Army eager to learn lessons from upcoming battlefield tests

Network Integration Evaluation will evaluate 5 programs of record, 25 other systems

Beginning in June, the Army will be putting its new software-defined radios and mobile networks through a regular series of evaluations to ready them for deployment.

Held in Fort Bliss, Texas, and at the nearby White Sands Missile Range, N.M., the Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) will become a recurring event held twice a year to ready the interlocked suite of equipment and software for use by active-duty forces.

The event is about testing how these various technologies perform together and, in the process, learning about what does not work as expected, Army officials said at a Pentagon press briefing May 23.

“We recognize what we see next month won’t be perfect,” said Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli. A key reason for holding the exercises is that there are technical limitations to the equipment that only become apparent in an operational environment. “The reality is that these NIEs are as much about learning as they are about testing. After all, the only way to fix problems is to accurately identify them,” he said.

A full brigade combat team, the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the First Armored Division, will be the network’s primary test unit. It will have two goals: to provide an operational venue replicating the operational environment for emerging technologies and capabilities and to remove the necessity for field units to integrate new equipment. The NIEs will also help develop new doctrine and tactics for future operations.

The June NIE will focus on technologies in five programs of record that are ready for formal testing. However, there also are 25 other systems that will be evaluated at White Sands. An important part of the event is linking small tactical units and individual soldiers into the battlefield network, even in the most austere environments.

The goal is to field eight brigade capability sets by 2013. This will include the network and the tactics and procedures to use them. By running the NIEs every six months, it also allows the services to use the results of each event for the foundation of the next.

“If we individually evaluate a particular capability, a particular radio, all by itself, it’s completely contrary to the whole idea of a network where everything goes together,” said Maj. Gen. Keith Walker, commander of the Army’s Brigade Modernization Command. The advantage of the exercise at Fort Bliss/White Sands is that it allows the service to integrate all of the various components. The proving ground is the largest military land and air space in the United States, being slightly larger than the state of Connecticut and featuring a range of Afghanistan-like terrain, from rugged mountains to open desert.

Units participating in the exercise will undertake a variety of missions, from counterinsurgency to brigade-level armored engagements. The various brigades will each have a mix of vehicles and Joint Tactical Radio System radios tailored for their specific operations.

One battalion is a combined arms battalion, which allows the Army to test the network in a conventional combat scenario. Other battalions include a motorized infantry unit and a Stryker brigade. The Army faces some network challenges with the Stryker units’ Enhanced Position Location Reporting System, Walker said. As the network evolves, it is important that these units can still communicate with the rest of the Army, he said.

The mix of units allows the Army to evaluate new capabilities across the conflict spectrum in terrain that U.S. forces must deal with today. Using an entire brigade also allows the program to react quickly to evaluate new equipment. “We’re able to give it a real broad look from the soldier point of view, something that we really need to do as we move forward,” Walker said.

The Army has traditionally purchased equipment and tested it separately before connecting it. But testing individual radios in a laboratory or together under controlled conditions provide very different results from a test with many different kinds of equipment trying to communicate together, Chiarelli said. The NIE will examine these capabilities.

Additionally, new equipment, such as the aerial communications tier provided by manned and unmanned aircraft, will affect how many and what kinds of radios are needed. “That is the optimum solution we’re looking for—these all work together,” he said.

About the Author

Henry Kenyon is a contributing writer for Defense Systems.

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