WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. -- The soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division will deploy to Afghanistan this fall outfitted with the Army’s next generation of radios and computers, which service leaders expect to serve as the bedrock for the Army’s next technological leap on the battlefield.
Soldiers here carry smartphones mounted to the chests of their body armor on patrols through the massive training range where they simulate combat operations. The soldiers use the phones to mark the positions of improvised explosive devices, monitor the positions of friendly forces, and even send each other text messages.
Army Secretary John McHugh listed the Army’s network as his top modernization priority. It’s a title that carries extra weight at a time when the Pentagon is under pressure to cut programs to shrink the defense budget.
The Army assigned 3,800 soldiers with 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, to set up a realistic test for the network out here in a landscape that mimics southern Afghanistan, down to the peaks that jump out of the desert and the unrelenting heat.
Officials called it the Network Integration Evaluation, and after the first two iterations, Army leaders held it up as a sign Army acquisition had turned a corner and left behind programs such as the Future Combat Systems, which wasted billions of taxpayers’ dollars.
Soldiers spent more time just trying to figure out how to operate the network in the first two NIEs than actually testing its combat worthiness. The third one, which started in April and ended in May, forced the Army to take the training wheels off. Since the 10th Mountain Division could head to Afghanistan with the new radios, the service needed to see if they actually worked.
“We need to put some stress on it so we know how it will react in theatre,” said Col. Dave Miller, deputy commander for Brigade Modernization Command. “And it’s not just the technical side. There’s the intellectual side that we needed to test. We wanted to see how these soldiers would work with this stuff so we had to challenge them.”
After six months of testing in New Mexico, the early reviews from soldiers are mixed. Some soldiers heaped praise on systems such as the Soldier Radio Waveform. Others struggled to tell if the computers and radios in their vehicles stopped working because they malfunctioned or because opposing forces had jammed them.
Jammers are the latest curveball the Army has thrown at the soldiers here in the New Mexico desert. Capt. Josh Horner gave the response most soldiers offered when asked how their radios responded to interference: “I had no idea if it was my stuff or I was getting jammed.”
Col. Dan Hughes, director of Systems of Systems Integration, said that type of response has left him “concerned.”
“Some fixes do need to be made,” Hughes said. “But [the network] is not ever going to be perfect. The units have [tactics, techniques and procedures] when [communications] do get degraded.”
Data collectors will continue to mine through the results of the six-week exercise, but the Army doesn’t have much time before this next-generation communications system reaches the soldiers who will take it into combat for the first time.
Army officials simply call this collection of smartphones, mobile satellite dishes and software programmable radios “Capability Set 13.” The Army plans to outfit eight brigade combat teams with a capability set that transcends what soldiers have in combat today, but also works with today’s radios and communications gear.
Three brigade combat teams will deploy with it in the fall. Two of the BCTs will wear 10th Mountain patches. The Army has not announced what division the third BCT will come from.
The next three BCTs will deploy in the rotation after those. A brigade assigned to Korea and the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, will be the final unit to receive Capability Set 13.
It’s an ambitious schedule to deploy such a complex communications system to combat so soon, but the first sets of equipment will reach soldiers with the 10th Mountain in October, who will learn to employ it at California’s National Training Center before deploying to Afghanistan.
Before the first pieces of Capability Set 13 reach soldiers in the 10th Mountain, work has already started on Capability Set 14, which will focus on Stryker units. The importance of Capability Set 13 lies in the fact that future capability sets will be built off the foundation of 13.
Units on the move will work off the mobile satellite communications system called Warfighter Information Network-Tactical Increment 2, or as the soldiers call it: WIN-T. And the backbone for the network is the software programmable radios called Joint Tactical Radio Systems, or JTRS. These backbone technologies allow the sexier smartphones or ground reporting databases to operate.
Col. Daniel Pinnell, commander of 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Divison, commended Capability Set 13, saying it helps provide a common data picture across the battlefield and flattens the communications flow. It makes his job easier as the commander by getting more information into the hands of more soldiers because they come to him with more operational ideas and suggestions.
Pinnell did have his own suggestions after completing his third NIE testing Capability Set 13. He wants more bandwidth for his squads. These are the soldiers that will feed the system with intelligence such as retinal scans or documents found in weapons caches. They need the bandwidth to send that data back to the tactical operations center, Pinnell said.
The colonel also wants to see the Army keep his headquarters staff connected. When a TOC is on the move, almost all of the headquarters connectivity resides in the commander’s vehicle in the convoy. This cuts out the commander’s staff when the TOC is on the move using WIN-T Increment 2. Pinnell wants that to change.
Pointing to each one of the six flat panel screens inside his TOC, Pinnell questioned why he needed so many different feeds. He would prefer one screen, which broadcasts multiple feeds layered on top of each other on one easy-to-read screen.
Despite these hang ups, Pinnell said he has seen the Army Network take major steps forward over the past three NIEs. This will be his last NIE before he takes a new assignment and deploys to Afghanistan to help train the Afghan Army.
He urged Army leaders and Congress to keep the NIE and have the guts to allow soldiers to remain candid when reviewing these multi-billion dollar communications systems. Because for as much as Army leaders have celebrated the NIE, Congress has questioned how much it costs and defense industry leaders have asked why the NIE hasn’t resulted in more purchases.
Army officials claim the NIE has already saved the service $6 billion. The Army has spent $600 million in the NIE’s first years. Hughes said Congress can expect to see a 10-to-1 return on their investment.
The Army identifies the savings in the money it didn’t spend on underperforming programs fingered by soldiers testing those systems at the NIE. Hughes used the Early-Infantry Brigade Combat Team program to include the since canceled Unattended Ground Sensors and Class 1 Unmanned Air System as an example in which the Army saved $4 billion.
NIE officials are also working on changing the way it buys weapons that stand out in the six-week exercise. Starting in 2014, the Army will actually slow down the front end of the buying process to make it easier to buy more equipment after the NIE is completed.
Companies will have to go through the Request For Proposals process to ensure a contract is in place if the Army does, in fact, like what it sees during the NIE. Hughes said they have received positive feedback on this initiative from industry.
“Companies want to know that we’re going to buy stuff from these NIEs,” said Paul Mehney, spokesman for Systems of Systems Integration.
Hughes knows these tweaks to the NIE are necessary to keep it alive. He’s also wary of keeping the NIE from growing too big and losing the ability to respond quickly to soldier feedback.
Seeing the progress the Army has made from the first NIE exercise to the third is obvious. Soldiers treat the NIE less like a Network test and more like an exercise they’d execute at the National Training Center or Joint Readiness Center.
Hughes called this the progression the Army had hoped for. Army leaders want the Army Network to be second nature to soldiers.
“Right now, we are light years ahead of where we were last year,” Hughes said. “The less they talk about the Network the better it is.”