Two years ago, the U.S. Army undertook an effort to improve the way it evaluated and integrated IT capabilities. A decade of conflict in Southwest Asia had taught the Army a number of lessons, one of the most important of which was the need for a way of identifying, assessing and then inserting advances in networking and information technology into forces going into theater. There had been a lot of ad hoc efforts to respond to urgent operational needs for better communications and information systems. There were ongoing programs of record such as the Warrior Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) and the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS). But there was no overarching approach or process to ensure that all the equipment flooding into the field worked properly once there and could be integrated. Systems and capabilities were arriving in the combat zones only to be proven unworkable, impossible to integrate with existing assets or simply ineffective. Moreover, despite the urgency created by two wars, the formal acquisition system which always took years to produce results was out of synch with an IT cycle time measured in months.
The Army’s innovative solution was the Network Integration Evaluation (NIE); a series of twice yearly, in the field, “exercises” conducted at Fort Bliss, Texas and designed to conduct integrated and parallel operational tests of specific systems emerging from programs of record, evaluate development or emerging network capabilities in an operationally realistic environment and provide a basis for assessing the contribution of selected non-networked capabilities. The approach was designed to ensure configuration control and evolutionary modernization but still allow for the parallel evaluation and even testing of multiple, often competing technologies and to do so on a much more rapid cycle than was possible with the traditional acquisition system. In addition, the NIE put these systems and capabilities in the hands of actual soldiers before both they and the equipment went into the field. To that end, the Army actually dedicated a brigade combat team to the NIE process.
The success of the NIE as an approach to rapid testing and integration is indisputable. This year, the first assemblage of capabilities to emerge from the NIE process, called Capabilities Set (CS) 13, was fielded with U.S. forces in Afghanistan. This capability set provided a single voice and data network for the full range of Army operations and connected everyone from the individual soldier to the brigade headquarters. Next year a more advanced portfolio, CS 14 will be provided to what is likely to be the last set of combat brigades sent to that country.
Not only has the NIE process allowed the Army and industry to accelerate the process of evaluating and introducing new IT and networking capabilities into the force, but it has saved money. Cost avoidance is not something often touted as a success of the Pentagon’s acquisition system. However, the NIE process has saved the taxpayer more than $1 billion by uncovering problems with programs in development before major resources were expended on them, enabling others to be restructured for success and allowing novel technologies to be showcased and even acquired with improved performance and reduced cost.
The Army is now preparing to take another step forward in the domain of integrated operational evaluations. Beginning next spring, the Army will bring together not only its next NIE but also the Joint Training Exercise (JTE) that will certify the 1st Armored Division as capable of serving as the Joint Task Force for Central Command and the Joint Staff’s Bold Quest exercise to test a range of emerging capabilities and operational concepts. For the first time there will be significant allied participation (U.K., Italy and Australia) as well as a Marine battalion on the ground. Air Force and Navy elements also will participate under the auspices of Bold Quest. As a consequence of this endeavor, the NIE will begin to transform from a process just to evaluate IT and networking capabilities into something like a Joint and combined capabilities exercise. While each of the three activities will have stand-alone components, by coordinating these activities and partially integrating them, the Army – indeed all the services as well as our allies – will benefit.
Recently there has been some misguided criticism of the cost of the NIE. The reality is that the cost per evaluation has dropped from more than $130 million to around $90 million and will go lower still. Moreover, 90 percent of the costs associated with the NIE are fixed, meaning they would be spent even if there were not an NIE to test and evaluate systems, develop doctrine and tactics and create training modules. Add to that the synergies achieved by bringing together the “trifecta” of NIE, Bold Quest and JTE, and you have an extremely cost-effective way for the Army to modernize both smartly and efficiently.
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