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National Defense > Blog > Posts > Army Vendors Gear Up for Next Battle of the Wireless Networks
Army Vendors Gear Up for Next Battle of the Wireless Networks
By Sandra I. Erwin



Pentagon contractors have been disappointed of late by indecisive military buyers. The Army, particularly, has been a frustrating customer for its tendency to change its mind — aka “requirements” — and put off buying decisions.

But there appears to be little hesitation in the Army’s intentions to equip its combat brigades with modern communications networks.

In less than 18 months, the Army supplied the 3rd and 4th Brigade Combat Teams of the 10th Mountain Division with a weapon that commanders had unsuccessfully sought for years: An integrated communications package that connects top echelons of command with dismounted soldiers on the outer edge of the battlefield.

Both brigades are scheduled for pre-deployment training with the new equipment next spring.

The Army said it will continue to supply other brigades with similar equipment over the next several years.

The sense of purpose is not lost on contractors, who have been on doomsday watch for months in anticipation of military budget cuts.

Almost every defense contractor is vying for a piece of the battlefield network.

“It’s an attractive market,” said Scott Whatmough, vice president and general manager of Raytheon Network Centric Systems. “All the big players want to play in this space,” he told National Defense in a recent interview.

Raytheon is one of several military contractors whose products will be on trial next month at the Army’s fourth “network integration evaluation,” or NIE, at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., and Fort Bliss, Texas.

The NIE is the Army’s answer to its decades-old frustration of failing to provide soldiers with modern communications technology. The Army over the past decade purchased hundreds of thousands of radios for vehicles and dismounted troops, but most systems have a short range, and provide limited access to data, such as GPS location, text messages and video.

At the upcoming NIE, vendors will have to demonstrate, for instance, how they would bring a wealth of multimedia into a commander’s armored vehicle.

Raytheon plans to showcase a 40-node mobile ad-hoc network that can transmit 10 megabits of data per second — the equivalent of 20 simultaneous live video streams. Everyone in the chain of command, from brigade headquarters to grunts on patrol, could be wired into the network.

So far, the Army has bought $300 million worth of hardware and software that were tested at the NIE, according to Army Brig. Gen. Daniel P. Hughes, director of system of systems integration.

Participating companies see much bigger paydays in the future, especially radio manufacturers. The sophisticated, hacker-proof, radios that the Army needs for its mobile networks cost anywhere from $4,000 for a handheld to $200,000 for a multi-channel system that can move massive loads of data across terrestrial and satellite networks.

Companies have estimated the Army would need as many as 200,000 handheld radios, 50,000 manpack-size vehicle radios and more than 10,000 wideband systems for mobile command posts.

The Army’s battlefield network also will be a boon for truck manufacturers. The advanced radios must be installed inside vehicles and integrated with power supplies, which requires a “digital backbone” where devices will be plugged in.

Most radios will be installed in mine-resistant ambush protected armored trucks (the all-terrain and Maxx Pro variants) and in Humvees. It can cost thousands of dollars to retrofit a truck to run the high-tech gear.

Army officials said a test venue like the NIE was long overdue. In the past, radios and networking technologies would be tested in laboratories for years before they were turned over to soldiers for combat-realistic trials.

As a result, the Army has wasted billions of dollars on systems that ultimately didn’t meet soldiers’ needs or simply don’t work in the battlefield.

The NIE is “as close to real life as you’re going to get,” said Whatmough. “Fort Bliss is a very large test range. You can test the long-range links, you can bring a lot of traffic, you can do air-to-ground communications, you can do the bridge from [the upper echelon] to the soldier,” he said. “It really is a robust test. … It probably gives you the best chance to test your product for the unexpected.”

Vendors vying for a chance to have their products evaluated at the NIE must invest money and time in a lengthy pre-screening process. Candidate systems are tested in a laboratory at Aberdeen, Md. “You have to prove that you are worthy of going to the NIE,” said Whatmough. “You also learn a lot in a government lab, interfacing with government test equipment.”

But not everyone agrees that NIE offers ideal testing conditions.

