WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. — An unprecedented six-week field exercise here, with 3,800 soldiers of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, is expected to lead to sweeping changes in the way the Army tests, uses and buys new technology.
One of the Army’s most ardent proponents of reforming the service’s procurement system, Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, predicts that the exercise, known as “network integration evaluation,” will become a paragon for a new way of doing business.
The NIE has “exceeded my expectations,” Chiarelli told National Defense June 28 during a tour of operations of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 35th Armored Regiment, at a combat outpost in White Sands designed to replicate combat conditions.
“I think this is going to change the acquisition process,” said Chiarelli. “It has to.” One of the NIE priorities is to figure out what pieces of hardware and software will be needed to create a wireless network that can support the communications and data-sharing needs of an entire brigade -- from high headquarters down to platoons, squads and dismounted soldiers.
The Army so far has been unable to put together a cohesive network because each component is designed, developed and tested in isolation. A network, by definition, doesn’t work that way. “Imagine if you asked me to show you a tank, and instead I gave you an engine, a turret and a hull,” Chiarelli said. That is how the Army has been managing the acquisition of a network. Program offices deliver “great niche capabilities” that don’t necessarily work together. That has to change, he said. The service’s rigid procurement process for years has slowed down the pace of technological innovation.
The NIE, scheduled to end in mid-July, is the first of four semi-annual events that will influence what equipment the Army will buy for combat brigades beginning in 2013. At play are billions of dollars worth of future acquisitions of wireless communications systems, tactical radios and software.
The NIE, for the first time, allows soldiers -- the “users” of the technology -- to tell the brass straight up what works and what doesn’t. Under the traditional Army procurement system, a piece of equipment goes through years of development and testing before soldiers get an opportunity to put it to use.
The NIE model is “very exciting,” said Army Chief Information Officer Lt. Gen. Susan Lawrence, because it makes is easier for senior officials to hear directly from soldiers and thus make better informed decisions about how to invest in new technology. It would normally take months and years to “find out what we larned here in five minutes” talking to soldiers, Lawrence said during the Alpha Company visit.
Chiarelli said he traditional focus on individual systems such as specific radio makes and models, as opposed to emphasizing the performance of the network as a whole, has been counterproductive.
A conversation with soldiers of Charlie Troop, 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, for instance, revealed that the Army’s prototype tactical radios have shown disappointing performance. The backpack-size variant of the Joint Tactical Radio System, soldiers told Chiarelli, is too heavy to be used by dismounted soldiers, overheats and doesn’t properly run the software. That feedback is valuable, said Chiarelli, but just because some systems are showing “warts” doesn’t mean the overall network effort is doomed. “What I’m seeing ... is that there’s a lot of work to be done. But the only way to do it is to get everyone on the ground and see the integration issues,” he said. In the case of JTRS, the software is working but the radio boxes have problems. That is a relatively easy fix, he said. “The whole JTRS business model is that we want to build the waveforms and let anyone build the box that carries the waveform.” Waveforms are the software applications that define the functions of a radio network.
Over the next two NIE events, one in the fall and one next spring, there will be measurable improvements, said Chiarelli. “What’s critical is that we are forcing the program managers to get together and get out of their silos and see what each other are doing, and their disconnects.”
Since becoming vice chief nearly four years ago, Chiarelli has been both a point-blank critic of the Army’s procurement system and also a champion of the network project. With his tenure about to end later this year and Chiarelli headed for retirement, there is growing anxiety within many program offices involved with the NIE about who, if anyone, will continue to carry the torch.
Chiarelli said he is not worried. “All these guys are going to be the champions for this,” he said as he pointed at several officers who have leading roles in the network integration effort.
Tough programs that are as technologically and politically demanding as the Army’s network, however, may require a high-level strongman to keep things moving. “Whoever follows me will do the same thing,” Chiarelli said. There is enough momentum in favor of technological innovation in the Army, as soldiers rapidly adapt new technology such as smartphones and tablet computers, into day-to-day operations, Chiarelli said. “The network is going to happen.”