FORT HOOD, Texas -- The Army's only independent operational test organization has the awesome responsibility for making sure new equipment issued to Soldiers works as advertised.

With the motto "Truth in Testing," the U.S. Army Operational Test Command finds itself in a unique position to create test environments that puts current and advanced warfighting systems through their paces.

The testing mission is a critical component of the Army's overall modernization and readiness efforts.
There are three objectives to operational testing:

One. Effectiveness. Does the new system help the Soldier/unit do their job better than what they currently use?

Two. Suitability. How hard is it to operate and maintain the new system?

Three. Survivability. Will the system survive in combat while protecting the Soldier? To borrow a line from an old wristwatch commercial, "It takes a licking and keeps on ticking."

New equipment testing begins with detailed planning. Technologists have to think outside the box to keep up with rapidly changing technology. They update computer models reflecting the system's new capabilities. Modeling tests how it performs against a realistic enemy on test site terrain. Planning models saves Army money by simulating live assets that are not available or too costly for tests.

Next comes the Herculean task of instrumenting combat systems. Soldiers, vehicles, targets and networks are instrumented to record system performance, reliability and maintenance data. Ruggedized instrumentation has to survive live force-on-force battles while not impacting the Soldier's mission or equipment performance.

Before conducting an operational test, three requirements must be met to enter the "final exam:"

First, the system must be production representative. That means the system could be fielded to Soldiers without modification.

Second, it has to be put into the hands of typical users: Soldiers, maintainers and leaders.

Finally, it has to be tested in a "realistic combat-like environment." Here is where things get interesting. Soldiers conduct combat missions in the field, in real weather, with an enemy trying to mess up their day (or night) - just like an operational deployment.

During operational tests, Soldiers staffs and leader conduct missions against live forces on real terrain while combating virtual forces on their flank. Test networks collect test data, record fight events, and provide 3-D playback for reviews. These large scale fights provide realistic training for Soldiers, staffs and leaders which improves their combat readiness. At the same time, testing provides the Army a glimpse at how effective, suitable and survivable this new equipment is before it is deployed.

This is not our grandparents' Army anymore. Planning and conducting operational testing in a realistic combat environments is more complicated than simply driving a tank or combat vehicle on the highway, over trails, up and down hills, and through the mud.

Today, Army testing improves Soldier combat readiness while "checking" the Army's new equipment in current and future combat environments. "Truth in Testing!"

(Editor's Note: Michael DiGennaro is the U.S. Army Operational Test Command's project lead for systems engineering and systems analysis responsibilities.)