FORT BLISS, Texas (May 19, 2014) -- Trading Beltway briefings for a Black Hawk and a backpack, Undersecretary of the Army Brad R. Carson visited what he described as one of the Army's premier installations to highlight one of the service's top modernization priorities, the tactical communications network.
Less than a week after he was formally sworn in for his new position, the Army's second-highest-ranking civilian leader toured the site of the Network Integration Evaluation, or NIE, 14.2 here, Thursday, and reiterated the importance of a robust, flexible network to ensure information dominance for future missions.
"As we secure our interests throughout the world, we're going to have to be more agile, more mobile and more lethal, so what you see here are ways for the Army to do that going forward," Carson said. "These are difficult times in the defense budget, and the Army is having to prioritize everything, but modernization of the network is among the very highest priorities."
NIE 14.2 is the seventh in the Army's series of semi-annual field exercises designed to assess and improve the tactical communications capabilities delivered to Soldiers. Each event builds on the technical and operational progress from previous NIEs, with the current exercise adding several mobile command post models, 4G LTE cellular solutions, a new mid-tier networking radio, improved cyber defense and increased participation by joint and multi-national forces. A British brigade headquarters and a battalion of more than 900 Marines are fighting alongside the Army's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, in a realistic and challenging scenario against insurgents and conventional forces.
"That's the way we fight today. We fight [alongside] coalition partners. We fight as a joint force, not simply as an Army," Carson said. "We want to make sure they're part of this amazing training exercise so in the future, when we do fight together again, we'll be synced up."
As the Army transitions from the advise-and-assist mission in Afghanistan to preparing for future operations, the NIEs serve as an operational laboratory to incrementally enhance the network. Uniting the acquisition, test and training and doctrine communities in a single location, 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.
NIE 14.2, which began May 6 and concluded Saturday, features four systems under formal test, 12 systems under evaluation and 15 demonstration systems, all aimed at improving upon currently fielded capabilities. For example, the Joint Battle Command-Platform, or JBC-P, system is an upgrade to the widely fielded Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below/Blue Force Tracking system that allows Soldiers inside their vehicles to track friendly and enemy locations and exchange messages across the battlefield.
"It's a significant improvement," said Col. Thomas Dorame, commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division. In addition to refreshing information much faster onscreen and offering interoperability with the Marine Corps, he said, JBC-P is "more intuitive to control."
Making systems easier for Soldiers to use is a critical goal across the Army's network portfolio, and drives much of the service's network modernization strategy to support a lean and expeditionary Force 2025. While the tactical network is inherently complex -- involving hundreds of hardware and software components integrated across the Brigade Combat Team -- the interfaces seen by the Solider should be as simple and familiar as a smartphone, officials said.
"People being able to move, send data, communicate in a mobile network on a battlefield -- it has to be very integrated and resilient," said Lt. Gen. Michael Williamson, military deputy to the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology, one of several senior leaders who accompanied Carson on the tour. "But when it gets to the Soldier, we have to simplify that as much as possible."
Soldier feedback from the NIEs, which began in 2011, has already led to usability improvements for systems like JBC-P, Nett Warrior, Warfighter Information Network-Tactical Increment 2, and tactical radios. Users provide input not only on how well systems work and how they could be improved, but also on tactics, techniques and procedures for employing the capabilities in various mission sets. Those recommendations helped shape the Army's first integrated network Capability Set, known as CS 13, which has been fielded to several units that are among the last to deploy to Afghanistan. U.S. forces there have described the network as their "digital guardian angel," and delivery of the follow-on CS 14 is now underway.
But there is more work to do, from reducing complexity to better tailoring the network capabilities delivered at each echelon, said Lt. Gen. Keith Walker, director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center. That evolution is what makes the NIE valuable to Army leadership, he said.
"When you come out here and put it in the hands of Soldiers, you learn things that you have to change," Walker said. "Our system is not good at dynamic change, and this pushes us."
Lt. Gen. Robert Ferrell, the Army's Chief Information Officer/G-6, reiterated that message to a group of Soldiers who ate lunch with the senior leaders and shared their perspectives on various aspects of Army life, ranging from training and leadership to dining facilities and tattoos.
"What you're doing out here will impact the next decade and the next generation," Ferrell said. "Your feedback is critical, and I'm very impressed with your ability to handle the new technologies put in your hands."
Soldiers participating in NIE 14.2 said they were proud to be making a difference for future troops, and viewed the attention from senior leaders as a validation of their efforts.
"It's huge. It shows the Army has great interest in this program, and we're doing great things out here," said Capt. Jason Patterson, an information systems management officer with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, who showed Carson the capabilities of his mobile integrated command post vehicle. "What the NIE is meant to do is make the Soldier better; make the technology better."
As he prepared to return to the Pentagon, Carson described Fort Bliss as an "incredible" installation with a growing mission, and bedrock of community support. He thanked the Soldiers for their contributions to one of the Army's top goals.
"The NIE is an important endeavor for the U.S. Army, and the joint forces as well," he said. "We have Soldiers at a very junior level who are part of incredible innovation in the Army, and their feedback is really important to us."