WASHINGTON — Key components of the U.S. Army’s modernized tactical network approach received poor marks from the Pentagon’s weapon tester in its annual report, alleging the service must overcome several challenges to demonstrate operational effectiveness, suitability and survivability.

The fiscal 2021 annual report, released by the Office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation, identified issues with the way the Army tested its integrated tactical network before fielding it to units in FY21.

The integrated tactical network is an effort to modernize the Army’s battlefield network using a combination of program-of-record systems and commercial off-the-shelf tools. Under that concept, the Army has constructed what it calls capability sets, meaning incremental builds and deliveries of capability to units on two-year cycles to create a baseline of technology and insert advancement as they arrive. Capability Set ‘21 was focused on infantry brigades, ‘23 on Stryker vehicle formations and ‘25 will focus on armored units.

DOT&E noted the Army initially planned a series of test events for operational demonstration to support rapid fielding of equipment to units for Capability Set ‘21. However, real world events, such as deployments of test units, prevented the service from conducting a January 2020 event, the report noted. The Army instead held a capstone event in March 2021, but that event did not include a DOT&E-approved test plan.

As a result, the event did not provide adequate data to evaluate the use of the integrated tactical network, or ITN, at the battalion or brigade level.

Furthermore, DOT&E asserted several key pieces of equipment were not used in the exercise, precluding an assessment of their utility, nor did it collect data to make up for the canceled events.

“[B]attalions could not extend the Tactical Scalable Mobile ad-hoc network to the companies and brigade. This highlights the complexity of the ITN, as the Tactical Scalable Mobile network is not intended to extend from battalion to brigade. The ITN-equipped unit was not able to maintain the ITN equipment due to their lack of training and experience,” the report said.

DOT&E also dinged the Army’s hand-held manpack and small-form fit programs, which include leader radio and manpack. These technologies are key for the Army’s modernized network that’s to provide units in the field with multiple paths of communication in case an adversary tries to deny that capability. A full-rate production decision for the systems was approved by the Army in August 2021.

“Light infantry companies equipped with the Leader Radio and Manpack are not operationally effective when operating the voice and data network in dense vegetation, the primary area of operations,” DOT&E said. “The system of systems that comprise the tactical network are not operationally suitable due to the increased logistics burden levied on the unit.”

The Army recognizes that operational deployments as well as COVID-19 prevented a full operational readiness assessment for Capability Set ‘21 ahead of a fielding decision, but noted a series of test events and assessments were still used to make the decision.

“These assessments conducted by elements of the 82nd Airborne Division and later the 25th Infantry Division showed ITN capability performed well and added enhanced communications for maneuver formations, but, as DOT&E pointed out in their annual report, some capabilities required enhancements, such as network management, power plans, training and equipment cabling,” said Paul Mehney, director of public communications for Program Executive Office Command, Control, Communications-Tactical.

“Based on operational feedback from CS 21 ITN fielding, adjustments have been made to equipment basis of issue, new equipment training plans, power management tools, network management tools, the HMS Manpack and leader radio, and system of systems familiarization.”

DOT&E also asserted that an adversarial assessment of the ITN in a contested electromagnetic spectrum environment was not conducted, but acknowledged the Army is developing a test and evaluation strategy to address that. Moreover, the leader radio is vulnerable in a cyber-contested environment, while the Manpack is survivable against some cyberthreats, the report stated.

However, it added, both are vulnerable in an electromagnetic spectrum-contested environment.

For Capability Set ‘23, Mehney said the Army is working with Army Test and Evaluation Command as well as DOT&E to codify a test strategy. The set’s new ITN components will be assessed through a combination of instrumented lab events, technical tests, soldier touchpoints, and cyber and electromagnetic activities to inform fielding decisions.

Officials previously stated that based upon DOT&E feedback, the program office has matured the way it conducts threat-based testing and analysis in a cyber and electromagnetic spectrum environment. This will be part of Capability Set ‘23′s implementation plan that will continue to mature through future capability sets.

Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.