FORT BLISS, Texas (April 8, 2014) -- Uniting Soldiers and emerging communications technologies in unpredictable scenarios and rough terrain, the Army's Network Integration Evaluations (NIEs) provide an operational laboratory to incrementally enhance the Army's tactical network.

With the next round of the semi-annual events ready to kick off in May, the Army is working to make its communications systems more intuitive, easier to train on and simpler to use. At the same time, the Army continues to improve the behind-the-scenes processes that act as the holistic glue to ensure functionality at the NIEs.

Processes that are continually being refined include vehicle integration, system check-outs and training - all important factors considering the role of the NIEs, which bring testers, Soldiers and engineers to one centralized location to test, evaluate and improve networked capabilities.

"Even in this time of budget constraints, we have to make fundamental improvements to network functionality," said Brig. Gen. Daniel Hughes, Program Executive Officer for Command, Control and Communications-Tactical (PEO C3T). "One way to do that is through the NIEs. This is not just a test -- we've made wiser acquisition decisions because of the feedback gained from the NIEs. But we have to continue to make improvements and build on lessons-learned."

In March, when it came time to integrate the Army's next-generation situational awareness capability Joint Battle Command-Platform (JBC-P) - a System Under Test (SUT) at NIE 14.2 - onto 250 vehicles, the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division (2/1 AD) took on the task by working with Project Manager (PM) JBC-P, to ensure all necessary vehicles were integrated to support test initiatives.

This partnership included PM JBC-P performing the integration work on about half of the vehicles, which included Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP), Stryker and High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV) platforms.

"The PM worked hand-in-hand with the unit to affect something that works well for both of us," said Brian Aschle, fielding coordinator and PM JBC-P lead for the NIEs.

This prep work ensures vehicle readiness in time for the unit to begin its validation exercise (VALEX), followed by formal testing in May. The VALEX serves as a final check of the Integrated Motor Pool for the 2/1 AD prior to beginning NIE 14.2. It also increases unit involvement and familiarity with the systems, while improving coordination across several NIE stakeholders.

Just as Soldier input has helped evolve capabilities and processes over the course of several NIEs, classroom training exercises continue to build on lessons-learned from previous events, equipping Soldiers with the knowledge base needed on their systems before testing begins.

"This training is 100 percent hands-on, which is great," said Staff Sgt. Miguel Ramirez, a 2/1 AD Soldier who attended recent training on the Manpack radio, which is also a SUT at 14.2. "The experience of our trainers shows. Any questions we have are answered right away, without hesitation. They're subject-matter experts and know what they're talking about."

Preparation also extends to the systems themselves. In order to mitigate any issues as the Manpack radio enters testing, Project Manager Tactical Radios (PM TR) performed a terrain walk on March 6. During this risk reduction effort, the PM replicated the rough environment the radio would be tested in. In doing so they found a glitch, which could have affected the radio's performance.

"We went into rough and arduous terrain, and the radio performed as advertised," said Maj. Edgar Santana, assistant product manager Handheld, Manpack and Small Form Fit (HMS), which oversees the Manpack. "But we did find one anomaly."

A 'patch' that was added to the radio software to address an issue when operating at or near the maximum range on the Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System (SINCGARs)waveform resulted in the operator not being able to transmit.

"We weren't sure if this would be a problem during an operational employment of the radio, but we didn't want to take the chance," Santana said. "The HMS Manpack, which is a software defined radio, allows us the ability to respond quickly to issues and improve performance with minimal impact to the user."

Within a few days, the issue was cleared up.

NIE 14.2, which is taking place at Fort Bliss, Texas and White Sands Missile Range, N.M., is the seventh in a series of semi-annual field evaluations designed to keep pace with rapid advances in communications technologies and deliver proven and integrated network capabilities to Soldiers.

The main focus of NIE 14.2 is follow-on tests for the HMS Manpack radio, JBC-P and the Unmanned Aerial System-Tactical Common Data Link/Universal Ground Station, as well as an operational test for the smartphone-like Nett Warrior system. During the tests, which also includes 12 Systems Under Evaluation (SUEs), the 2/1 AD will conduct a full range of military operations across harsh terrain. Joint and multi-national participation is also taking a larger role at NIE 14.2. in conjunction with the Joint Staff-led BoldQuest exercise.

"That's what makes the NIEs so critical and so important for modernization," said Col. Greg Baine, chief of brigade modernization integration for the Brigade Modernization Command (BMC). "It adds in that operational relevance to what it is we're looking for. You can't accomplish the same thing solely in a lab."

The NIEs are run through a triad of organizations that include the Army Test and Evaluation Command (ATEC), the BMC and the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology System of Systems Engineering and Integration, or SoSE&I, Directorate. Driven by Soldier feedback, NIE lessons-learned to date have allowed the Army to mature certain programs, restructure or terminate others and re-allocate resources to other priorities.

Since their launch in 2011, the NIEs have evaluated more than 170 systems and helped integrate, refine and validate Capability Set 13, or CS 13, the Army's first integrated network package providing mobile communications down to the dismounted Soldier. CS 13 has been fielded to four brigade combat teams, including two now deployed to Afghanistan, and fielding and training is now underway for the follow-on CS 14.