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Afghan Mission May Change U.S. Army Modernization Plans

Apr. 30, 2012 - 08:45AM   |  
By PAUL McLEARY   |   Comments
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FORT BLISS, Texas — The planned U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan and shift away from counterinsurgency operations to the training of Afghan forces may influence which Army brigade combat teams (BCTs) are equipped with specialized networking and communications gear, service officials said.

Army leaders are meeting in early May to discuss which brigades will receive the much-touted equipment sets — dubbed Capability Sets — scheduled to be shipped to Afghanistan-bound brigades this fall. Up to eight BCTs may receive the Capability Sets, with five likely to receive them in fiscal 2013 and three in fiscal 2014.

Early indications are that two brigades from the 10th Mountain Division will be the first to receive the equipment, but that is subject to change as the future mission in Afghanistan is clarified, according to a briefing provided by Army modernization leaders here April 26.

The sets, which consist of hand-held and vehicle-mounted radios connected to brigade-and-above classified networks and tied together by the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, are capable of transmitting voice and data while moving about the battlefield, pushing information from the squad up to higher headquarters.

The Capability Sets have been the focus of Army soldier modernization efforts for the past two years. They have driven the Army’s Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) exercises at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., and here, where the service puts relatively mature communications technologies into the hands of the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Armored Division for weeks-long operational tests.

But if the mission in Afghanistan changes drastically, officials said, the Capability Set would have to be tailored to reflect that.

These changes come as the service kicks off on May 8 its largest and most ambitious NIE, in which the 3,800 soldiers of the 2/1’s three maneuver battalions will conduct a brigade-sized attack against a series of complex objectives, all while evaluating new radios, networking equipment and other communications gear.

Col. Robert Menti, Brigade Modernization Command’s training evaluation division chief, said the exercise is structured to identify “usable, adaptable, relevant, effective equipment in a cost-effective manner.”

Conducting two NIEs a year, one in the spring and one in the fall, means “the NIE is happening all the time,” Menti added. “When we transition out of [the current NIE], we have to roll right into vehicle installation and de-installation” for the autumn event.

The day after the NIE (dubbed 12.2) gets underway, the Brigade Modernization Command leadership is scheduled to decide which technologies to include in this fall’s 13.1 exercise. At the same time, the command is beginning to plan and conduct industry outreach to identify which capability gaps it wants to fill for 13.2 next spring.

“Is it a question of schedule?” Menti said. “Absolutely. But without the ... NIE, all of the disparate [acquisition] communities can get very blurry, if you will, on their own agendas and priorities. The NIE is a forcing function for folks to come to the table and demonstrate capability.”

The tight schedules demand that after-action evaluations are completed quickly so industry can learn how their products fared, changes can be made in planning for future events, and new capability gaps are rapidly identified.

To accelerate the process, the Army is assigning teams to the battalions led by “trail bosses,” who can talk to small-unit leaders and their soldiers about technical problems while logging them into a central database. The teams are made up mostly of engineers and logisticians who have been trained in the same equipment as the soldiers.

Speaking in front of a row of armored vehicles owned by the 1/1 Calvary at the White Sands range, Lt. Col. Erik Webb, a program manager with the System of Systems Integration Directorate, called the trail bosses “a conduit between unit leadership and programs of record.”

He said the bosses and their teams reach down to companies and platoons on a daily basis to listen to problems and solve as many as possible. The bosses then meet each day to compare notes and see if any malfunctions appear to be systemic across the battalions.

Col. Gail Washington, who oversees efforts to integrate electronics on the vehicles used at NIE, said the quick feedback “gives the trail boss the ability to prioritize which vehicles get touched first, which we didn’t do last time.”

There are also labs at White Sands and Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., that are tasked with providing support to the technical teams.

Brigade Modernization Command’s deputy director, Col. Dave Miller, said “this quick feedback is essential. We’ve got report timelines to meet that are shorter than they have been in the past,” with the Capability Set report due 30 days after the end of the NIE in early June.

“One [thing] we’re hearing from industry is that they need that feedback faster, so they can adjust their strategy to what we need,” said Paul Mehney, an Army spokesman.

As the pace of planning and executing the NIE picks up, it grows more complex. The first event in the spring of 2011 was focused on platoon and company command, Miller said, and 12.1 “was company operation under battalion control. This is now a battalion operation under brigade control, with the 101st Airborne Division controlling the fight” remotely from Fort Campbell, Ky.

All of this comes at a cost. The NIE funding request is $214 million for fiscal 2013, down from $260 million in 2012. Putting the 2/1 in the field costs about $60 million to $65 million per event, officials said.

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