ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- The Army has finished the Network Integration Evaluation 12.2, where it validated and finalized Capability Set 13, the first integrated set of advanced tactical communications equipment that will be delivered to brigade combat teams starting this fall.
But two thousand miles from the desert of White Sands Missile Range, N.M., Army engineers are already focused on the next target.
The integration activity that began in Army laboratories at Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG) last week will lay the groundwork for Network Integration Evaluation, or NIE, 13.1 in October, where the service will evaluate the initial baseline network for Capability Set, or CS, 14. Upgrades with CS 14 include integrating the network on heavy vehicle platforms and greater convergence of operations and intelligence applications.
The ongoing risk reduction in APG laboratories is critical to the successful execution of the NIEs, semi-annual field exercises that leverage 3,800 Soldiers conducting realistic operations in order to measure network performance. By replicating the NIE network in the lab environment, engineers can resolve integration issues before systems get to the field -- reducing test costs and allowing Soldiers to focus on the fight instead of the technology behind it.
"The less they talk about the network, the more successful we are," said Col. Dan Hughes, director of Army System of Systems Integration. "Good pre-planning and good engineering leads to success in allowing us to get the evaluation done."
That was the case for NIE 12.2, where a combination of risk reduction in the labs and up-front integration in the field delivered a complete network -- connecting command posts to vehicles to dismounted Soldiers -- to the brigade before it started operations. More than 60 issues were discovered in the lab, many of which were resolved with software or firmware updates.
Compared to the previous two NIEs when more troubleshooting occurred in the field, the process for 12.2 allowed the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, "to run more threads and more execution, and give the Army better feedback on the system as a whole," brigade commander Col. Dan Pinnell said.
As Army leadership now begins to review NIE 12.2 results in preparation for the fielding of Capability Set 13, engineers at APG are engaged in risk reduction for NIE 13.1, which includes building the network for Capability Set 14.
In the labs, engineers create a representative NIE architecture incorporating radios, satellite-based systems, handheld devices, mission command applications, routers, cables and other network components. Through a combination of actual and simulated hardware and software, they recreate the end-to-end NIE network -- which requires distinct configurations and different combinations of systems for each battalion within 2/1 AD.
"When you build a holistic, to scale representation of your network, you can represent your mobility, you can represent your various degree of spectral constrainment, you can go through various mission command configurations," said Dennis Bushmitch, SoSI chief analyst. "The lab is your controlled environment where you can test things up to scale in all possible configurations, which will lead to a fieldable design."
Under the Agile Process, the Army's new quick-reaction acquisition methodology to address defined capability gaps and insert new technologies into the overall network at a lower cost, companies respond to a "sources sought" notification, and then enter the laboratories for technology evaluation, assessment and integration. The lab assessments inform the Army's choices on what systems will participate in the semi-annual NIEs and provide detailed "score cards" to industry on how their technologies performed and what could be improved in the future.
"We are in a unique opportunity to evaluate vendor systems early and provide technical recommendations to validate the claims vendors make on their products," said Scott Newman, Program Director for Systems Engineering and Integration for Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center, known as CERDEC. "Each vendor receives a detailed score card and technical report explaining what tests were performed and the results of the tests. This allows the vendor to see what the Army is looking for and hopefully make their products better in the future."
Once systems pass this phase, they enter Lab-based Risk Reduction,or LBRR, where the NIE network is replicated in a lab environment. All systems going to NIE 13.1 must first go through LBRR at CERDEC's C4ISR Systems Integration Lab, known as CSIL, where system functionality, interoperability, and all configuration settings and mission threads are validated prior to going to NIE. The lab activity also benefits industry by allowing companies to plug their systems into the holistic Army network and discover any interoperability challenges before Soldiers encounter them during NIE.
"This is the first time the vendors actually come into a full network, and they get to integrate and test their system without any retribution," said Vivek Agnish, SoSI Deputy Division Chief for Network Design Integration & Analysis and lead for the LBRR effort. "They get a better opportunity to be in NIE and work well, instead of breaking down in NIE and getting a negative assessment."
With a brigade's worth of hardware and software in close proximity, the lab is also a more cost-effective environment to isolate and fix a problem than White Sands, where 2/1 AD spreads more than 100 miles across rough desert and mountain terrain. One issue discovered during LBRR for NIE 12.2 would have taken days to track down in the field, but in the lab was solved in one afternoon, said Paul McCabe, SoSI test execution lead for LBRR.
"They really were able to run a problem down very efficiently," he said. "This environment is very comfortable. You can really look deep into what your problem is."
As risk reduction for NIE 13.1 gets underway, engineers are applying lessons-learned from the previous cycle, and will incorporate more mission command software for greater realism. Another change this time is that LBRR will be centrally executed out of the CSIL.
"The CSIL's goal is to reduce risk at the actual NIE event," Newman said. "By bringing all of the products together in a lab environment we can validate everything in a controlled, repeatable, and defendable environment. With the subject matter expertise residing on the APG campus we can work together as a community to make the NIE as successful as possible by fixing problems here instead of out in the field."
The lab-based risk reduction effort finds and fixes problems early in the Agile Process, thus reducing risk of finding various bugs and integration issues in the field. This allows the Army to evaluate each system for merits and operational benefits, Agnish said.
"We are going to build on the successes of 12.2 LBRR and improve the process for 13.1 LBRR to provide an effective transition to NIE and the Soldier," said Lt. Col. Carlos Wiley, the incoming military lead for 13.1 LBRR.