FORT BLISS, Texas — The howling, 55-mile-per-hour wind gusts over miles of unforgiving terrain would be reason enough to call off many tests of new equipment. But for the Soldiers of 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, the conditions here were nearly “perfect.”
After all, they’re evaluating the Army’s tactical network and the capabilities that run on it. To test in sunny, 80-degree weather with no wind would seem pointless.
“Before a new capability is fielded and put into operation in an austere environment, we make sure not only does it work here but that it makes sense,” said Lt. Col. Ernest Tornabell IV, the brigade’s deputy commanding officer. “We’re able to really put the network and its capabilities through the paces and then give feedback down to the individual Soldier.”
With an unprecedented level of Joint and international involvement, Network Integration Evaluation, or NIE, 14.2, the seventh in a series of semi-annual field evaluations which focused on improvement and simplification of the Army’s networked capabilities, came to a close May 22. More than 900 Marines, a British mechanized brigade headquarters, and 3,800 Soldiers from the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, fought side-by-side in a combination of live, virtual and constructive battles.
“The Army doesn’t fight alone, so it’s important we’re able to communicate with one another,” Tornabell said. “By working with our joint partners, it allows them to see how we do things, some of the products we’re using and it gives us all a better understanding if we go down range together. It lets us know where the holes are.”
Aimed at keeping pace with rapid advances in communications technology to deliver proven and integrated network capabilities for Soldiers, the NIEs yield Soldier input to help shape future capabilities. As the U.S. mission in Afghanistan concludes, the evaluations will enable the Army to respond to the emerging needs of regionally aligned forces and assess dynamic “leap-ahead” capabilities from industry and the Army science and technology community.
“As the war ends and the drawdown continues, if we don’t keep pushing modernization then 20 years from now we’re going to still look like this Army today,” said Lt. Col. Rob Goodroe, armor team chief for the Test and Evaluation Division of the Brigade Modernization Command.
When he joined the Army in the early 1990s, Goodroe said his equipment looked like it came straight from the Vietnam era.
“Everything had stayed the same,” he said. “The NIEs allow us to increase our capabilities.”
With a focus on assessing the network’s ability to provide timely situational awareness while conducting Joint force entry operations and on making systems more intuitive for the Soldier, NIE 14.2 also looked at solutions to enhance command posts and improve home station training capabilities. Formal follow-on tests began May 6 on the software-programmable Manpack radio; the Army’s situational awareness and friendly force tracking capability Joint Battle Command-Platform (JBC-P); and the Common Data Link/Universal Ground Station. An operational test was conducted on the smartphone-like Nett Warrior mission command system for dismounted Soldiers. Additionally, there were 12 Systems Under Evaluation and 15 demonstration systems.
For the first time, the NIE also ran in conjunction with the Joint Staff-led BoldQuest exercise at nearby White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. This collaboration with Joint and coalition forces was meant to drive advances in interoperability.
“With this we get a lot of lessons-learned for how we work with Joint and coalition forces, and how we fight together, how we communicate and how our systems operate together,” said Col. Paul Cravey, operations officer for the Brigade Modernization Command. “It moves the ball forward. You become more efficient and you save money by combining these exercises since everyone is here on their own dime.”
The NIEs provide an operational environment to incrementally enhance the network. Already, groundbreaking communications technologies evaluated through the NIE process have made it into the hands of Soldiers in Afghanistan who are conducting advise-and-assist missions in austere environments. The focus now is to simplify emerging tools and applications, ensuring user interfaces are intuitive, command posts are right-sized and operational flexibility is increased.
“We want to make the capabilities effective and efficient,” said Maj. Chris Lane, executive officer for the 2nd Brigade. “The common denominator is that a Soldier should be able to understand it. If I train a Soldier on the equipment, he should be able to figure out how to use it.”
With the next NIE set for this fall, the Army will use NIE 15.1 to assess its updated integrated network baseline. This will set the conditions for future network development and refine focus areas for industry innovation. The Network Baseline Assessment will validate the performance of current integrated network capabilities in a variety of operational scenarios, while pinpointing remaining capability gaps that need to be filled to meet the Army’s needs for next-generation mission command.