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Special Report: Networking and Communications

Tight Budgets May Squeeze U.S. Army’s Signature Comm Exercises

Mar. 27, 2013 - 08:20AM   |  
By PAUL McLEARY   |   Comments
The Nett Warrior system provides coordinates to soldiers at Network Integration Evaluation 13.1. The vital exercises that have been shaping decisions about future communication systems might be squeezed by tighter budgets.
The Nett Warrior system provides coordinates to soldiers at Network Integration Evaluation 13.1. The vital exercises that have been shaping decisions about future communication systems might be squeezed by tighter budgets. (U.S. Army)
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WASHINGTON — As the U.S. armed services massage their budgets to accommodate the impact of sequestration, not even the Army’s well-received network testing exercises will go unscathed.

The network integration evaluation (NIE), the Army’s much-lauded, twice-yearly exercise at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., which puts communications technologies to the test, could be downsized, limiting participation by vehicles and systems, an Army source said.

In addition, the Army would be forced to reduce contract support for integration, field service representatives and data collectors, slashing the actual operational test scenarios conducted by soldiers. Industry participation therefore could be reduced, and fewer systems would be evaluated.

On the brighter side of things, Congress has passed a continuing resolution that funds the government for the rest of this fiscal year and allows the Defense Department to transfer money between accounts. Without that authority, the Army would have been “unable to commence competition and production of 223 Mid-Tier Networking Vehicular Radios (MNVR), which are key to the strategy to provide networked communications to platforms in combat operations,” according to written testimony submitted by the Army’s chief weapon buyer, Heidi Shyu, and Lt. Gen. James Barclay, deputy chief of staff of the Army, G-8, to Congress on Feb. 28.

The MNVR program has already seen some schedule slippages and will not be involved in NIE 13.2 in May because the effort is still in source selection by the program manager.

The Army has received positive feedback on its NIE program from Congress and the Government Accountability Office — a rare occurrence for an Army acquisition program — and the service’s senior leadership has long identified it as a top priority. The exercise has led to some buying decisions, mostly for a variety of non-program-of-record systems for rapid fielding to Afghanistan, including Harris’ 117G radios, and smaller items, such as antennas.

The threat to the NIE comes just as the Army is putting the final touches on fielding its WIN-T battlefield network to a combat zone for the first time after years of testing at White Sands, and having survived the $20 billion bloodbath that was the service’s now-scuttled Future Combat Systems modernization project.

The 3rd and 4th brigades of the 10th Mountain Division have trained up on Capability Set 13, which includes WIN-T along with its radios and other mission command-enabling technologies and will head to Afghanistan this year. The Army is already at work on an upgraded Capability Set 14.

The goal is to allow dismounted soldiers to transmit voice and chat communications, along with situational awareness data, throughout the brigade.

While the Army is looking for money to continue the NIE, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will host an industry day April 1 in Arlington, Va., to discuss with interested industry partners its latest brainstorm: the Wireless Network Defense project. The idea is to protect deployed wireless networks against attack or degradation of service due to malfunctioning nodes.

“Current security efforts focus on individual radios or nodes, rather than the network, so a single misconfigured or compromised radio could debilitate the entire network,” DARPA’s program manager for the project, Wayne Phoel, said in a March 18 statement.

DARPA has specified that the project isn’t an attempt to construct a new waveform or kick-start yet another radio program but to develop a system that would be agnostic across any current or future wireless network. Phoel added that because any network can have compromised nodes, any network-based solution would have to be able to work around those bad spots without compromising the entire network.

The way to do that is build a program able to recognize a corrupted network node while automatically searching neighboring nodes for a better option through which to safely route information.

DARPA hopes commercial markets can provide some guidance to help control costs and react more quickly to technology changes.

Phoel used the example of credit card companies that have methods for determining if someone is using a stolen credit card.

“Unexpected purchase locations, amounts and other factors could raise an alert,” he said. And just as websites used for buying and selling personal goods use seller ratings, “similar concepts of reliability estimation and control methods could be applied to wireless military networks by calling out specific areas of the network that may have untrustworthy nodes.”

The DARPA program is kicking off at an opportune time, as the Army is looking for ways to make its deployed networks more robust in austere environments.

“We have been spoiled by command-and-control networks that have been established for a decade,” one officer said March 19 at an Army leadership seminar in Washington. The Army has to get back to knowing how to operate in an austere environment with ad hoc communications networks, the group of senior service leaders agreed.

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