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U.S. Army Swallows System of Systems Medicine

July 11, 2011
By George I. Seffers, SIGNAL Online Exclusive
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The six-week Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) exercise that wraps up this week at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, marks the first time the U.S. Army has tested and evaluated technologies as a networked, integrated system of systems, according to service officials. The process is proving uncomfortable but necessary for deploying truly integrated technologies to the battlefield.

Rather than developing, procuring and fielding stand-alone, monolithic systems that must be integrated on the battlefield, the Army’s Operational Test Command is looking at 35 systems as a whole. That process means that each system must be tweaked so that it more effectively works with all other systems. Compromises must be made. And in almost every case, each individual program might be denied some bells and whistles but will work more effectively in a system of systems on the battlefield.

“Each of those systems may not get what they would like to get if they were in isolation,” says Col. John Wendel, deputy program executive officer for network integration, Army Program Executive Office for Integration. “They’re going to get a suboptimal solution in almost every single case, but I guarantee you the soldier in theater is going to get the most optimized mix of those systems. Instead of having forward-deployed units figuring it out where lives are being risked and sacrifices are being made for this country, we can do it here, and we can come up with the best suboptimal systems solution but the optimal system-of-systems approach.”

Testing programs as an integrated whole, however, has its downside. “Integration is uncomfortable. It causes turbulence to the status quo. It’s painful. And in a lot of cases, it’s risky because you’re taking a lot of stakeholders out of their comfort zones. But the payoff can be tremendous, and that’s why we take those risks,” Col. Wendel emphasizes.

Col. Wendel adds that the NIE process may influence the entire acquisition process from writing systems requirements to actual purchasing. It may also lead to a new pattern for purchasing technology, in which the service buys fewer systems but makes purchases more frequently, shortening the acquisition process so that systems are not so obsolete by the time they are fielded. “We have really laid in some very good groundwork that’s going to support Army modernization. It’s going to cause us to rethink how we manage requirements; it’s going to make us rethink the Defense Department acquisition process and how we do acquisition in the Army, and all in a very positive sense,” he says. “We’re trying to establish a footing where we buy less, more frequently.” 

Army officials say NIE is the largest test in the history of the Operational Test Command in terms of the number of systems and the number of supporting personnel. It includes more than 4,000 personnel and 330 frequencies with units operating on a range that covers more than 3,000 square miles. The intent is to test and evaluate developed and emerging technologies with some systems potentially being fielded as early as 2013. It is described as the beginning of a “crawl, walk, run” approach to testing and deploying communications systems and is the first in a series of four exercises to be conducted before the end of 2012. The next will be in October followed by another in March and a culminating exercise late next year.

The current exercise includes six mature systems undergoing formal testing before potential fielding in 2013 and 2014, as well as 29 developmental and emerging technologies undergoing a less formal evaluation. Developmental technologies are considered a little more mature than emerging systems.

The six systems in the formal test phase are: the Network Integration Kit, the Joint Tactical Radio System Handheld/Manpack system; the Mounted Soldier System; the Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below Joint Capabilities Requirement software; the Spider remotely controlled anti-personnel munition; and the Ground Mobile Radio. (Download a PowerPoint description of the systems here.)

The less formal evaluations include such systems as Company Command Post, Puma Unmanned Aircraft System, Rifleman Radio and Command Post Platform. (Download a PowerPoint presentation on all 29 systems here.)

Among other goals, the Army aims to improve communications-on-the-move, especially for company commanders and lower-level leaders, in part because leaders in Afghanistan complain they are unable to communicate in tough terrain without stopping in dangerously open areas, making themselves vulnerable to attack. The service also hopes to extend the network down to the lowest levels to include dismounted squads.