After spending the past three days with the Army’s latest Network Integration Evaluation (NIE), I can make three observations. The first is that today’s soldiers are absolutely amazing individuals. From privates all the way up to generals they demonstrate a combination of brains, initiative, determination, honesty and capability that is awe inspiring. I talked with squad leaders and platoon sergeants who had been conducting realistic tactical exercises in the hot desert or 9,000 foot mountains while juggling an array of new, sometimes untested, IT systems. Then there were the battalion and brigade S-6s, the officers responsible for managing, planning, coordinating, installing and maintaining their units’ computers, communications and automated systems and ensuring reliable communications, who struggled to keep the networks up and the information flowing. Finally, there were the more senior officers, including those running the NIE, working to conduct an evaluation that was also a training exercise while simultaneously planning and preparing for the next, improved activity.
My second observation is that the ability of U.S. companies to invent new and innovative systems, platforms and capabilities is strong. These include the big, traditional defense companies such as General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, smaller defense companies such as Harris, DRS and AeroVironment and commercial IT and software firms. The NIE was deliberately designed to allow all these players to bring their best ideas to the show. In a number of instances, soldier handheld devices and tactical radios, for example, the NIE has been able to evaluate simultaneously a number of competing offerings.
My third observation, the really big idea that has relevance not only for the Army but for the Pentagon as a whole, is that building and maintaining highly complex systems presents enormous challenges that can best be managed by having a single systems integrator. One of the main goals of this NIE was to demonstrate a baseline network that worked from the command echelon of a brigade all the way down to the individual soldier, what the Army calls the tactical edge. This meant integrating a range of systems starting with two different increments of the Warrior Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) but also including vehicle and aircraft-based communications and computer systems, soldier radios and handheld devices, video feeds from unmanned aerial vehicles and ground robots controllers. There were relatively few hardware problems, perhaps with the singular exception of electricity to power all these devices and systems. The biggest problem was getting different parts of the system to reliably link up to the others and then pass data. This problem was compounded by the lack of technical expertise with the overall network, how it functioned and why things were not behaving as intended. There were lots of experts who understood everything about a piece of hardware, a component or a portion of the overall system of systems but very few who could get their arms around what was the quintessential system of systems. Since no one was really responsible for the overall architecture, the system as a whole, there were lots of integration problems.
The fact that the NIE experienced significant integration challenges is a good news story. Better to uncover the problem now than when the Army buys the network or sends it into combat. Equally important, the NIE suggests that the current fad in the Pentagon to unbundle its major networking acquisitions and award different contracts to individual companies for parts of the overall system is likely to end very badly. Someone needs to be in charge, set standards, ensure connectivity and interoperability and manage configurations.
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