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New Lab Supports U.S. Army's Agile Acquisition

July 5, 2012
By George I. Seffers, SIGNAL Online Exclusive
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Systems and technologies undergoing scrutiny at the U.S. Army’s next Network Integration Evaluation this fall will first have to pass muster in the service’s newly opened laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. The new lab facility is expected to reduce the risk associated with some new technologies and systems. It also is designed to save time, money and integration headaches during future evaluation exercises.

The Army officially opened the Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) Systems Integration Laboratory (CSIL) last week. It will serve as the site for all lab-based risk reduction for systems prior to future Network Integration Evaluations (NIEs), major exercises designed to demonstrate and test technologies for potential purchase through the Army’s agile acquisition process. “The big event is NIE 13.1. We’re gearing up for that,” says Scott Newman, program director, systems engineering and integration for the Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) Space and Terrestrial Communications Directorate. “We’re getting all of the NIE 13.1 systems into the lab now, and we’ve already found configuration issues with systems.” He adds that where problems have been found, the laboratory personnel have asked the program offices to make changes and have then brought the equipment back into the lab to prove it can interoperate with other systems.

In one case, Newman says, the lab saved program personnel some time by confirming a suspected but unproven problem. “They assumed that there was a problem but they couldn’t confirm it. We confirmed it in the lab, and they said we saved them about three weeks of work,” Newman says. 

The CSIL is expected to reduce risk by integrating new technologies in a controlled environment, allowing problems to be fixed before systems shows up at the NIE. The lab also is expected to save time and money in a number of ways. “At the 11.2 NIE, we saw that there was a lot of time spent figuring out how to build a network and fixing problems,” Newman explains. Additionally, subject matter experts were required to go on travel for months at a time to build the NIE network, troubleshoot issues and support the exercise. “We saw a need to build a lab where we can do this and keep the talent here, validate everything in the lab and reduce time out at White Sands. We’re going to save time, and we’re going to save money,” Newman says. 

Systems being integrated in the CSIL before being evaluated this fall include such things as dismounted and vehicular-mounted tactical radios, battle command applications, intelligence systems and handheld applications similar to the Army’s Nett Warrior. “We have Nett Warrior in the lab, but we also have vendors who have proposed alternatives,” Newman says.  

The CSIL also is networked with other laboratories and organizations, allowing it serve a second function. “You can call the CSIL a lab, but it’s also a hub, because we’re reaching out and connecting to all of these different organizations. If we don’t have something in the CSIL, we have the ability to connect to it,” Newman says. “I see the CSIL as not just a CERDEC lab but a community lab. We’re bringing in different organizations.”

The facility also will be connected to the NIE exercise, allowing CSIL personnel to help resolve issues from afar. “While the NIE event is going on, because we have a connection to White Sands, we’ll get real-time data from the field. If there’s a problem that occurs out there, we can replicate the problem in the lab, debug it and provide a fix out to NIE,” Newman states. 

Aberdeen Proving Ground personnel have offered similar support to the most recent NIE 12.2 through a smaller laboratory known as the Radio Evaluation and Analysis Lab (REAL). The CSIL, however, offers greater capabilities. “The purpose of the REAL was just to test radios. They had a capability to test a network of about 128 radios. We can support more than 500 radios of all different types and all different frequencies,” Newman reveals.

The CSIL boasts more than 100 terabytes of data storage, and can run up to 800 virtual servers.

In addition, personnel can replicate some conditions that equipment will encounter during NIE exercises. “We have the ability to make radios and other systems think they are moving around while in the lab. We can replicate terrain, foliage and movement. And the radios respond, creating different types of network topologies,” Newman says. “We go through this, and if changes need to be made on systems, they get made so that we can get a successful NIE event. The whole goal is to reduce risk for the NIE.”