VP, Government Business Development, Harris RF Communications, and retired Army MG/former Joint Staff J6 ()
In early spring, the U.S. Army will be kicking off its seventh Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) in the deserts and mountain ranges of Fort Bliss, Texas and White Sands, N.M. These NIE exercises, involving thousands of soldiers operating the Army’s newest version of the tactical network, have repeatedly proven their value in the Army’s ongoing modernization of its tactical communication systems.
Despite recent budget cuts, I see NIEs playing an even more central role as the Army continues to mature and extend the tactical network across the Brigade Combat Team. No less an authority than Dr. Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s chief testing officer, agrees: In his recent report to Congress, Dr. Gilmore described the Army’s objective for the NIE as “sound” and provided valuable suggestions for improvements.
In a nutshell, for industry, the NIE is all about the opportunity to receive constructive feedback from real soldiers that allows for continuous improvement of products that make up the tactical network. This real-team feedback allows industry to evolve the number and types of capabilities available to the warfighter, without demanding a significant investment of research and development funds.
Harris has experienced this first-hand, having participated in all six NIEs to date (and with plans to demonstrate our capabilities in the next two as well.) The NIE process previously allowed us to develop new waveform capabilities that allow for the formation of larger tactical networks. Most recently, our AN/PRC-117G manpack radio was put through an official operational test and evaluation during NIE 14.1. We’re already hard at work developing improvements based on the preliminary outcome of the evaluation.
This type of feedback pays off not just with better products, but through a more sophisticated understanding of the challenges of wideband tactical networking. Alongside the Army, we are learning that establishing and maintaining an integrated mobile ad-hoc network is far more difficult than deploying push-to-talk, line-of-sight radios.
Dr. Gilmore’s team highlighted this in its recent report, recommending that future NIEs “allow for a more comprehensive evaluation of an integrated mission command network, instead of piecemeal evaluations of individual network components.” The goal, he said, is to develop different types of scenarios designed to place “greater stress” on the tactical network and gain a more comprehensive understanding of what warfighters will face utilizing it in the field.
Without the NIE at its disposal, the Army gains feedback based only on real-life troop deployments. This is certainly valuable, and the Army does a great job in logging lessons learned. But it’s not the same as establishing a test-based environment in which soldiers and industry roll up their sleeves and work side-by-side to challenge assumptions and adapt both the technology and concepts of operation.
For Harris, the NIE is extremely beneficial in that it allows us to witness how a radio acts within the network and to change course based on the needs of the Army customer. The feedback that comes from NIE and operational tests is rich and real. At the NIE, soldiers and industry work in a collaborative environment where they can make mistakes, learn from them and return to future events with stronger, more reliable and more relevant capabilities.
We recognize that Congress and the Defense Department are working through a set of unique fiscal challenges. But at a time when business and acquisition models are changing rapidly, there is no short-cut to testing and evaluating products against a tried-and-true set of criteria. Congress should restore full funding for the NIE, because in the end, it will pay off with better and less expensive products.