Out in the West Texas desert, at the White Sands Missile Range, a miracle is unfolding. For the last three weeks, the Army has been conducting the latest in a series of what it is calling a Network Integration Evaluation (NIE). The immediate goal of the NIE is to evaluate the suitability of near-term networking and communications capabilities for deployment with U.S. forces. The two critical capabilities the Army hopes to demonstrate in this NIE (and the next) are first, extending the network to the individual soldier and second, mission command on the move. A subordinate but extremely important goal is to demonstrate the ability of the NIE approach to evaluate, integrate and deliver networks and capabilities incrementally.
More broadly, the NIE process could speed up acquisition of new capabilities, improve access to commercial technology and find ways of lowering the cost of military networks. The NIE process also reflects the Army’s decision to change how it buys capability. Rather than taking years to design, build and test a system and then buy tens of thousands of a given item, in the future the Army will buy in smaller increments, inserting new technology into a baseline platform or architecture.
The NIE process was born of the Army’s recognition that its requirements, testing and acquisition processes were too slow, expensive and complicated. Moreover, it did not include the operator’s perspective. This realization was in itself a minor miracle. Credit for this epiphany goes to the outgoing Vice Chief of Staff, General Peter Chiarelli.
A third, related miracle is that the Army is including the individual soldier in the process. The solutions are not being imposed on them by a program office or acquisition authority. The soldiers in the field are telling the evaluators what works and what does not, what else they want and how they want to employ these new capabilities.
The current NIE called 12.1 involves a brigade combat team from the 2nd Armored Division equipped with an array of some 50 communications devices, IT systems, computers and sensors. Individual platoons were equipped with a different set of devices. The only truly common capability was the overarching network called the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, or WIN-T. Not only are individual communications devices, network components and software packages being evaluated but for the first time in living memory the Army is testing the whole network. Just getting the bugs out of the system and learning how to get all the parts to work as an integrated, seamless network is worth the price of admission.
This latest NIE suggests that the Army stands on the verge of an even greater miracle, one that could change the very nature of ground combat. Air power was transformed in the 1990s when a combination of GPS-based navigation and precision targeting allowed the U.S. Air Force to solve the 80-year-old problem of finding and striking fixed targets. A bombing mission that once took a thousand bombers to perform poorly can now be achieved by a handful of aircraft and a dozen precision weapons. The dominant problem in land operations for five thousand years has been maintaining control over forces on the move. The fielding of a baseline network that provides reliable mission command on the move and also link the individual soldier to higher echelons would solve a problem of historic significance.
The NIE process is new and a bit rough. But is also something of a miracle.
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