As the Army faces potential peer adversaries, it is searching for solutions to reduce traditionally long acquisition timelines and modernize its tactical network more rapidly.

In support of this quest, Soldier feedback from Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) 17.2 and user focus groups helped to rapidly refine a tactical line-of-sight radio within 45 days after the event concluded.

Once the enhancements were complete, the program office went to Fort Hood, Texas--home to the 57th Expeditionary Signal Battalion, 11th Theater Tactical Signal Brigade, which operated the system during NIE 17.2--and provided a hands-on demonstration so the unit's Soldiers could see for themselves that the program office had implemented their feedback, directly and immediately.

"The biggest value of this effort to the Soldiers was the quick turnaround, as opposed to previous fieldings of other Army capabilities," said Col. David Thomas, commander of the 11th Theater Tactical Signal Brigade. "The most important thing was that the Soldiers' opinions mattered."

During NIE 17.2, in July 2017, the 57th Expeditionary Signal Battalion evaluated the expeditionary line-of-sight radio. Just back from deployment, the battalion put the capability through its paces during operational training missions in the harsh desert environment of Fort Bliss, Texas. Armed with the unit's feedback, the Product Manager for Network Modernization, assigned to the Project Manager for Tactical Network within the Program Executive Office for Command, Control and Communications -- Tactical (PEO C3T), worked with industry to integrate more than 12 refinements to the radio within 45 days.

THE LISTENING EDGE
"We have to get past that ingrained mindset that system acquisition and modifications have to take years," said Lt. Col. Mark Henderson, product manager for Network Modernization. "We have to listen to what the Soldiers are telling us they need, then work with industry to deliver smart commercial off-the-shelf solutions at an expedited pace whenever possible. Our enemies are not going to drag their feet to get capability to the field, nor should we."

"It's all about relationships and people," he added. "This rapid process could not have happened as fast as it did without the terrific relationship we have with the Soldiers we support, like those in the 11th Signal Brigade."

Lt. Col. Patrick Lane, commander of the 57th Expeditionary Signal Battalion, said that he would be comfortable deploying with the enhanced system, and affirmed that it met the Soldiers' expectations. "In terms of the modifications with setup and operating in the environment that they did out at Fort Bliss, I think the enhancements were significant. … The improvements made to the components enhanced the overall durability of the equipment and made it easier to transport. The [Soldiers'] contributions and feedback will have a lasting impact on the Army's ability to communicate for years to come," Lane said.

The program office's full follow-on capability demonstration at Fort Hood on Sept. 20 enabled the 57th Expeditionary Signal Battalion and the 11th Theater Tactical Signal Brigade to see firsthand that the capability was ready to be fielded.

"What I thought was most impressive was the follow-up and then the response time in terms of speed to action," Lane said. "Sometimes you don't know if they take your feedback or not. … To give the Soldiers an opportunity to have their voices heard, in terms of operationalizing the equipment that they work on every day, and then to see that their voices actually were heard, is pretty significant."

During the demonstration, Capt. Jermaine Wright, a company commander in the battalion who operated the line-of-sight radio at NIE 17.2, said the improvements directly addressed the feedback he had provided.

"[The program office] did an excellent job of receiving the information from the Soldiers and actually going out and executing," Wright said. "Our Soldiers did a great thing here. We reviewed the system and put our thoughts and actions into it, and we have a better product for the Army. The sooner we get the system, the better."

CONCLUSION
Leveraging Soldier feedback from events such as NIEs, user juries and pilots, and from in theater, and reaching out to industry partners will help the Army to get needed capability into the hands of Soldiers at an accelerated pace. Exercises like the NIEs enable Soldiers to push capability to the breaking point before real operational military or humanitarian deployments, when they need that capability to be most effective, said Maj. Keith Jordan, assistant product manager for Network Modernization.

"The Army understands that technology will continue to advance, and to stay ahead of our adversaries we need to continually scrutinize our tactical network capability," Jordan said. "The best way to do that is to listen to the Soldiers who will be using the capability on the battlefield. We have to make systems easy for them to operate and maintain. Anything we can do to ease their burden in the face of the enemy is time and money well spent."

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MS. AMY WALKER has been the public affairs lead for Project Manager Tactical Network since 2009. She holds a B.A. in psychology from the College of New Jersey

This article will be published in the April -- June 2018 Army AL&T magazine.