ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (Dec. 23, 2013) -- After delivering groundbreaking communications technologies to Soldiers in Afghanistan, the Army should focus tactical network development efforts on simplifying tools and applications, right-sizing command posts and increasing operational flexibility, according to initial conclusions from the most recent Network Integration Evaluation.The Army will aggressively pursue those goals while improving the Network Integration Evaluation, or NIE, entry process to better focus commercial vendors' efforts and offer industry additional time to develop and propose systems that could help solve identified capability gaps, service officials said. Having Soldiers use systems in robust operational settings while dealing with aggressive opposing forces during the semi-annual field exercises helps pinpoint remaining network friction points and identify areas for future improvement.The next focus areas are rooted in Soldier feedback from the six NIEs conducted to date, as well as from the four Brigade Combat Teams fielded with Capability Set 13, an integrated network package providing mobile communications down to the dismounted Soldier."The units that went downrange with Capability Set 13 have done an unbelievable job reporting back to us what the lessons-learned are, and they've identified that this network gives them an on-the-move capability allowing the commander to stay in the situation at all times," said Brig. Gen. Daniel P. Hughes, the Army's Program Executive Officer for Command, Control and Communications-Tactical, or PEO C3T. "But we know we have to make these systems much simpler to use and much easier to train. We are moving to standardize maps, messaging and icons across tactical systems so they are more intuitive and resemble what Soldiers use at home. The NIEs give us the opportunity to keep getting better in what we provide to Soldiers, and to work with our industry partners to get us there."As the Army transitions from the advise-and-assist mission in Afghanistan to preparing for future operations, the NIEs will provide the operational laboratory to incrementally enhance the network. These 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."Our focus at the start of the NIE process was on the current fight, as it should have been," said Lt. Gen Keith Walker, director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center. "The future of the NIE is to be the laboratory to continuously improve, to evaluate potential rapid requirements that the Army needs, and to leverage what our industry partners have done as appropriate to meet the needs of Soldiers."Preliminary results from NIE 14.1, which concluded in November, underscore the need for the Army to make network systems less complex to operate. A priority will be to simplify the Unit Task Reorganization tools and processes used to support dynamic network adjustments that are driven by changes in mission and battlefield task organization. As the Army transitions towards more expeditionary operations, NIEs will help accelerate efforts to give commanders and their staffs the ability to make network changes on the fly through a user-friendly graphical interface and automated execution process.The NIE is also supporting the Army's transition from standalone mission command systems to a web-based environment that delivers powerful warfighting systems as integrated "apps." The first stage of this effort, known as the Command Post Computing Environment, or CP CE, has shown steady improvement based on Soldier feedback from two NIEs and will undergo additional assessments at NIE 14.2 next spring. However, Soldiers report the need to continue to simplify the CP CE. The Army's larger long-term goal, through an initiative led by the Army Science & Technology community, is to fuse the CP CE with computing environments that exist for tactical vehicles and handheld devices, thus providing a unified user experience across mission command systems."Ultimately what we want is one computing environment for the tactical formation," said Jennifer Zbozny, chief engineer for PEO C3T. "Just like I can look at my iPhone and go on a mobile website, and it may not be able to do everything I can do from my computer, but it looks the same to me -- that's what we want on the battlefield."NIE 14.1 pioneered a combination of live, virtual, constructive and distributed operations in order to increase efficiencies and demonstrate new training techniques. Approximately 40 percent of the exercise was conducted as a virtual operation, but Soldiers participating live could not tell the difference."We were able to save resources by increasing the amount of virtual and constructive operations, reducing the size of the force that deployed to the field, while still meeting all test and evaluation requirements," said Brig. Gen. John W. Charlton, commanding general of the Brigade Modernization Command. "This also allowed us to evaluate innovative training capabilities."NIE 14.1 also showed the Army has made progress on simplifying the Network Operations, NetOps, tools used to facilitate the planning, initialization, monitoring, management and response of the network. During previous NIEs, the Army converged from more than 70 separate NetOps systems in 2011, down to about 20 today. The Army intends to further streamline the tool set and increase interoperability by integrating NetOps products across the upper and lower tiers of the tactical network."As a brigade signal officer, it is important to understand all the layers that are out there and then we can identify those friction points and fix those friction points sooner," said Lt. Col. Ernest Tornabell, communications officer for the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, the unit that conducts the NIEs.Another insight gained from NIE 14.1 addressed the Army's efforts to right-size and simplify command posts. The Army is working to "declutter" tactical operations centers, known as TOCs, and make them more mobile by consolidating hardware such as computers, servers and wires and converting several systems into software applications so the TOC operates more effectively for the commander with less equipment.
"TOCs have grown over time, and we have to find ways to get them smaller, more mobile and more agile while still supporting mission command," said Col. Mark Elliott, director of the Army's G-3/5/7 LandWarNet-Mission Command Directorate. "We're using the NIE to look at a range of potential solutions, from wireless capabilities to more efficient sources of operational energy."Industry partners play a critical role in bringing forward such solutions for evaluation at the NIEs, and innovation seen at the NIEs has informed the Army's competitive acquisition approach for several key programs including tactical radios. While the Army procures commercial routers, antennas, network operations tools, operational energy solutions and other items as a result of the NIE, the service has also listened to feedback from industry partners on ways to improve. A revised approach for NIE 15.1 and beyond will give industry additional time to respond to more focused capability gaps.Additionally, NIE 15.1 will assess the Army's updated integrated network baseline. This baseline will be synchronized with the Network Capability Review, an ongoing Army study that aims to identify the proper mix of systems and the requirements to provide integrated tactical network capabilities within various formations and echelons during a time of fiscal constraints.The Army intends to fix in place the capability gaps identified during NIE 15.1 for two subsequent NIEs rather than one. Results will be released to industry so their proposed solutions can be evaluated over the following two NIE exercises, 15.2 and 16.1, which will be used to establish and validate Capability Set 18.In the interim, planning continues for the Army to execute NIE 14.2 in spring 2014, which will feature increased Joint and multi-national participation in conjunction with the Joint Staff-led BoldQuest exercise. The virtual and distributed operations -- including the participation of a higher headquarters, the 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kan. -- and participation by a Marine Corps unit during NIE 14.1 helped set conditions for success in 14.2, Charlton said."Some of the things we tried this time, we will try again in a more aggressive fashion next time," said Col. Beth Bierden, chief of the Network Integration Division at the Brigade Modernization Command. "Pulling in different Joint and coalition partners is certainly a challenge -- but that's the goal, learning where the gaps are."(PEO C3T staff writers Amy Walker and Nancy Jones-Bonbrest contributed to this report.)