Integrated Team: Soldiers integrate Nett Warrior into their training during the Network Integration Evaluation 13.1 at Dona Ana Range, N.M. Budget cuts may slow the network exercises. (US Army)
WASHINGTON — Despite some changes, one of the most celebrated innovations in soldier communication and situational awareness to hit the battlefield over the past 12 years of war is working just fine in Afghanistan, US Army leaders insist.
But leaders are concerned about the availability of funding to upgrade the network next year.
At the moment, Capability Set 13 — a suite of radios, smartphones and vehicle-mounted data terminals linked by a robust on-the-move network — is working well with elements of the 4th Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, which is tasked with training and advising the Afghan Army.
While the systems had been tested for several years in brigade-sized exercises at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., the 4/10 deployed with about half its combat strength as it focuses more on advising than war fighting.
They’re also one of the last units to deploy, as US troops prepare to pull out by the end of 2014.
So while the size and scope of the mission is much different from what the capability sets were tested for, commanders say the technology is just as useful in a smaller environment.
As US forces leave — there are still about 50,000 soldiers deployed to Afghanistan, which will drop to about 33,000 by the spring — the capability sets “are also enabling our retrograde operations so that we don’t have to leave that infrastructure in place. We can take it down” while still giving the 4/10 full situational awareness, said Col. Mark Elliott, director of the Army’s LandWarNet/Mission Command Directorate.
“The mission that we had planned for Capability Set 13 was a brigade mission,” Brig. Gen. Dan Hughes, program executive officer for Command, Control and Communications-Tactical (PEO C3T), told Defense News. But since that mission no longer exists in Afghanistan, the brigade commander uses the assets a bit differently.
For instance, vehicles equipped with gear to allow them to function as mobile tactical operations centers are called points of presence. Col. Mario Diaz, the 4th Brigade Combat Team’s (BCT’s) commander, used his point of presence “more than he is using the lower pieces of [the network], because he needed to go deeper through some valleys” where communications were only possible through satellites, Hughes said. “He didn’t put in the pieces that we thought. He uses the point of presence and got enough bandwidth out of that to do his mission.”
The network and its components were tested for the past several years at White Sands during the semiannual network integration evaluation (NIE) event. Hughes and Lt. Gen. Keith Walker, head of the Army Capability Integration Center, both insisted that, while the coming budget crunch will force some changes to the NIE, the event won’t suffer any major effects from sequestration, despite having been pushed back a week due to the recent government shutdown.
Over the past decade, Iraq and Afghanistan have acted as a sort of “laboratory” for rapid innovation, Walker said. But now that US troops are heading for the exits in Afghanistan, “we want NIE to be that laboratory.”
With tighter budgets and force reductions that will bring the Army well below 500,000 soldiers over the next several years, keeping operations at the NIE at their current level will prove difficult, though service officials would not provide any details.
“The NIEs might have less in them, but they’re going to be a heck of a lot more focused; ... we’ve gotten dramatically smarter on how to pick out” what technologies and capabilities to include, Hughes said.
Walker pushed back against the idea that the NIE could move from being a biannual event to only annual.
“You could do once a year — you could — but if you do once a year, you have to try and do more things” all at once, which would make it harder to learn lessons.
Overall, the requirements for what the Army needs don’t change, he continued. “What we can afford may change” in the coming years.
Walker insists that since the Army will need to continue to develop, test and evaluate new technologies, spending money on the NIE is well worth the investment.
“You’re going to test new capabilities anyway as part of programs, so you can either test them independently” at different labs and test areas around the country, “or what if you bring them together in one place, reduce the overhead and do one integrated evaluation.”
While the Army tries to work through funding issues and decide how many NIEs to have and how to structure them, there are already developmental efforts being put on hold.
The status of the next version of the WIN-T tactical network that the 4th BCT is using in Afghanistan is still up in the air, for example.
“We have valid requirement” for the upgraded network known as “WIN-T Increment 3,” Hughes said, but the money might not be there.
“Within the next six months to a year, we’ll know where we’re going with Increment 3, but right now we’re just trying to figure out what we can afford.”