In July the U.S. Army was nearing the end of its two-week annual Network Integration Evaluation at Fort Bliss, Texas, where it tested out capabilities to determine how to continue to shape the network in the context of real battlefield operations.

The service designed the network to function in battlefields like Iraq and Afghanistan, but the U.S. Army is envisioning a major shift in how it will fight going forward, operating more dispersed across multiple domains against peer adversaries. This will require a major shift in how the network is designed and what it will need to be capable of doing.

Defense News sat down with Gen. David Perkins one-on-one to talk about the future of the network and how a changing Network Integration Evaluation, or NIE, is shaping it at Fort Bliss on July 26.

Why should the U.S. Army continue holding Network Integration Evaluations?

The NIE does a lot of things for us. Probably one of the most important thing is it lets us take new capability that we are taking a look at, materiel solutions combined with some operational ideas, and put them actually in the hands of soldiers. So it’s one thing to kind of have it in a laboratory or on a design platform taking a look at it, but when you actually put it in soldiers’ hands, and you subject it through the rigors of a training environment, the dust, the heat, uneven terrain and all of that, you really do start to get clarity into some things that maybe aren’t obvious when it was on the drawing board, for one.

Two, what we find when we actually put things in the hands of soldiers, and you can put it in a unit, is that they can tell you whether it’s supposed to do what it’s supposed to do or not. They also invariably, every time I’m here, they find new ways to use it that wasn’t necessarily designed that way for, but, “Hey, if you push this button and pull this lever and do this, we’ve actually found it can do this, too.“ So it actually solves more than one problem, and so that is the good news.

And then third, it’s one thing to have a piece of gear, technology by itself, to see what it can do, but what we find out, though, is that we need to integrate it. Hence the integration piece of it that, when you put it all together, do they work all together? Do they talk to each other? Does one interfere with another? And so that is another big aspect of it, especially in the Army, because we don’t fight individual soldiers; we don’t fight individual things; we fight units, and in units, all this stuff has to come together. It’s got to work with each other and also has to not conflict with something else, especially when you are talking about bandwidth and things like that, and it’s just almost impossible to do all those things until you actually put them into a real-life Army unit.

Why separate out the Network Integration Evaluation from the newer Joint Warfighting Assessments?

The NIE, when we the Army, joint forces, are looking toward procuring equipment, there are statutory and regulatory requirements for testing that it has to go through, so we have to test to make sure it’s delivering on its technical performance parameters. To meet all the regulatory requirements of the test, you have to be able to isolate variables. So in other words, this box I want to buy isn’t working well, is it because the box doesn’t work or is it because the person using it isn’t trained? … Or are you trying to use it for something it’s not designed for? So there is a level of purity in testing because you’ve got to isolate variables.

So with [Joint Warfighting Assessments], what we want to do is we want to try new concepts. We are going to be doing it in Europe and bringing in coalition partners and all that. That is very difficult to have the sanctity of a test while you are experimenting with all those other things, so we want to be able to do that, but we also have to be able to test, so we have to have a little bit of separation between those two. Some things we can do together but some things we can’t.

In terms of having a new unit rotate in to participate in NIEs every time, does that screw with the variables of a test environment?

It’s different variables, and so we are taking a look at that, and that is one of the things that [Fort Bliss Joint Modernization Command Brig. Gen. Joel] Tyler and others are going to come back to me on, will come back to the chief of staff of the Army, [Gen. Mark Milley]. So just looking at today, the plus of bringing in new units, for instance, it is a light unit. It used to be a heavy unit, so you have a different requirement; you have different people looking at it. Again, you have people that look at it from a different point of view; you get different insights, so that is good, as well.

Some of the challenges may be that you’ve lost some of the continuity, understanding and learning, and so we don’t want to reinvent the wheel too often. There is significant upfront training and overhead that is associated with it. People can’t just come here cold, so if you are at Fort Bliss all the time, there is a certain amount of muscle memory that you don’t have to retrain all the time, as with a new unit you do, so we are trying to balance all of those and so there are very significant pluses and minuses, and so we may do a little bit of both. … There is goodness in both, and so we are just trying to see what is the balance.

What was the readiness level for the unit taking on the NIE?

[The 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division] just came out of Iraq doing that, but they didn’t have all the equipment, so we had to train them on all this equipment. So they bring a very recent operational experience, which is good.

Tell me more about moving away from having a designated unit assigned permanently to NIEs and how using a new unit provides different insight.

This is a light infantry unit, whereas, before we had a heavy unit, so there are some very distinct differences there. Obviously, with the heavy unit you have many more prime movers, more platforms, etc., so these soldiers are very concerned about weight, numbers of batteries, how hot things get because it directly affects them. Even though you had dismounts in a heavy unit, it wasn’t at the scale of it. So it definitely provides you a different focus: What is the impact for a large number of light dismounted infantry, who generally have less organic sustainment capability. They don’t have all the generators, They don’t have all the fuel. They don’t have all of those things. So if you are generating a requirement, it may be a little invisible to a heavy unit that has a lot of sustainment capability, carries a lot of fuel, has a lot of mechanics for the rest of the equipment, but to a force that doesn’t have a lot of it, that jumps out at you, what is the overhead of doing this?

