The Army’s new golden age of testing

The brass now embraces testing, assessing and evaluating before it fully commits to big acquisition decisions.

In any other context, it sounds so simple: Try before you buy. New car? Test drive. Expensive new headphones? The airplane-noise demo. Latest smartphone? Play with the one roped to the display stand.

For the Army, however, this approach has been almost revolutionary — the acquisition brass can’t talk enough about how pleased it is with today’s era of testing equipment, mostly soldier communications and network gear, before sending it downrange to G.I. Joe.

Not only does the Army have its much-discussed Network Integration Evaluation exercise out at White Sands, N.M, it’s got another event kicking off next week in Fort Dix, N.J. Commanders and acquisition officials will take a look at where the force should go next with its high-tech equipment.

Per the Army’s official story:

The event, which provides an opportunity for stakeholders from across the DoD to integrate and exercise future force capabilities, will also inform efforts to accelerate and recapitalize C4ISR technologies into the current force, thus supporting the agile acquisition process.

“We help articulate the operational ‘so what’ of a provider’s technology early in the process: where does it plug in, does it have potential, or does the technology provider need to go back to the drawing board to flush some things out — whether that’s back at his lab or by collaborating with us,” [said Lt. Col. Quentin L.] Smith . “This is a non-attribution environment, not a pass/fail test; we’re here to work things out collaboratively.”

E12, scheduled to run April 16 — July 27, will examine the development of an integrated Brigade Combat Team network that utilizes future capabilities outlined by the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command for 2013-2014. The work will support initiatives to provide actionable intelligence at the squad level and improved situational awareness to dismounted soldiers.

“You don’t just wake up one morning and have a capability. That’s why we are assessing these now to see what works and makes sense at various echelons,” Smith said. “In the past, we’ve grown technologies then introduced them to the soldier at the back end. If we are to effectively and efficiently shape the Army’s future network, the S&T community at large needs to engage with each other and the soldier up front, using current and future requirements. And that means testing should be involved as you go through the wickets of engineering a system — from the very beginning to the end.”

E12 critical activities will include handheld and cellular technology at the tactical edge, emerging telemedicine technologies utilizing Current and Future Force network capabilities, radio-based combat ID, the assessment of emerging radio waveforms and the recapitalization of current force technologies such as the Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System — or SINCGARS.

This may not be as big a sandbox environment as the NIE, but it looks as though it’ll encompass many of the same kinds of technical questions about the Army’s future network.

As you’ve heard, the Army brass wants some credit  — it wants a chance to prove it’s learned the lessons of Future Combat Systems (and others) and is changing the way it does business. Today’s era of assessments, soldier involvement and “wickets,” as Smith put it, along with a willingness to ditch programs, rather than drag them out, could be signs the Army really is changing.

The Army, however, is still the Army. There’s a danger it could just go from one extreme to another and become so gun shy about new programs that it forces itself to take baby steps when it could make strides, but won’t for fear of stumbling again. And at very least, as you’ve read here, all this testing and evaluation isn’t free. Service officials have to take care that the NIE and the rest of the new evaluation infrastructure doesn’t get so expensive that the Army risks the progress it has been hoping for.