The Now and Next of NIE
The U.S. Army is finalizing its official report on the Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) 13.1 even as it prepares for the next iteration of the event and Capability Set 14. Soldiers are tweaking processes to make the exercises more valuable while working closer with industry to speed fielding as much as possible under tight acquisition regulations.
Col. Rob Carpenter, USA, director of the Army's System of Systems Integration Directorate, explains that as a result of 13.1, the Army is refining the technologies for Capability Set 13 and introducing to the next NIE the tools that will comprise Capability Set 14. Key among those is the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T). Col. Carpenter says it performed exceptionally well in the last evaluation. In the next one, it will undergo its Follow-on Operational Test and Evaluation, after which it can enter full-rate production. Another attention-grabbing technology was a mid-tier radio that performed well. Participants tested that technology to see how it worked with the Army's architecture in a satellite-denied environment.
Moving forward, soldiers will continue to focus on stressing systems, especially in terms of ensuring radios operate during unit task reorganizations. In ad hoc reorganization situations, guaranteeing information exchange becomes especially difficult, yet the Army faces such scenarios regularly. “The NIE gives us an opportunity to see what tools and capabilities we need to continue to mature in our networks and our communications to do that,” Col. Carpenter says. Also evolving is the Armyʼs common operating environment, which aims to eliminate the long-standing problem of different parties showing up with different boxes to run their software. “Talk about boxology,” the colonel states. In the recent NIE, soldiers used the common operating environment to see the battlefield common operating picture with intelligence products simultaneously overlaid. “That was actually successful and gave us insight into how far we can go,” Col. Carpenter explains. The common operating environment brought in information from the Command Post of the Future and the Distributed Common Ground System-Army.
In addition to technology, NIE 13.1 highlighted process improvements. “In 13.1, we learned how important lab-based risk reduction is,” Col. Carpenter says. Through these pre-field tests, experts can help determine how many nodes a technology will run through and reduce risk to the overarching network. Soldiers also are discovering more about the costs and amount of support necessary to successfully support the events.
Going into NIE 13.2, top priorities include vehicle configurations and how to manage trouble tickets better. But the heart of the event will be the WIN-T evaluation. Col. Carpenter explains that once that network is fully in place, subsequent NIEs will be better because of the solid network backbone. “Once we eliminate WIN-T as a variable, we can bring in other variables and judge how they are against the network,” he says.
During the next NIE, soldiers will continue to refine mission command-on-the-move, operating over a larger geographical area. Efforts also will look into operating at the battalion and brigade level instead of the company one. As 14.1 and 14.2 get underway, the Army plans to bring in more joint and coalition technologies.
Regardless of the resources the Army dedicates to the NIE, the approach is not without its detractors. (Read Army Technology Acquisition Stumbles Despite Best Efforts). However, Col. Carpenter is an acquisitions officer, and he says people have to remember that process time is relevant. “Do not ever use the terms ʻagileʼ and ʻacquisitionʼ in the same sentence without a lot of punctuation between,” he states. The colonel explains the NIE is moving technology into the field faster by bringing together the requirements and test communities. NIE has been in place for approximately two years, which, according to Col. Carpenter, is an extremely short time to acquire any items or for the Army to adopt a change in procurement processes. “We are beginning to turn this big ship,” he says. Some technologies evaluated already are in the hands of program managers, such as a screen commanders can draw on John Madden-style that shows a common operating picture.
But working within Army boundaries is only part of the battle. “I think we're getting better at talking to industry,” Col. Carpenter states. “I hear often that industry is losing its patience.” He continues by saying he looks at the situation realistically in terms of how long the NIE has existed and what has changed in procurements. Industry realizes the acquisition process is cumbersome, he adds. What NIE officials try to do is converse more with the private sector and include its members in the process from the early stages, offering a constant feedback loop. Through the expansion of the lab-based risk reduction approach, Col. Carpenter believes this dialogue will open up even more with discussion occurring constantly instead of every few months.