Last week, about 300 defense industry reps headed up to sunny Aberdeen, Md. to listen to the Army explain what technologies it’s looking to incorporate into the next installment of its biannual Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) down at Ft. Bliss, Tx.
The NIE, in short, drops an entire Army brigade bristling with new communications and sensor gear into the field for several weeks worth of operational testing, pitting them against an opposing force in a series of counterinsurgency, stability, and peer-on-peer scenarios.
While the tests have drawn nothing but praise from Army leaders and the defense industry, a report released earlier this week by the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) takes a somewhat dimmer view, complaining that the service should “be cautious about inserting too many untried, experimental systems into the NIEs” because previous tests have “stressed the Army’s evaluation capacity” with too many different technologies.
In last November’s NIE, the Army put 25 different “systems under evaluation”—which are not formal acquisition programs of record—into the hands of solders doing the operational testing. The report claims that testing so many new systems at once leads to “problems with data collection,” as well as blowing up the test unit’s “capacity to integrate and train soldiers on new devices. It also complicates evaluation by not establishing a clear baseline of network structure and performance from which to measure improvement.”
Might all be true, but one of the reasons for the NIE’s existence is to see how creative soldiers can get with a all kinds of new communications and surveillance equipment while quickly separating what works from what doesn’t. You can call it the King of the 80 Percent Solution, but the point is to get less expensive gear in the hands of soldiers quickly. And if something better comes along, so be it. Since all of the equipment was developed on the industry’s dime, and is already “mature,” that means the Army didn’t spend any money to develop it.
Indeed, one of the Army’s main talking points is that the NIE reduces costs across the board, from development to testing. But the Pentagon isn’t so sure. The report also says that “it is not evident that NIEs will reduce test costs,” since the last set of tests in November ran about $67 million. What’s more, many of these systems tested “provided redundant communications capabilities,” which “altered the expected usage and mission profiles of the systems that were under test, complicating the evaluations.”
Even given all that, the Pentagon apparently wants the Army to push the NIE concept even further. The report stresses that the NIE should expand its focus from fixed sites to placing “a greater emphasis on scenarios that require mission command-on-the-move and the establishment and maintenance of mobile, ad hoc networks. Both of these are desired Army network characteristics that have not been demonstrated to date.”
Well, good news! (Kind of.) In a solicitation issued last week for “NIE “13.1” coming up this October and November, the Army says it’s looking for a Multi-Channel Tactical Radio (to replace the cancelled Ground Mobile Radio, which got the axe last year), along with capabilities like: Mission Command on the Move; Low-Cost-Low-SWaP Tactical Cross Domain Solution; Aviation Extension; Small Form Factor, Modular Transit Case SATCOM Terminal and Baseband; and Improved Operational Energy.
In English, the Army says it’s looking for more communications solutions to plug into the network that the NIE is developing.
But the report has positive things to say about the test, as well. The Army is lauded for taking “positive steps in integrating threat information operations, such as electronic warfare and computer network operations” in the exercise, and the DOT&E recommends building upon these efforts to ensure that the opposing force in future operational tests has a “robust information operations” capability, as well.