WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M.—The takeaway from the Army’s now-biannual Network Integration Exercise this time around isn’t, surprisingly, all about the network. Well, it is, but it’s also focused on lots of different technologies that will possibly one day connect to that network, and how they might co-exist on the battlefield. In short, it’s about integration, and experimentation with new technologies not yet in the Army budget cycle, and the acquisition process itself. The tests aren’t only “all about hardware,” the Army’s Paul Mehney says. “It’s also about changing the culture” of how and what the Army buys.
Vice chief of the Army Peter Chiarelli has said that given how quickly technology changes these days, he wants the service to “buy less, more often,” so that instead of buying 80,000 radios that will be outdated in a few years, the service will instead only buy as many as it needs, and then upgrade when technology advances.
Which brings us to Ft. Bliss, where the 3,800 soldiers of the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division, along with several hundred civilian contractors and industry reps, (one figure in the brigade operations center put 4,400 people in the field), are camped out in the desert for six weeks in order to test six programs of record, along with 29 other technologies that the Army describes as “under evaluation.”
Very much “under evaluation” here was the Connecting Soldiers to Digital Applications (CSDA) program, which is putting smart phones and tablets into the hands of infantrymen.
Lt. Col. Mark Stiner, program manager for the JTRS Handheld, Manpack and Small Form Fit radios is pushing the concept at NIE by installing tablets in vehicles and handing out phones and various-sized tablets to soldiers. One jerry-rigged system featured a smart phone plugged into a GPS-enabled Rifleman’s Radio that gives the dismounted soldier visual confirmation of where friendly units are moving on the phone’s screen. Stiner has also placed Motorola Xoom tablets connected to Manpack radios in vehicles, and has distributed a variety of smaller phones and tablets to soldiers in the field. While fully supporting the use of smart phones in the exercise, 2nd Brigade commander Col. Daniel Pinnell admitted that at the start of operations, so many soldiers were sending information back and forth on their phones that the network was bottlenecked, which slowed down both comms as well as operations. His fix was to limit the use of smart phones to certain soldiers, and only in certain situations. Another issue that arose was keeping the phones powered up in such an austere environment. Soldiers were forced to figure out ways to get 120-volt power off of their vehicles to keep the phones charged. All of this is probably to be expected, however, since this is the Army’s first large test of smart phones in an operational environment, and while the service is cranking out the apps for the smart phones of its future, a ruggedized, encrypted smart phone in the pocket of every soldier is probably still some ways off.