Despite Budget Crunch, Network Integration Exercises to Continue

By Stew Magnuson

The Army's ongoing series of Network Integration Exercises, which bring together communication and information technologies the service wants to test or is considering buying, will continue at a twice per year pace despite recent budget woes, the general in charge of the events said Oct. 22.

"We are not planning to reduce the number of NIEs," Lt. Gen. Keith Walker, director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, told reporters at the Association of the United States Army annual conference in Washington, D.C., responding to rumors among vendors that one of the events would be canceled next year.

They may be scaled back in size, but one of the points of the NIEs is to bring in ever-evolving communications technologies to see the latest industry has to offer. Having only one of the exercises once per year would defeat one of the purposes, Walker said.

The NIEs bring together vendors who want to show the Army their newest technologies, as well as radios, command centers, and other networking electronics the service is developing in traditional acquisition programs, and put them in the hands of the soldiers who would be using them. Most of the first five have taken place at Fort Bliss, Texas, in an environment that resembles Afghanistan.

The sixth was delayed a week because of the recent government shut down, but will proceed at the end of October at the same location.

The exercises are not necessarily an expensive event to set up, Walker said. About 90 percent of the funding comes from test and evaluation dollars that are built into the Army's funded programs, and required for a technology to be fielded.   

"The bottom line is we are going to test new capabilities anyway," he said. If these technologies are tested individually, there is more overhead. "Why don't we bring them together in one place, reduce the overhead, and do one enterprise integration?"

The other 10 percent of the funding is for setting up evaluations of technologies the vendors bring.

"If you do it once a year, then you have to try to do more things. ... I think it would be better to try to do two smaller NIEs than do only one," Walker said.

Vendors who bring their gadgets for the Army to try out spend their own dollars to be there. Some have complained that they are not receiving many contracts. Walker said he has heard those complaints.

There are many industry members who have had big payoffs, he said. There is, however, the "hey, if your stuff had worked, we would have bought it" factor in some cases, he said.

There is value for industry in the exercise even if it doesn't result in contracts. The opportunity to have soldiers use the equipment and provide feedback is sometimes worth the price of the trip, he said.

On the other hand, there are cases when the Army liked a product, and believed it could have an impact on the battlefield, but there just hasn't been the funding to purchase it, Walker said.

It would be ideal to use the NIEs as a rapid acquisition type system, he said. That could happen as some of these rapid fielding initiatives wind down as troops withdraw from the field, he said.

Meanwhile, ARCIC is planning to have an NIE industry day to get feedback from vendors about the event and to address some of their concerns. He didn't specify when that might happen.

Follow National Defense throughout the week for continued AUSA 2013 coverage.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, Simulation Modeling Wargaming and Training, Live Training, Test and Evaluation

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