Defense

November 26, 2012

Soldiers at NIE run network equipment through life-like combat scenarios


Testing networked equipment in a lab ensures functionality, but only a field evaluation with soldiers ensures it will work as designers intended in an operating environment.

At Fort Bliss, Texas, and on its training ranges just north of the border in New Mexico, Soldiers with the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, completed Network Integration Evaluation 13.1, Nov. 17. During the month-long Network Integration Evaluation, or NIE, soldiers in a field environment tested and evaluated 26 pieces of equipment for their usability and compatibility with existing Army networks.

Soldiers with the 2/1 AD, part of the Army’s Brigade Modernization Command, or BMC, are not evaluators or equipment testers by trade. They are a regular, warfighting, combat-training brigade combat team that could be tasked to go to Afghanistan like every other Army brigade.

The difference is, when the 2/1 AD trains, the soldiers are tasked to include in their preparations new equipment the Army wants to integrate across the larger force, to make sure it is combat-ready and soldier-usable, and to evaluate its readiness to be integrated into existing systems before it is fielded to other units.

“The NIE is about taking the equipment that’s been nominated to fill what the Army deems as a gap in what our capabilities (are), and putting it into the hands of real soldiers, soldiers trained to deploy and fight,” said Lt. Col. Andy Morgado, the G-3 operations officer for the Brigade Modernization Command. “They are a FORSCOM brigade that has been put on loan to the BMC to do this very thing. We put this equipment into a realistic environment, and try to break it, and see how it works. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Among the equipment at the most recent NIE were 21 systems under evaluation, and five systems under “test,” including Nett Warrior; Joint Battle Command Platform; RAM Warn; and Spider XM7. Additionally the Paladin PIM was under test at Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz.

“Nett Warrior is for battlefield communication, like a ‘Blue Force Tracker’ on the ground,” said SSgt. Alex Carter. “It lets you know where team leaders and above are. The effects it has on the battlefield are amazing. For something as new as it is, I thought there would be a lot more glitches. I thought it would be just another piece of junk. But I’m very impressed by it.”

The Nett Warrior system includes an Android-driven, smartphone-like device mounted to a Soldier’s chest and attached to a radio system. Using applications installed on the system, soldiers at team-level and above can see the mapped-out locations of other Soldiers wearing the device, communicate with each other via text message, as well as have visibility of “chem lights” dropped onto the mapped environment by other soldiers to mark things such as improvised explosive devices or locations that require fires support. The markers can also designate locations where a platoon leader might want a team to move, for instance.

“Sometimes towns are very condensed,” he said. “With this you can tell exactly where soldiers are. Every step you take you are a little bubble, you are a blue arrow. It shows exactly. When a team is bounding across the objective, you just pull this out and look at it. It’s real-time, it’s real effective.”

Carter said he’s impressed with the system, “you can send up a 9-line (medical evacuation request) in less than 30 seconds,” he said. And he’s also impressed with the texting function. It would have been a “combat multiplier” for him during the 29 months he served in Afghanistan.

“If you don’t have comms, you can still send text via satellite: this is our position, we’re holding here, here’s our liquid, ammunition, casualty and equipment report,” he said. “You can get [operations] orders, fragmentary orders, whatever you want through text messages. That way you’re not clogging up the radio net.”

Capt. Josh Horner, Alpha Company commander, 1/35 Armor Battalion, said the system has created a better common operating picture between himself and his platoons. But he’s also got some suggestions about the system – things that need to be improved.

“There are some shortcomings in the system at this point,” Horner said. “I’m on a classified system, my platoon leaders are not on a classified system. So I can’t talk to them. If I want to drop some sort of information on my Net Warrior device, they are not getting them. So I call them up on voice communications.”

Both Horner and Carter agree the Nett Warrior needs more graphic symbols on the screen, and in more colors, to differentiate a wider array of things for Soldiers to take note of when using the system.

“There’s not enough graphics on there so I can correctly identify,” he said. “When you look at the operating picture, you got all these different colored dots all over the place. And unless you have really good SOP within your unit, you might not know what they are. I’d like to make it clearer what they are.”

Having something to say about the equipment they are using is something expected of both Horner and Carter during the after-action reviews and formal surveys that follow their evaluation of the system; because they are not just training for combat at Fort Bliss – they are evaluating the systems they may eventually take with them to combat.

Still, Carter said, “It’s very quick, and it’s probably the best combat multiple I’ve ever see. This thing; I stand by it 100 percent.”

Billed as the “next generation” of Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below, which is known as FBCB2, the Joint Battlefield Command Platform, or JBC-P, system has a redesigned graphical user interface and can be used jointly to convey both command and control messages as well as situational awareness.

