FORT BLISS, Texas (Army News Service, Sept. 30, 2015) -- "We tend to protect our communications in order to secure it. The challenge is unlocking some of that so it's shared. That's what we're trying to achieve here," Maj. Hugo Lloyd said.
Lloyd, chief of staff of the United Kingdom's 12th Armored Infantry Brigade, and others, addressed getting the technical and sharing protocols of the coalition network evaluated and the bugs worked out at the U.S. Army-hosted Network Integration Evaluation 16.1, or NIE 16.1, which runs from Sept. 25 to Oct. 8, here and at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico.
12th Armored brought its entire headquarters of nearly 200 soldiers to NIE 16.1, and operated alongside Soldiers of the U.S. 1st Armored Division headquarters.
Other 12th Armored troops participated virtually from the United Kingdom, as did 13 other, mostly NATO, militaries. A company of Royal Scotts Guards were in the field on Fort Bliss as well, borrowing 1st Armored Division Stryker vehicles.
In all, about 9,000 joint and coalition Soldiers and 3,000 civilians are participating in what is billed as the largest joint-combined network exercise ever. The overall NIE 16.1 objective is evaluating new and emerging network solutions, particularly the coalition network.
BELLS AND WHISTLES
Besides "the bells and whistles" which are "the bits that plug into each other to make everything work," the other coalition network challenge is understanding one another's warfighting capabilities, Lloyd said.
Speaking diplomatically, he added that "we understand some of the minutia of how national caveats can sometimes affect how one operates."
Lloyd's boss, Brigadier Rob Sergeant, commander of the 12th Armored, affirmed that information sharing presents challenges.
There are national sensitivities about information sharing, he said, citing network traffic regarding prisoners of war, for example.
In addition to policies and procedures, the technical aspect can be tricky, Sergeant said.
There's a whole series of things like logistics, trackers, intelligence, databases and artillery, "that have specific network applications in terms of how they're operated and getting those to mesh together is doable but it can be a challenge," he said.
"I have the confidence that the system will be working but there will definitely be glitches along the way, I'm sure of that, but of course that's why we're here," he said.
The U.S. Army and coalition partners, such as the British, are using NIE as the principal venue for assessing network interoperability in a joint/inter-organizational/multi-national environment. The issue is complex, with integration and connectivity challenges expected to arise, said Paul D. Mehney, of the U.S. Army Program Executive Office, C3T.
Making the coalition work is hands-on stuff for Staff Sgt. Natasha Morris, who is foreman of signals information systems. She said her job is to attain coalition network interoperability and to advise her 12th Brigade leadership on information matters.
"We've had some problems with the NATO's ICC [Integrated Command and Control] software talking to the Army's CPOF [Command Post of the Future]," she said, indicating that ICC is also what the United Kingdom uses. Both are situational awareness systems that show, where friend and foe are located.
"We're having a few small issues with the enemy picture, but the friendly picture is working. We'll definitely finish this and get it working," she said, noting the importance of establishing where everyone is to avoid fratricide on the battlefield.
OLD SCHOOL NETWORK
If coalition network bugs are still being worked out, how did the coalition communicate effectively during the last 12 or so years in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Sergeant said specific work-around solutions were used in those countries by the United States and its partners, the United Kingdom among them.
Sgt. Maj. Steve Sinclair, from 19th Regiment Royal Artillery, said it was very difficult in the early days, particularly in the integration of fires, but now it's becoming a lot easier.
He said he noticed incremental changes for the better during his three tours of Iraq, including the initial 2003 invasion, and two in Afghanistan. A lot of his interaction with the United States was with the Marine Corps' gun batteries.
"We had difficulties communicating and joining our systems together," he said. "We could speak to each other over clear frequencies as long as we could program those frequencies into our radios at the time. It was more of a face-to-face relationship we had to use, so this [NIE 16.1] is really useful in bringing our systems together."
Sergeant said besides getting the network right, NIE 16.1 has already demonstrated - as indicated by leadership feedback from all armies - that there has been some good, coordinated planning across the maritime, air and ground domains.
Although his brigade won't participate in the follow-on Army Warfighting Assessment, or AWA, in October 2016, he said another U.K. brigade will, and it will apply the lessons learned this year.
U.K. funding for next year's AWA and those to follow have been programmed out to 2020, he said, adding that he sees the scope and scale of these exercises to increase for the United Kingdom.
"We've had a long history of working together as allies," he added. "[NIE 16.1] is another forum to further that." He pointed to the ABCA, or American, British, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand Armies' Program, which is another big interoperability-driven forum.
"You only need to look at the news to see a range of threats out there. The common assumption to most armies is that there are very few situations where you'd operate unilaterally," Lloyd said.
"It follows you'll be working within an alliance with other countries to the right and left of you," he said. "It's very important that if you have that assumption, you put that into training and you say we need to get better so the next time the threat comes around we're able to deal with it together."
"None of the challenges are insuperable. But it's really good to have them highlighted in this sort of environment," Sergeant said.
An actual combat environment, he said, is not the time to identify network problems.
(NOTE: This is the fourth article in a four-part series on NIE 16.1)