WASHINGTON — The Army is rethinking how it will conduct Network Integration Evaluations (NIE) in the future as it reduces in size and works with a smaller budget top line, according to the military deputy to the Army's acquisition chief.

NIEs have been conducted twice a year at Fort Bliss, Texas, since 2011, in order to test the Army's network.

"We were building a bunch of network capabilities," Williamson told Defense News in a recent interview at the Pentagon. "We were sending stuff to deployed units because they needed capabilities, and in some cases we were sending the materiel solution without understanding the impact on organization, training, all those other things."

Army leadership designed the NIE to have a dedicated unit assigned to the evaluation exercises where materiel solutions, tactics, techniques and procedures could be tested.

NIE's aren't going away but major changes are afoot from reducing NIEs to one per year and instead conducting an annual Army Warfighting Assessment (AWA) in lieu of a second NIE, Williamson said.

The Army Warfighting Assessments, also at Fort Bliss, are relatively new to the Army. They began under the final year of then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno, and are meant to examine experimental and prototyping efforts to address complex environments in the future. The Army identified 20 war fighting challenges such as how to conduct space and cyber operations into tactical formations and how to integrate manned-unmanned capabilities.

Williamson said the Army is committed to conducting one NIE and one AWA per year, adjusting its scope as needed to address a wide variety of things.

Additionally, the Army has found it's not going to be able to dedicate the 1st Armored Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team as its full-time NIE unit because "there is so much demand on the limited assets that we have," Williamson said.

"Obviously, as we've gone through 11 NIEs, and we've seen the benefit, but what's changed is that we've downsized the Army and so when you look at all the requirements, all the commitments," Williamson said, "I am not sure we can commit this unit to the NIE/AWA."

Maj. Gen. Walter Piatt, director of operations, readiness and mobilization in the Army's operations directorate, said in February that the Army was looking at how to get the 1st AD 2nd BCT back into the deployment mix, especially as the Army looks to send armored brigade combat teams in back-to-back rotations in Europe in order to deter Russian aggression.

The Army would then fill the demand at NIE on a rotational basis, Piatt added.

Williamson said it's still possible the unit would support various missions associated with supporting a test event or experimentation.

Instead of having a permanent unit, the Army would likely task other units "and that is not necessarily a bad thing," Williamson said. This opens up the possibility of bringing in a Stryker unit, a light infantry brigade combat team or an engineering or support unit to the evaluations.

And the Army is looking to design the NIEs and AWAs to look deeper into the future, Williamson said. "What used to be focused on was testing alone," and most of those tests were focused on programs of record, he added.

The Army still has a requirement to test and support those programs, but "we are also an Army that is trying to shape ourselves for the change in environment," Williamson said.

While NIEs will still be focused more on testing programs of record, the AWAs will be an opportunity for experimentation and prototyping, which aligns with the Army's acquisition reform goals to do more early experimentation. The idea is to fail early and fail small in order to avoid failing big when it's too late in the game.

NIEs and AWAs aren't going to be just about materiel solutions either, Williamson stressed. "In some case you might be doing organizational structure, so what does a platoon look like with six vehicles instead of four? How do I command and control an extended formation? Those are the types of things that we will start to look at."

And the evaluations and assessments will also look to open the aperture by involving joint and coalition forces. "Now we fight coalition, we fight joint, so how do we now invite our allies and our joint partners to participate?" Williamson said.

Williamson also sees an opportunity to alleviate some cost pressures associated with the NIE by hosting an AWA instead of a second round NIE.

"Two formal test events a year, that was actually pretty expensive," he said. But the cost will ultimately depend on scale and scope, he noted.

Twitter: @JenJudson