“It allows us to have more situational control of the battlefield,” said Sgt. Joshua Perkins. “We can see what’s going on a lot faster, especially where the FBCB2 didn’t allow us to see where the dismounts are on the ground. But with the integration of Nett Warrior and JBCP, you can see the dismounts on the ground. It gives us better situational awareness, better information on the battlefield, it’s more time-efficient. Overall it’s a good program.”

Sitting at a JBC-P mounted on the passenger side of a mine-resistant, ambush protected vehicle, or MRAP, Perkins had only one complaint about the system: his plastic stylus for interfacing with it had broken.

“Hopefully most guys will write positive, professional criticism, as well, that way we can take what we learn, keep using that and whatever needs improvement they can fix and then send back out for us to re-evaluate,” he said.

The Global Network on the Move Active Distribution system, or GNOMAD, is a modular, scalable, broadband satellite communications on-the-move system of systems capable of supporting mission command on-the-move.

“The GNOMAD is actually a very fascinating device in that it can be used in multiple functions,” said 1st Lt. Zachary Taylor. “We use it two ways. The primary way we are using it throughout this operation is in an on-the-move capability. Every mission we are going out, platoon-wise, company-wise, STX (situational training exercise), we are actually pushing out as a command and control element. We are using it on a trail vehicle, we’re using it as a relay station from the platoons to company, and company to higher echelons, such as battalion and brigade.”

The GNOMAD system can be used on the move, or in a tactical operations center, Taylor said, though he said in future operations, he sees it as “more of a mover.”

“My experience with GNOMAD, and running it on STX lanes, is that it provides us with more eyes on the ground, and also more intelligence assets at the fingertips of the commander and of the platoon leader on the ground,” he said. “The GNOMAD will improve the command and control on the ground, which will also improve the situational awareness, and allow commanders to make a better decision, more quickly. In my opinion, it is a plus for the Army.”

Taylor and his soldiers are also evaluating the “Roamer Net” system, which allows companies and platoons to communicate with outside units tasked to support them. One example might be if a support aircraft comes in to their area of operations.

“A bird comes into our battle space, they contact me, and I push them out over the company network,” Taylor said.

With Roamer Net, soldiers were tasked to answer questions like “What tactics, techniques and procedures did you use to operate and sustain a Soldier Radio Waveform/Roamer Network?” And “How reliable was the Roamer Network at supporting air-ground data/voice communication?”

During training, which Taylor said is his priority in the field, Soldiers will evaluate Roamer Net for how it changes the way they operate – for good or for bad. Afterward, During after-action reviews, Soldiers – depending on what equipment was in their unit during training – will be asked to discuss how things like Net Warrior, GNOMAD, JBP-C, Roamer Net, or any other equipment enhanced or detracted from their mission.
Taylor said soldiers will need to consider the reliability of a system, how easy it is to use, how often it was operational, how easy it was to bring it back when it went down.

“Once you kind of peel back that onion, you’re looking at the meat and potatoes of the operation,” Taylor said.

He said each soldier must answer the question: Can he use it? Can he trouble shoot it?

“When we have an issue, do we have to call field service representatives, or can we learn this operation? Then you can see if it’s a burden or an asset for the company. Each piece of the equipment has its pros and cons, and each piece of equipment also provides something new to the company and something new for the Soldier. It doesn’t matter if it’s at the headquarters element, it provides intelligence all the way down to the lowest soldiers, and that provides more situational awareness.”

Taylor said soldiers can come easily to learn how to make a piece of new equipment work, to turn it on and to make sure it’s connected properly. But the implementation of that system is more complex, he said.

“That’s what we’re trying to evaluate,” he said. “Is the implementation of it and the difficulty of it worth the meat? Or do we need to go back to a more simplistic concept?”

Soldier feedback at NIE comes quickly, said Morgado. Soldiers are in the tactical environment the whole time, on four-day “mission cycles.” But on the fourth day of that cycle, he said, they harvest soldier feedback and collect data from equipment in the field to be evaluated and fed back to ‘big Army’ to decide which systems need more work, which systems might be ready to move ahead, and which systems might not be so good for the Army.

“We’re not waiting until the last day of a 32-day exercise to ask how they felt about something from day one of an exercise,” Morgado said.
The most important thing about NIE, Morgado said, is that the data collected there is collected by real soldiers doing real training – just like every other Soldier in the Army.

“It’s not testers there. It’s real soldiers evaluating this stuff” Morgado said. “The main stuff we’re asking our soldiers from private to brigade commander is, ‘will you take this thing to combat?’ It’s a really realistic and pertinent question for them because they might be taking it into combat. The feedback we get from them is extremely important because it comes from an operator.”




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