In his annual report to Congress, director of weapons testing and evaluation J. Michael Gilmore raised several red flags about the Army’s first evaluation event last summer, called NIE 11.2. He noted that the cost of the event, $67 million, is high compared to similar tests, although he recognized that most operational tests do not put an entire brigade in the field. Gilmore also criticized the organization of the NIE for trying to test too many items and thus overwhelming the users.

Most recently, one the participating contractors, General Dynamics C4 Systems, questioned the quality of the NIE tests as not representative of real-world combat conditions.

General Dynamics is the prime contractor for the Army’s handheld and manpack versions of the joint tactical radio. The manpack radios were evaluated in May at the third NIE, and Gilmore concluded that the radio provided poor voice quality and inadequate range when operating the SINCGARS single-channel combat net waveform.

General Dynamics had the same radio tested at a different range in Fort Huachuca, Ariz., and the results were dramatically better.

Christopher Marzilli, president of General Dyamics C4 Systems, said the performance failures identified by Gilmore were the result of “improper configuration” of the radios and argued that the NIE environment was not “representative” of real-world conditions. “The re-test at Huachuca confirmed that if you integrate the radios properly in the vehicles, and if you operate in [the proper setting] then it works perfectly fine,” Marzilli told National Defense last week.

Marzilli’s criticism of the NIE as a credible testing venue was not well received by Army officials. A panel of officers defended the NIE during an Oct. 23 news conference at the Association of the U.S. Army annual convention in Washington, D.C.

Maj. Gen. Genaro J. Dellarocco, commander of Army Test and Evaluation Command, said Marzilli had sent a letter of apology, and claimed his comments had been mischaracterized in news articles.

Competing radio manufacturers are closely watching the controversy over GD’s radio for clues about the worthiness of the NIE as an impartial judge of combat technology.

One industry executive who agreed to discuss the issue on condition of anonymity said the credibility of the NIE is in question because, despite poor test results, General Dynamics still received a $250 million order for 3,700 manpack radios. “GD convinced the Army to re-test its flawed radio in a ‘spectrally clean’ environment and passed with flying colors,” the executive said. “The Army then used this lab test to justify its purchase of these same flawed radios. … This sends the wrong signals to companies that are seeking to compete their radio technologies via NIE if the program offices are going to end-run around the operational tests.”

Dellarocco stood by the Army’s decision to acquire GD’s radios. Gilmore is an independent tester, he said. “There’s always been a healthy tension” between his and military program offices. “He sees things in black and white, we see things in shades,” Dellarocco said. “There isn’t a system that doesn’t have problems.”

But he insisted that the test scenario at NIE “couldn't be more realistic.”

Army and industry officials generally agree that the NIE regime, despite some growing pains, will help expedite the procurement of equipment. Under the traditional acquisitions process, it would be virtually impossible to keep up with rapid advances in networking technology and mobile devices, officials said.

Soldiers’ personal smartphones are generations ahead of what the Army has, and that is purely the result of “institutional impediments,” said James Moran, a retired Army brigadier general and former program executive officer for soldier systems.

Moran recalled that, while on active duty in 2003, the Army developed a tablet computer known as the “commander’s digital assistant.” The CDA was used by company commanders in Iraq, and was widely praised as a valuable communications device that plugged troops into the Army’s tactical Internet. “Those [tablets] were around before the iPad even existed,” Moran lamented. “Why weren't they fielded? Because the Army’s requirements process wouldn't allow it to happen,” Moran said Oct. 23 during a panel discussion at the AUSA conference.

“Today, the Army is talking about the great success of the NIE in fielding this technology,” Moran said. However, the technology could have been had a decade ago, when it would have helped troops in two wars. The Army wasted years arguing over encryption standards, he said. Pentagon policy requires that radios that can tap into defense networks have type 1 encryption for classified communications. “That might seem mundane but it's a big deal,” said Moran. Type 1 encryption is a separate chip that is expensive, takes years to get certified, burns a lot of power and would not be allowed in any commercial devices, he said. If the Army had moved to change the policy to allow type 2 encryption — which is software-based — it could have acquired mobile devices more easily and supplied them to more soldiers, he said. The Army only in December 2011 changed the requirement to allow type 2 encryption. “We could have done it 10 years ago.”

Photo Credit: Army

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