FORT BLISS, Texas -- Soldiers from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), are getting an opportunity to work with the latest enhancements to the Army's tactical network technologies during Network Integration Evaluation 17.2, which began here July 11.

As part of the NIE concept, the U.S. Army Joint Modernization Command provides a "controlled setting" for program managers and developers of Army network equipment to test and evaluate their gear in a fully operational environment, said Col. Charles Roede, who serves as deputy commander of JMC.

"We create the conditions that introduce the environmental factors, a thinking enemy, the stress and confusion of simulated combat," he added.

As part of an NIE, Soldiers train at Fort Bliss and White Sands Missile Range, conducting the same kinds of exercise units conduct elsewhere. Unlike at other installations, however, these Soldiers take gear and equipment that is under evaluation with them into the field to improve the Army's tactical, as well as command and control networks.

At the end of the exercise, Soldiers who used that gear provide feedback about how it enhanced -- or didn't enhance -- their performance during the exercise. That feedback informs Army senior leaders about how the gear worked, and is used to improve mission command capabilities through the development of a deployable and less complex operational network.

NIE also helps improve the testing baseline by incorporating information on a highly expeditionary unit's ability to operate the Army's tactical network to accomplish mission objectives.

IMPROVING CONCEPTS, CAPABILITIES

"What we are trying to do at NIE is to focus on the network and mission command," said Douglas L. Fletcher, who serves as the chief of staff at JMC.

Fletcher said he understands that technology -- which he considers to be a piece of hardware or software -- can be the catalyst for shaping Army concepts.

"Concepts are the forerunner of doctrine," he added. "[Doctrine] is how we see ourselves fighting and what capabilities we need to fight. Those capabilities turn into requirements, which eventually get into the hands of Soldiers.

"The best thing you can do is get the technology into the hands of Soldiers early and often during the development of that capability. That way you don't make something ... only to find out later that it does not work the way it was intended to," he said.

THE MEASURE OF SUCCESS

Before NIE 17.2, 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division used to be the dedicated Army experimentation unit, Roede said. Due to the needs of the Army, that unit was pulled back from its testing mission and was put back into the readiness pool to conduct real-world missions. Now, instead of having a permanently-assigned unit with which to conduct NIE, the Army rotates units in to perform the evaluations.

At the conclusion of NIE, some of the equipment that has been evaluated there is integrated back into the evaluating unit and tested in other operational environments. Since being pulled back, the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division continues to operate under a previous capability set and provides feedback to JMC, Roede said.

In September, the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division will participate in their first National Training Center rotation.

"They are arguably the best-trained brigade on the Army's network," Roede said. "Can they translate that to be successful at NTC? If they can, it can prove that the network is viable and they can fight better. If that is the case, how do we get rest of the Army to that standard?"

The 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division is slated to participate in next year's NIE, Roede said.

"This has been a remarkable experience bringing in a rotational unit," Roede said. "It shows we can bring other brigades into NIE and give them this experience of working with the network to become a better fighting force."

TACTICAL NETWORK CAPABILITIES

At this most recent NIE, the Army is testing two expeditionary network systems that are part of the Warfighter Information Network - Tactical, or WIN-T, program. The program aims to provide operational units with increased early-entry communications while reducing the complexity of the network.

"[The network] is critical to the commander's ability to ... command their forces and gain a situational understanding of the battlespace," said Col. Bert Shell, chief of the network integration division at JMC.

"2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne has the latest increment of WIN-T, Increment 2, which provides network connectivity on the move, at the quick halt, and at the halt," said Shell.

According to Shell, "WIN-T Increment 2 enhances the resilience of the network to operate in a contested and congested environment. This is a significant mobility advantage over WIN-T Increment 1b, which delivers the tactical network predominantly at the halt."

COLLECTING FEEDBACK

During NIE, several hundred observers are spread throughout the training environment to capture daily observations. They report their findings to the JMC integration and assessment division, which in turns helps generate and distribute their findings to different organizations responsible for the exercise.

Having worked with the network since 2013, Capt. Zachary Jones, the headquarters company commander for the 1-26th Infantry Regiment, has witnessed the evolution of technology evaluated at NIE.

Since 2011, there have been many improvements made to existing equipment, including improvements to the software and hardware of individual systems, Jones said. The current technology helps lessen the chance for human error created by miscommunication.

"We as Soldiers need to invest in this," he said. "We're setting us up to become a better Army by having a better way to communicate."