FORT BLISS, Texas — The Network Integration Evaluation has been used for years to test aspects of the U.S. Army’s network at Fort Bliss, Texas, and since its inception, a full-time brigade has been designated to conduct the evaluations.
But this year that has changed.
The service decided more than a year ago that it would no longer be able to dedicate the 1st Armored Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team as the full-time NIE unit because of an increased demand for armored capability, particularly in Europe.
The 1st Armored Division’s 2nd BCT — as an armored brigade — was needed in the lineup for back-to-back rotations in Europe in order to deter Russian aggression.
About 1,900 soldiers from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, rolled into Fort Bliss roughly two weeks ago, having just trained up on much of the equipment the unit was required to test and evaluate as part of the NIE.
In addition to lacking the muscle memory of more than 10 NIEs, the BCT is also an air assault unit, standing in stark contrast to the heavy armored division that called Fort Bliss home up until last year.
Gone are the large amounts of vehicles, big command posts and infrastructure of an armored division that used to sit in the desert. And, in its place, a highly mobile light infantry unit moves around with as small a footprint as possible to avoid enemy detection.
When the head of the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, Gen. David Perkins, visited the NIE on July 26, he told the brigade: “You are an experiment of an experiment,” noting that the NIE is always an experiment, but this time the service is assessing whether rotating new units to conduct NIEs each year is the best process.
“I would say the permanent unit, having done it for a long time, is operating under potentially a lot of assumptions about equipment, how to train that equipment,” Col. Joseph Escandon, the 2nd BCT commander, told Perkins. “Just like anybody else, they are going to fall into the training template of how this should look. They may not necessarily think about certain problems and innovate.”
Lt. Col. Keith Carter, the brigade’s 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment commander, told Defense News in an interview at the NIE: “This is something you can get good at. It’s just like taking the SATs multiple times — eventually you figure out how to maximize your results in a test, so that kind of lessens some of the feedback that you’d get about the equipment if you’ve gotten really good at the test conditions.”
So the new unit is shaking things up at the NIE with a focus on how to use the network as well as test and evaluate various systems in an austere and highly mobile environment without much of a sustainment tail behind it.
Through commanding his battalion at the NIE, Carter said he has learned “it’s really beneficial to the Army to rotate new units into the NIE for a couple of reasons. First of all, not every unit looks alike.”
The light infantry brigade is very different from the mechanized infantry brigade there before. “They have different vehicles, they have vehicular capabilities that sort of reduced the impact of loads in terms of weight of equipment, and they also operate slightly different schemes of maneuver” and use different tactics, techniques and procedures, Carter explained.
But it wasn’t just a beneficial move for the test community seeking fresh feedback and new perspectives on systems under test and evaluation at the NIE; it was considered a highly effective way to maintain readiness of the unit.
The unit had just returned from an advise-and-assist deployment in Iraq and came into the NIE at a high level of readiness.
And the NIE also provided the opportunity to push the limits of training beyond the experience a deployment in Iraq could offer.
The 1-26 battalion, for instance, conducted a platoon-sized live-fire exercise and artillery air assault during the NIE, all while going up against an opposition force — or red team — that was constantly trying to disrupt operations through a wide variety of ways.
Escandon, the 2nd BCT commander, explained that out at the NIE the unit had to adapt to a faster operational tempo, a more austere environment, and constant provocation and attack by enemy forces.
In the brigade’s last deployment, “we were fighting with a FOB mentality. We can refuse battle in Iraq and Afghanistan for the most part,” Escandon said, using an acronym for forward-operating base. “But out here we can’t, and soldiers are learning about that.”
The unit got rid of single tents and cots in order to stay more mobile, and they learned to hide and reduce their electromagnetic signatures — just a few examples of how the NIE changed the brigade’s approach to operations.
The training is good, Escandon added, because “we are not getting ready to go back to Afghanistan or Iraq, but we are preparing for the next big thing. What we are dealing with here is a near-peer competitor that has these capabilities. We have to get out of that [old] mind set.”
Perkins told Defense News in an interview at the NIE on July 26 that TRADOC, as well as service leaders, will make a recommendation to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley on what units may participate in the evaluation going forward after receiving feedback from the first rotational unit.
“Just looking at today, the plus of bringing in new units, for instance, it is a light unit … so you have a different requirement, you have different people looking at it,” he said.
But “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,” Perkins said. “There is significant up-front training and overhead that is associated with it. … So we are trying to balance all of those, and so there are very significant plusses and minuses, and so we may do a little bit of both.”
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.