Pentagon parade previews Army network upgrade

The Army will display Capability Set 13 as the service plans to overhaul its Network Integration Evaluation.

Army leaders will trot out the latest smartphones, radios and satellites in a demo in the Pentagon courtyard Thursday, to show the rest of the military exactly what soldiers have been doing for the past 18 months down at White Sands Missile Range, N.M.

The new communications gizmos make up the Army’s new network trumpeted as the service’s top modernization priority. Pieces of Capability Set 13 will be on display for military officials to see on their way to get a sandwich or iced coffee at the Center Courtyard Cafe, previously the infamous Ground Zero Cafe.

(Pentagon tour groups are told that the Soviets thought the small building in the very center of the Building was the entrance to some kind of underground bunker, and as such it was an aimpoint for ICBMs. But as we know, it was the snack bar.)

The Army will start fielding Capability Set 13 in October to the 10th Mountain Division, which will deploy to Afghanistan before the end of 2012 or at the start of 2013, depending on deployment schedules.

Parading around Capability Set 13 also gives Army leadership the chance to brag about its Network Integration Evaluation, which service officials credit with developing and testing the network quicker than most expected. Granted, “quick” is a relative term when it comes to Army acquisition. Though Army generals brag about bringing smartphones onto the battlefield, plenty of soldiers’ grandmothers answer their Joe’s calls at home on an iPhone or Android device.

The 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division has done the NIE twice a year since 2011 to help develop the Army’s next generation battlefield communications system. Soldiers have completed only its third iteration and there is already talk of significant changes coming for the NIE.

To start, the name will change. Army officials plan to change the name of the NIE to the Capabilities Integration Evaluation by 2014. The service wants to take the focus exclusively off the network as the service evolves from the baseline communications system it is putting in place now.

Second, expect to see a lot more Strykers and heavies rolling through the New Mexico desert as the service plans to develop its heavier vehicle fleet after it placed the initial focus primarily on the infantry brigade combat teams.

Next year, the Army wants to integrate its network into Strykers. In 2014, the Army’s heavy fleet, including its Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, will be the focus. Early testing has started on the Bradleys. Army Capt. Sean Vanden Dries said the Army has found problems using the Bradleys as a transfer point for fire support data although he cautioned it’s way too early to draw conclusions yet.

The Army is already testing alternatives for the Ground Combat Vehicle competition, although don’t ask to see these vehicles. One Army journalist has already been scolded for photographing the GCV alternatives driving down the roads at White Sands Missile Range.

What the Army has found is that it must change the way it buys weapons and equipment that performs well at the NIE. The defense industry has criticized the Army for requesting the companies go through the expensive process of submitting their equipment for the NIE without any assurance the Army would actually offer any contracts.

That will change. Army officials will introduce the request for proposals process at the front end of the NIE in order to purchase equipment faster after the NIE is completed. This will slow down how fast the Army can introduce new equipment to the NIE. Col. Hughes says the delay is worth it since it means ultimately deploying the best equipment faster.

This move could also have the unintended effect of reducing the amount of systems the soldiers have to learn to use before heading out to the field. Soldiers said this would provide a welcome rest as they admitted some of the more complicated systems are difficult to learn in the small time frame they receive in order to complete two NIEs per year.

Of course, much of this won’t be discussed Thursday, when Pentagon workers will intead spend more time balancing their Diet Pepsis with one hand and playing with the new smartphones — perhaps uploaded with battlefield software like Soldiers Eyes — with the other. The planned NIE changes, however, could affect the way soldiers communicate on the battlefield more than any new Android app seen on these combat smartphones.