On their patrols through a mountain village, Capt. Scott DeWitt's Soldiers knew they were safe from sniper fire.
Sensors and unmanned aerial systems scanned the tops of buildings, rapidly feeding information and images to the smartphones carried by the Soldiers below.
"It could actually go down to the eyes of the user," said DeWitt, a company commander with the Army's 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division. "It was really interesting to see, when you actually tie all this technology together, how powerful it is."
Through such scenarios, DeWitt and his troops are playing a key role in evaluating the Army's integrated tactical network during a series of major field exercises at White Sands Missile Range, N.M. With more than 3,800 2nd Brig., 1st Armored Div. Soldiers, nearly 1,000 vehicles and dozens of networked and non-networked systems involved, the network-integrated evaluations are designed to measure performance based on realistic missions and conditions.
The vast, complex terrain of White Sands provides the ideal proving ground for integrating satellite and terrestrial networks. Soldiers can share voice, video and data across the once-blocked, elevated features of regions like Afghanistan.
The network is the Army's top modernization priority, and the twice-a-year NIEs are a key part of the effort to rapidly advance the tactical network and keep pace with industry advances. By placing both program of record and non-program of record capabilities in Soldiers' hands earlier in the evaluation cycle, the Army can more rapidly incorporate user feedback, ultimately leading to quicker fielding and improved end products.
Integrating networked systems holistically in one operational venue, and deploying them as "capability sets" also prevents troops from having to improvise downrange.
"This is a fundamental change in the way we're going to deliver network capabilities to our Army," said Col. John Morrison, director of the Army G-3/5/7 LandWarNet-Battle Command Directorate. "We get a chance to deploy the capability into the hands of our Soldiers early and often."
A triad of organizations -- BMC, Army Test and Evaluation Command and Program Executive Office Integration -- is charged with assessing networked and non-networked capabilities and determining their implications for the force.
One major goal of the NIEs is to streamline the digital thread used for sharing information -- voice, images, video and other data -- across separate echelons on the battlefield. At the June-July NIE, for example, a synchronized combination of hardware, waveforms and software applications enabled Soldiers to share images of high-value targets, for example, across multiple echelons. Attaching terrestrial radios to unmanned aerial systems maintained network connectivity in terrains where elevation currently separates platoons and squads.
Without this capability, a platoon or other small unit uses voice communications to describe a detainee to higher headquarters. Another Soldier will search through a database with limited information and determine if the individual should remain under custody or be released. With a waveform-integrated network, Soldiers can promptly examine a photo and other suspect data to make an immediate decision.
To simulate counterinsurgency operations during the NIE held at White Sands in June and July, role players acted as villagers, members of the Taliban government or Afghan security forces, said Lt. Col. Matt Fath, 1st Battalion, 35th Armored Regiment. The opposing force lived in the villages, planted mock-improvised explosive devices or came across the mountains to attack the friendly forces.
Soldiers from 2nd Brig., 1st Armored Div. performed three basic types of missions: area reconnaissance, census operations and basic interdiction.
Area reconnaissance involved engaging with the village chiefs, as well as identifying and removing weapons from the enemy. Census operations involved all of the actions taken to understand and control the population, including collecting data on village residents that was then entered into the networked tactical ground reporting application for future use. Basic interdiction required participants to identify locations where the enemy historically planted IEDs, shot mortars and engaged in other hazardous activity. The objective was to identify enemy patterns and prevent future strikes.
Digitized capabilities also supported dismounted patrol operations. Second Lt. Nick Stortini entered a wide range of data related to his patrols into TIGR, such as pictures and clothing descriptions of potential high-value targets -- information that was immediately accessible across the brigade.
At a forward operating base nested in the White Sands mountains, Sgt. David Johnson used Joint Capabilities Release (the next iteration of Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below/Blue Force Tracking, or FBCB2/BFT), to interact with vehicles away from the command post. The sergeant and his counterparts used the system inside their tactical operations center to send and receive tactical information, including on-the-spot reports, position location information and mission analysis data.
"With the new FBCB2 we're using, it's a lot more instantaneous," said Johnson, who had used the previous version while deployed to Iraq. "You're able to send and receive messages no matter where (units) are -- no line of sight is required, and that's what they're running into with the mountain ranges around here."
In the October-November NIE, Soldiers will test handheld versions of Joint Battle Command-Platform, the next generation of FBCB2/BFT. These lightweight smartphones will empower dismounted Soldiers at lower echelons with blue force situational awareness information as well as command and control messaging currently only available in vehicles and at command posts.
Inside brigade headquarters in June, 1st Lt. Richard Johnson, assistant brigade fires planner, said an integrated group of maneuver, airspace management, sustainment and fires software applications allowed him to smoothly plan the battle. Like FBCB2/BFT and TIGR, those applications are fielded by the Army's Program Executive Office Command, Control and Communications-Tactical, commonly referred to as PEO C3T.
The Command Workstation, also known as Command Post of the Future, allowed Johnson to check his plan without going back and forth between systems. A common picture makes a commander more confident in his or her decisions, said Capt. John Landry, assistant brigade fire support officer.
"A picture says a thousand words," he said. "It's even better if that picture is common across the battlefield."
In today's tactical environment, the Soldier Radio Waveform operates at the lowest level echelon, providing information to individual Soldiers or teams within a company. As echelon levels increase, more tactical data is shared and the large communication pipe of Wideband Network Waveform is a necessary provision. During the June-July NIE, the radio fleets of the Joint Program Executive Office for the Joint Tactical Radio System and PEO C3T connected Soldiers to these waveforms.
Three of the JTRS hardware products -- the Handheld, Manpack, Small-Form Fit Rifleman Radio, the 2-channel HMS Manpack and the Ground Mobile Radio -- were integrated into the network architecture at the October-November NIE, running various configurations of the WNW and SRW waveforms. These networking capabilities were operated within a variety of relevant operational scenarios, including close air support with UAS, MEDEVACs and convoy operations.
The final Network Centric Waveform is the satellite layer, which allows Soldiers to access the Internet and share voice, video and data across the globe.
Today, these capabilities are achieved through the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical Increment 1. WIN-T Increment 2 will bring communication on-the-move to the company level, while subsequent increments will enhance security, bandwidth and the aerial tier.
The October-November NIE leveraged the network end-state from the June-July NIE as the baseline for additional technologies, while relying on core current and next-generation systems such as WIN-T, JTRS, and JCR/JBC-P. It also began to establish the Objective Integrated Network Baseline, and introduced industry participation in the NIE evaluation cycle.
What will remain constant is the paramount role Soldiers play in determining the Army's network way ahead.
"We are the ultimate user representative," said Col. Dan Pinnell, 2nd Brig., 1st Armored Div. commander. "We see this as a life and death discussion on a daily basis."
Josh Davidson and Claire Heininger Schwerin work for PEOC3T.