FORT BLISS, Texas (April 18, 2012) -- The flashy systems may attract a lot of attention, but it is the Soldiers who get the final say when it comes to evaluating new network technologies.
As the Army prepares for the Network Integration Evaluation, or NIE, 12.2 -- an event that will finalize the first advanced tactical communications technologies that will be fielded starting this fall -- a major responsibility rests on the shoulders of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, or 2/1 AD. The 3,800-person strong operational brigade combat team is dedicated to evaluating new network technologies from government and industry through realistic operational scenarios.
"When you have a brigade that this is all they eat, drink and sleep, they've got a better understanding of how things work," said Sgt. 1st Class Allen Johns of 2/1 AD. "You get to take this (equipment) and actually put it in an operational environment, a tactical scenario with opposing forces and all the rigors of a battlefield, minus the fear of being shot."
It is through those Soldiers' feedback and test results that the Army developed Capability Set 13, an integrated package of vehicles, network components, and associated equipment and software that will for the first time deliver an integrated voice and data capability throughout the brigade combat team formation down to the tactical edge, even while moving across the battlefield. Set in the mountainous desert terrain of White Sands Missile Range, N.M., the NIE events have ensured Capability Set 13 systems can function together and meet the needs of a deployed force.
For example, as a result of 2/1 AD feedback on the placement of Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, known as WIN-T, Increment 2 equipment in tactical vehicles, the Army is planning to add a second screen to better meet Soldiers' functional needs while communicating on-the-move. The applications they will access on those screens are also being refined based on Soldier feedback.
With Nett Warrior, a smartphone-like mission command system for dismounted Soldiers, the Army leveraged NIE feedback to make the devices lighter, cheaper and more user-friendly. Following evaluations at NIE 11.2, Army leadership quickly restructured the Nett Warrior program and requirements to take advantage of the latest commercial technology.
"The cost is down dramatically from what it was going to be, its utility is up through the roof, and the Soldiers really see it," said Col. Daniel Pinnell, 2/1 AD brigade commander. "And it's all based on our Soldiers giving leadership the ammunition they needed to go in and make a hard decision."
But while those examples stand out, it is not always obvious to the Soldiers participating in the NIE that their voices are being heard. To make sure the troops realize the value of their input, NIE leadership is now following up with Soldiers to "reinforce things they're doing that they may not be able to see," said Brig. Gen. Randal Dragon, commander of the Brigade Modernization Command, or BMC, to which 2/1 AD is attached.
"They want to assess, 'Did what I did for the Army have an impact, and if so, in what direction is the Army heading?'" said Dragon, who visited extensively with various 2/1 AD companies last week to discuss those questions and illustrate how Soldiers influenced the makeup of Capability Set 13.
Depending on its performance, each system that participates in NIE is given a recommendation to field, continue to improve, or stop development. Detailed feedback is also provided to industry so participating companies can gauge their technologies' performance and make any necessary adjustments prior to entering another semi-annual NIE.
The BMC, the Army Test and Evaluation Command and the System of Systems Integration Directorate form a triad of organizations that execute the NIEs, part of the Agile Process acquisition approach that allows the service to more quickly procure commercial technologies to meet defined capability gaps. Both during and after the field exercise, which will take place from May 1 to June 8, the triad will assess a host of capabilities and determine their implications across doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership, personnel and facilities, known as DOTMLPF.
The Soldiers' imprint reaches beyond what gear the Army will eventually purchase, touching all other aspects of DOTMLPF. Following the last NIE 12.1, the BMC and Army Centers of Excellence identified approximately 25 different "non-materiel" actions that are now being implemented, from adding new training modules to structuring the basis of issue for tactical handhelds at different echelons, Dragon said.
"The worst thing that would happen would be we field a capability that nobody's ready to receive," Dragon said. "We're just coming into a certain level of maturity in the agile lifecycle capability process that allow us to get at some of the DOTLPF, and although the materiel is important, I think it's the other parts that will help us as an Army get the most out of the materiel."
Several 2/1 AD Soldiers who participated in NIEs 11.2 and 12.1 and are now preparing for 12.2 said that while the Army has not always made changes as quickly as they would prefer, they believe their efforts are not going to waste.
"It's a slow process and I understand that, but I see where the improvements have been," Staff Sgt. Cyril LeBoeuf said. "I feel like we are being listened to."