The second thing is the tactics of our light units are different, and obviously, with the 101st, its air mobile exercises, you are going in, building up combat power. You are going into immature theaters, so can we echelon this equipment so when you are doing air mobile insertions, you are going in a helicopter at a time, which means you are probably much more into echeloning stuff versus you are not rolling a whole large force at once and so can you echelon that equipment?

Throughout our NIEs, we have continually tried to reduce the footprint, … so this is just another turn in that evolution now with the light infantry. Again, they are even more interested in that because they have even less capacity to move a big [tactical operations center], or TOC. So big TOCs are high overhead to begin with, but if you have a lot of organic sustainment capability, you may be able to deal with it. They are very focused on reducing the size of the TOC because they don’t have as many vehicles to move it they don’t have as much fuel to power it.

In terms of what you’ve seen today, are there examples of reducing footprints that you can share?

The size of the TOC, what they’ve decided, is if you have to move a lot, everybody doesn’t need their own space. You can take these three people, and you can put them together, and, oh by the way, sometimes that works well because they can collaborate. I was at one battalion, and they said OK, we had the operators and the planners, and they used to be in separate tents, which means they had separate generators and coolers and separate this and that and they said, “Whatever we do, everybody is going to be in one tent, so put everybody in there, who sits next to who,“ so that was a way to reduce the footprint, but also it increased the rate of collaboration there, so you are kind of getting a two-for out of it.

The Army chief has said he will release a new network strategy soon but from an [Army Training and Doctrine Command, or TRADOC,] perspective, what do you envision in a network of the future?

So really, the new network strategy, we are working with the chief of staff of the Army on it, and he will sort of announce it here fairly shortly. A lot of the strategy is the result of the observations at the NIE, and some of the observations you have seen yourself. One is we must be more mobile so the network has to have a lower footprint across the board and so you are seeing our command posts get smaller, it has to have a smaller footprint. So, you know, less wires, less technical field service reps, less overhead. The whole thing has got to have less of an overheard and less of a footprint.

We want the network, because of all the threats around the world — electronic warfare, cyber — all of that; it’s got to be very resilient. We know the enemy is going to try to take it down because it’s one of our combat enablers, so they know if they can disable the Americans’ ability to synchronize fire and maneuver and air support and all of that, that gives them an advantage. We know they are going to come after us, in fact, we do that out here. We have a red team that is constantly trying to take the network down and attack the network, so we have to have a very resilient network, basically so you can take a hit and keep on ticking. Terms they use is “self-repairing” [and] “self-healing.”

And we are also taking a look at, because we are always trying to manage bandwidth, because that determines power and the footprint as well, exactly who needs what information. Everybody doesn’t need everything. And I think, initially, we started looking at the network like everybody is going to get everything. Well now, that becomes very expensive, because you are pushing all of this data down to each individual soldier, and so I think we are becoming a little more sophisticated, as you know, maybe … sometimes that could be even worse, because now, you are cluttering up; you are sending data to folks that really don’t need it, and so that is another part of it. How are we more precise in the data that we deliver?

What particularly are you seeing emerging out at the NIE that could contribute to figuring out that network of the future?

So what we are seeing emerge is everyone has sort of come to this realization that we have to reduce our footprint. So everything from the technical aspect, to reducing the number of generators and have smart power and all that, to commanders themselves saying, “I can’t have these huge — one of the words we use is a TOC Mahal — so I can’t have that. I have to do business differently, so everything from our doctrine on how we do it to the technology that we use and all that, everyone is coming to grips with we’ve just gotten too big, and we can’t do that, and that’s actually one of the helpful aspects of putting soldiers in a very demanding environment with the technicians where they can say, “See, here’s the problem right here,” versus we are all in our separate worlds; and I write a report; and I give it to industry. ... I think that is what the NIE does really well. It helps us to define the problems quicker.

Where is the Army in looking at wireless capability? There are still a lot of wires laced throughout TOCs.

We are definitely looking at wireless capability. We are all familiar with it in our own lives with our TVs and cellphones and Bluetooth and everything like that, and so what we always do when we take a look at operational capability for the network and what we want to do [is] reduce. Then we also have to take a look at — we had the commander of the Cyber Center of Excellence here to make sure we don’t open up any vulnerabilities into our network. That is why we have the red team up here always trying to hack into us. So we’ve got to make sure we don’t solve one problem and create two more.

You also mentioned building resiliency. What could that look like in a future network?

One [option] is you create a density of the network, so if one node goes out, another one can pick it up so there is more than one path. … But also in the training of the soldiers, that they understand, “OK, this went down, you know what, I know a way to work around it.” There is an organizational capability of the network to not only have one critical path to failure. We don’t want things to fail catastrophically. We maybe want more of a gradual degradation, it may not be as fast, but it’s still working.