FORT BLISS, TEXAS (Nov. 14, 2013) -- U.S. forces in Afghanistan, equipped with the Army's first network capability set, are using it to stay connected as they carry out their advise-and-assist missions in austere conditions.Now, the process that brought that new network together is evolving to meet the Army's needs for the next generation of capability sets.Underway this month is the Network Integration Evaluation, or NIE, 14.1, the sixth in a series of semi-annual field exercises that incorporate Soldier feedback to improve and simplify network systems, leverage industry innovation on emerging capabilities and validate new tactics, techniques and procedures, known as TTPs, while also reducing the burden of network integration on operational forces."The essence of the NIE is direct Soldier feedback," said Col. Greg Baine, Brigade Modernization Integration Division chief for the Brigade Modernization Command, or BMC. "If the capability reaches the NIEs, it already shows potential. Then our Soldiers touch it, use it and stretch it as hard as they can in a tactical combat environment."That feedback from Soldiers with 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, informs Army decisions on acquiring, fielding and training network capabilities. More than 170 systems have been evaluated through the NIE construct, since it began in 2011.As the Army is transitioning from fighting two wars to preparing for future threats, the NIEs now also provide an operational "laboratory" to continuously enhance the network, a top modernization priority and essential enabler for a leaner, more agile force."With the current and future fiscal constraints, we realize we must maximize efforts to integrate, evaluate and test, then deliver the best capabilities more efficiently," said Col. Mark Elliott, director of the Army's G-3/5/7 LandWarNet-Mission Command Directorate. "This has been the role of NIE all along."NIE 14.1, which began Oct. 23, and concludes Nov. 15, is focused on beefing up the combination of live, virtual, constructive and distributed operations. There are Marines at Camp Pendleton, Calif., connected live and the 1st Infantry Division is serving as higher headquarters for the event while stationed at Fort Riley, Kan. At Fort Bliss, only a portion of the 2/1 AD brigade is deployed to the field -- but the exercise was carefully designed so Soldiers don't know the difference.
"The Soldiers inside the tactical operations centers are seeing the battle as if it were live," Baine said.With 40 percent of the total exercise being conducted as a virtual operation, NIE 14.1 is leveraging efficiencies and test-driving innovative training techniques, while also establishing the parameters for next spring's NIE 14.2 that will include increased Joint and multi-national participation."As we move to a larger environment, it's not realistic to bring all of the resources here in a live situation," said James Crider, BMC's deputy commander. "So we use a combination of models and simulation tools that are tied into the tactical systems. On the tactical side it's seamless; they won't know when it's live, virtual or constructive. As we move forward and work with Joint and coalition forces, this is how we'll bring them in."From its inception, the NIE process has helped develop TTPs for employing new network equipment in the field. Now that Capability Set, or CS, 13 is downrange supporting communications for the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry), the Army can take additional TTPs and lessons-learned from those commanders and Soldiers and apply them back to the NIE process, and then to follow-on capability sets."Soldier feedback from the NIEs directly influenced the makeup of CS 13 across the board, from which apps would run on handheld devices to where we put screens inside networked vehicles," said Brig. Gen. Daniel P. Hughes, the Army's program executive officer for Command, Control and Communications-Tactical. "Now we're taking feedback from theater to use the NIE to direct further innovation, including simplifying the network at every level."NIE 14.1 also marks the first time the Army has used the Request for Proposals process as a formal mechanism for streamlined competitive procurement of commercial systems that show promise at the NIE. Six contracts were awarded to different vendors for their vehicle tactical routers to be evaluated at NIE 14.1.In addition, the NIE venue helps drive innovative uses of existing equipment that are not part of an official test, but are often looked at from a different angle. For example, NIE 14.1 includes demonstrations of heavy vehicle platforms such as M113 and M1068 as well as Strykers fitted with the Army's mobile network backbone, Warfighter Information Network-Tactical Increment 2. These demonstrations could help inform CS 14 fieldings.New electronic data collection methods are being piloted. BMC also combined a commercial Gator all-terrain vehicle with a Joint Battle Command-Platform, or JBC-P, tactical operations center kit and radio. They successfully utilized that combination as an alternative method to connect dismounted infantry battalion and company level elements to the network."The NIEs are about integrating capabilities, designing what the capability sets should look like and gathering Soldier feedback," Hughes said. "The Soldier wants to see that their 'vote' is making a difference, and that we are quickly incorporating their feedback into the systems we field."After participating in all six NIEs, Capt. Joel Martinez, system S3 for the 2/1 AD, said his input has helped make capabilities more intuitive."With JBC-P we all asked for better imagery and it has gotten much better," Martinez said. "A lot of these operations we're doing are in small villages, and the improved imagery allows you to zoom right in and see the exterior of the buildings so we can plan routes in and out of it."Next spring, NIE 14.2 will be the first such event to include Joint and multi-national participation. NIE 15.1, in fall 2014, will be used to assess the integrated network baseline to evaluate the performance of existing network capabilities and identify remaining gaps for industry to target. The capability gaps identified at NIE 15.1 will be fixed in place to be evaluated over the following two NIE cycles, 15.2 and 16.1."By locking our gaps in place, and using two NIE cycles to identify and assess potential solutions to those gaps, industry will get more time to mature capabilities," Elliott said. "As we continue to get positive feedback from theater, we will leverage the NIE process to incrementally improve the network with each capability set."