Maneuvering through thick woods, in rugged terrain or in urban confines, Soldiers risk losing radio connectivity and the ability to communicate.

The intelligent, self-healing Wireless Network After Next (WNaN) tactical network could prevent that danger by adapting to changing circumstances to keep communications intact.

"As you move from one area to another, it automatically determines the best frequencies to utilize and the best path to utilize to maintain communications," said Mr. Terry Claussen, deputy director of the PEO C3T Special Projects Office (SPO) evaluating WNaN. "The technology shows great potential, but we still have to look at it from the operational perspective."

That is the purpose of the present Army evaluation at Fort Benning, Ga. There, Soldiers with the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) Experimental Force are conducting a series of operations to gauge WNaN's performance in a realistic battle environment. Along with earlier results from laboratory settings, the findings will be incorporated into a final WNaN evaluation report. The Army's Program Executive Office Command, Control and Communications - Tactical (PEO C3T), to which the SPO is assigned, and other Army organizations will then craft recommended transition strategies for incorporating the technology into the Army's plans.

Along with its ability to sense and jump to the available part of the spectrum, WNaN can also recover from signal disruptions and delays. It does so by storing information on interim network nodes until a connection can be found. WNaN could also eliminate the need for Soldiers to stop and manually adjust frequencies during operations, and could be "very valuable" at the company level because it offers more than the typical voice communications that exist for fires teams today, Claussen said.

"It also provides data, and can provide position location information to higher-level headquarters, which improves the leadership's ability to understand where their teams are at and allows them to better maneuver those teams, and also to reduce potential fratricide," Claussen said.

WNaN also leverages commercial parts in an effort to minimize radio costs, he said.

At Fort Benning, Soldiers are testing WNaN in missions including a movement to contact, a deliberate attack, a reconnaissance followed by a hasty attack, a raid and a cordon and search, said Mr. Harry Lubin, chief of the experimentation branch of the Maneuver Battle Lab there. The settings mimic various combat environments - urban, wooded, rolling terrain - and even the sounds and smells of battle are pumped in.

Standing in for the enemy is a contracted "red force" also overseen by TRADOC, Lubin said.

"They actually put people on the ground to ensure that the enemy is fighting using the current tactics," he said. "So it is very credible. It's very realistic."

Members of the Experimental Force, a 61-man "company-minus," are well-prepared to evaluate the WNaN technology because they have experienced combat deployments as well as previous experiments at Fort Benning, Lubin said. Every step of the way, the Soldiers' verbal feedback is collected and matched up with audio and video capture from the missions, as well as technical data generated by the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System (MILES).

The emerging information collected on WNaN's performance will be briefed to Army senior leaders at a VIP day in early November, Claussen said. Soldiers will also share their initial impressions with the VIPs, after demonstrating an assault on a mock village, Lubin said.

"The urban environment provides a number of challenges for communications systems that capabilities of the WNaN system should help us provide a solution to," he said.

Prior to the Fort Benning assessment, WNaN demonstrated its potential during field evaluations conducted this summer by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The PEO C3T supported those evaluations, culminating with a demonstration of a 52-node network at Fort Devens, Mass. that highlighted WNaN's high voice quality, frequency agility and message completion.

The Fort Benning evaluation will conclude in mid-November, and a briefing on WNaN to the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army is tentatively planned for March 2011, Claussen said.

Between the DARPA tests and the thorough evaluation at Fort Benning, officials hope to provide a complete picture of WNaN's performance - including its potential for large-scale distribution to Soldiers. Theoretically, its advanced routing protocols can support scalability to thousands of nodes, allowing widespread deployment in dense environments.

"The current challenge is the more radios you add to a network, the harder it gets to pass information," Lubin said. "WNaN is just the opposite, in theory, in that as you add radios the network expands. That's really revolutionary."