As the U.S. Army continues to develop its “agile process” acquisition strategy as a way to define capability gaps and quickly evaluate mature technology solutions to fill them, all eyes have been fixed on the biannual Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) exercises at Fort Bliss, Texas, and White Sands Missile Range, N.M. The next exercise begins in May.
But the Army’s new way of doing business in some ways isn’t so new.
Brig. Gen. Wayne Grigsby, commander of the Mission Command Center of Excellence (Mc CoE) at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., said the NIE is in some ways an outgrowth of an existing Army program called Capability Development for Rapid Transition (CDRT), which takes promising technologies that had been quickly fielded to Iraq and Afghanistan and pulls them back into the Army’s institutionalized acquisition process.
According to the Army’s 2011 Posture Statement, the CDRT is designed to “significantly reduce the time needed to field selected systems or capabilities to the operational Army,” relying heavily on operational Army unit input as the basis for its recommendations.
The Army has learned many of the lessons of rapid fielding the hard way. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the service “has been very bad at just shoving things in units at the last minute or even in theater,” Grigsby said, adding that “sometimes we would get pieces of equipment where we wouldn’t understand the training piece, the leader development piece, the education piece … and it’s kind of up to [the unit] to figure out how to use it. Part of the agile process is to figure out how to do that before we put it in the unit.”
But the process of “latching onto good ideas and making it part of the Army’s systemic fielding” is what the Army wants to preserve, Grigsby said.
Speaking to reporters last month at the Army’s new testing center at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Md., where the service is evaluating communications gear before fielding it at the NIE, Col. John Morrison, director of LandWarNet Battle Command, said this has led to a “fundamental shift” in how the Army is looking to equip itself.
“Instead of buying like we would back in the old days where we would buy a product and we would try to field it to the entire Army, we’re now fielding against a snapshot in time,” he said.
After a decade of war, several iterations of the CDRT process and with two NIEs under its belt, the idea of rapid fielding to selected units “is part of the Army’s battle rhythm” Grigsby added. “And we are using the soldiers at Fort Bliss as our laboratory” to evaluate new technologies that might meet capability gaps seen in theater.
In another example of how seriously the Army is taking the NIE, the service is assigning more observer/controllers to the event this spring than before to observe how soldiers use Army programs of record and new technologies “to comment on the value of these different capabilities and give us feedback,” said Jeff Witsken, chief of the Network Integration Branch at the Mc CoE.
Grigsby added that these observer/controllers will be able to teach, train, coach and mentor the soldiers of the 2nd Brigade/1st Armored Division as they conduct their technology assessments. The Army is using essentially the same methodology at the NIE that it uses at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., in working with experienced observers.
Grigsby also said that the observers/controllers “will be down there looking at this unit as it goes through [the exercise] and looking at the training that it’s going through and we’ll be able to grab a bunch of lessons learned that will allow us to [inform] the agile process.”
The Army has also been talking about selecting some soldiers from the 2/1 to act as trainers to the eight Brigade Combat Teams that are scheduled to receive technology packages called Capability Sets in fiscal 2013. The Capability Sets are the primary focus of this year’s NIEs, and they include the Warfighter Information network-Tactical, the Harris 117G radio, the Company Command Post and the next generation Blue Force Tracking.