WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M., June 22, 2011 -- High in the mountains, infantrymen used smartphone applications to plot their movements and request help for casualties.
Driving across the desert below, field artillery Soldiers eyed a computer screen to navigate toward their next target, exchanging text messages throughout the convoy’s journey.
Inside a command tent, leaders issued orders that instantly traveled through digitized systems to their far-flung subordinates.
“If they find a target out there and they need us to shoot artillery on it, that’s when they call us,” Staff Sgt. Jamel Cobbs said. “The battalion will send down the mission, make sure we’re able to arrange it and we have the ammo for it, and (the information) will go right back up the chain.”
The future of the Army’s tactical network is taking shape this month as Cobbs and more than 3,800 fellow Soldiers from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, evaluate key technologies that connect units to one another and higher headquarters.
As the Army’s largest network field exercise to date, the six-week Network Integration Evaluation, or NIE, will assess these capabilities separately and in tandem as a “system of systems” by gathering Soldier feedback from realistic operational scenarios.
“Let’s put them in the hands of people who are built to break them, and see if they get any use out of them - because if it’s not a force multiplier, then we don’t need it,” said Clifton Basnight, an engineer with the Army’s Program Executive Office Command, Control and Communications-Tactical, known as PEO C3T, who helped build the network architecture for the event. “The goal is to get operational relevance in everything we do.”
The NIE, which includes six programs of record going though formal tests and more than 25 emerging or developmental technologies under informal evaluation, is a key part of the Army’s network strategy. The equipment under formal or informal test is being evaluated alongside current force equipment and programs.
Soldier input from the NIE will help determine what equipment is fielded to units in combat today, as well as which technologies hold the most potential for future operations. The event is also allowing engineers to resolve integration challenges between military and commercial equipment up front, rather than leaving Soldiers to combine technologies as they arrive in theater.
“This is huge,” said Maj. Gen. Keith Walker, commanding general of the Brigade Modernization Command, another of the organizations involved in the event, during a media round table on May 23, 2011. “By replicating this network it’s going to allow us to ensure that we do that integration work prior to sending it down range.”
That means the network architecture in use at White Sands is significantly more complex than during any previous test, officials said. It comprises about 25 terrestrial satellite systems, more than 100 vehicle-mounted networking radios that pass data as well as voice communications, an aerial tier of radios attached to Unmanned Aerial Systems, and a commercial 3G network to evaluate the smartphones.
After the formal tests in weeks one through four of the exercise, the final two weeks will feature a capstone event focusing on technical integration and ensuring different systems can function together seamlessly. That requires PEO C3T, which has been tasked as the network lead, and PEO Integration, which is the overall lead for the event, to combine network aspects ranging from the voice and mission command architectures to the data products and configurations that “glue” it all together, routing information to the right individuals at the right time to execute the mission.
The NIE architecture will be stressed with high-bandwidth communications in diverse terrain.
“We can evaluate new capabilities across the potential spectrum of conflict,” Walker said. “We can evaluate them in terrain that our units are really having to deal with today, in line-of-sight and non-line-of-sight challenges.”
For added realism, the Soldiers are sleeping in tents at simulated Forward Operating Bases ringed with barbed wire. Part of the brigade is playing the role of the enemy, launching attacks and laying improvised explosive devices on the roadside.
For Cobbs, the NIE is providing his first exposure to a new version of the Army’s friendly force tracking and messaging software known as Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below, or FBCB2, Joint Capabilities Release, or JCR. During his three deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, Cobbs used the earlier version of FBCB2-Blue Force Tracking to navigate routes and exchange information with Soldiers in separate vehicles, sharing situational awareness of one another’s locations to prevent fratricide.
“(The new version) is a lot faster - your position constantly updates as you move out,” Cobbs said last week. “This is our way of communication. We can see our units on the map, we know where our units are at and we know where we’re going.”
At the brigade tactical operations center leaders experienced situational awareness on a larger scale. Brigade Battle Capt. Phillip McCoy coordinated mission plans, system status and intelligence using Command Post of the Future, which combines feeds from different mission command systems to provide a broad spectrum of information that commanders can use to collaborate.
“You can really get a good idea of real live multiple channels of what’s going on,” he said.
A unit encamped near a “mountain village” is trying out smartphone apps through Connecting Soldiers to Digital Applications, or CSDA, a series of ongoing evaluations to explore the potential of the devices for both home station and tactical use.
Pfc. Nicholas Johnson, a Soldier with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division who developed a medical evacuation application and is playing a lead role in the CSDA effort at NIE, said the program has already collected and acted upon valuable feedback. For instance, Soldiers conducting operations requested the ability to send text messages, and because of the ease of development using a common framework, an instant messaging function will be added to the phones within a week of that request, Johnson said.
“Your development time is minimized, and your training time is minimized because they’re already familiar with it,” he said. “This allows us to basically take our devices, find out what does and doesn’t work, take that back and fine-tune it again.”
The NIE runs through mid-July and is the first of four events leading up to a fully integrated Brigade Combat Team Network Evaluation at the end of 2012.
“The reality is these NIEs are as much about learning as they are about testing. After all, the only way to fix problems is to accurately identify them,” said Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army’s vice chief of staff, during the media roundtable on May 23, 2011. “I am confident we will learn a great deal about both the capabilities and limitations of current state-of-the-art equipment and network systems.”