johnson worked as an administrative contracting officer for the Defense Contract Management Agency in Springfield, New Jersey. “It’s really about getting out to those installations, educating the units because they may or may not understand what the NIE is, and explaining how they are going to participate. We also let them know the importance of what they are doing,” she said.

Trail bosses also serve as the glue that binds the many pieces of the exercises. Because the units are operational brigades with their own missions in addition to the NIE mission, trail bosses must balance resources and time. They work to ease the burden on the units that are learning new systems being evaluated as part of the NIE while meeting traditional unit training requirements.

Trail bosses can often be found chairing a meeting, conducting close coordination with stakeholders on when and where equipment will arrive for training and integration, performing cost analysis, briefing leaders or managing direct support to units. They work regularly on future requirements for upcoming exercises, including developing schedules and budgets. They spearhead efforts for design, integration and VALEX coordination with partners that include the U.S. Army Joint Modernization Command, Army Rapid Capabilities Office, U.S. Army Europe, U.S. Army Forces Command, Army PEOs and the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command’s capability managers.

“You speak both languages by translating operational requirements and objectives to the technical requirements and objectives,” Flores said.

Maj. Paul F. Santamaria, SoSE&I CPD APM, said the role has a distinct rhythm.

“When it comes to execution of each exercise, our scope gets less wide and more deep in order to drill down into a unit’s needs to successfully accomplish the exercise,” said Santamaria, who previously worked as an assistant professor in the Department of Systems Engineering of the United States Military Academy at West Point. “At the conclusion, we then widen our aperture and coordinate with all external organizations for the next one.”


Trail boss Maj. Paul Santamaria inspects a vehicle during the VALEX phase of AWA 17.1 at Fort Bliss in October 2016. Trail bosses have broad responsibility at the NIEs and JWAs, which gives them a better understanding of the larger operational picture. That, in turn, enhances their acquisition expertise.

Unique to the trail boss role is the scale of exposure. While traditional product managers focus on one portfolio of individual systems, trail bosses consider their portfolio to be the tactical network and the system-of-systems capabilities that interact with it. Trail bosses see the latest technology first, understand where the Army is heading with capabilities and absorb leadership priorities.

Working with so many different capabilities—and so much operator input—provides a wider perspective when they move on to future assignments in the Army Acquisition Corps.

“At the NIEs, we are exposed to so many different concepts and see them work together as a system of systems,” Johnson said. “With [this experience] comes a larger concept of understanding of where modernization is heading. As we look to future assignments or look at what is going on in the acquisition community, we can see the direction we are heading, which is really a unique opportunity.”

Originally designed to focus on the tactical network, the exercises are evolving to look at a wide variety of capabilities, such as advanced tactical power, counter-unmanned aircraft system capability and cyber and electronic warfare technologies.

This continuous cycle of NIEs, and now JWAs, helps the Army keep pace with the speed of technology while incorporating Soldier feedback into system design and training. The exercises inform tactics, techniques and procedures for using the technologies in the field.

As the NIEs incorporate new units and the JWAs new partners and locations, the trail bosses are embracing their expanded roles. For example, they are now planning multiple exercises at one time and starting the process earlier than ever to coordinate with rotational units.

“I’m capturing all these lessons learned from what we are doing at Fort Campbell, and I’m trying to apply them not just with an operational unit but with one with an operational mission in what seems to be an operational theater,” said Santamaria, who recently returned from a trip to Germany to plan JWA 18.1. “The role of trail boss has evolved from having a static unit conducting exercises with new technology, to a not-so-static unit conducting an exercise in a different environment—and how do you bring all those forces to bear? So bringing all those pieces together is something really unique.”


Trail boss Maj. Carlito Flores exits a command post during NIE 16.1 at Fort Bliss in October 2015. Trail bosses are embracing expanded roles as NIEs incorporate new units. They are planning multiple exercises at one time and starting the process early to better coordinate with rotational units.

For more information, go to or email the Army Rapid Capabilities Office at

MS. NANCY JONES-BONBREST is a staff writer for Data Systems Analysts Inc., providing contract support to the Army Rapid Capabilities Office. She holds a B.S. in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park. She has covered Army modernization for several years, including multiple training and testing events.

This article is scheduled to be published in the July-September 2017 issue of Army AL&T Magazine.

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