Priority rests on the Network

It's not sexy, but the Army keeps it's tactical battlefield communication system the service's top modernization priority.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said unequivocally that updating the Army’s collection of tactical radios, mapping programs and smartphones known as the Network remains his top modernization priority.

He listed the Army Network ahead of the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, and the Ground Combat Vehicle in an article he wrote and the Army published Tuesday. Keeping the Network as the No. 1 modernization priority ahead of a new vehicle fleet or even the M-4 carbine is nothing new.

The question is: For how long?

Odierno’s predecessors, Gen. Martin Dempsey and Gen. George Casey, held the Army Network in the same esteem. This October, the Army is set to deilver Capability Set 13 — the latest collection of next generation battlefield radios and communications system that will deploy to Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division in 2013.

It’s the first of many capability sets the Army will roll  out to continually update their Network. Army leaders chose to outfit the infantry brigade combat teams first. Stryker Brigades will get the next look followed by the thank and Bradley units.

At the last Network Integration Evaluation held at Fort Bliss, Texas, and White Sands Missile Range, N.M., questions from soldiers and industry leaders started to grow louder about the Army’s commitment to the Network after the delivery of Capability Set 13.

NIE officials have said quietly they don’t expect the two NIE’s scheduled for this fall and spring to be as large as the previous two even though the evaluation is still relatively new. Curbing growth might work in the NIE’s favor, though, as some defense industry leaders warned that it was growing too large and losing the ability to react quickly to rapidly advancing technologies.

Keeping digital communication systems up to date demands continued focus. It’s a far cry from other Army acquisition programs such as the JLTV, which the Army expects to drive for decades. Consider how fast a traditional cell phone became irrelevant in light of the flurry of smartphones that have more computing power than most two-year-old PCs.

Army leaders have worked hard to amend an acquisition system that has struggled to keep up with technology. He said basing their acquisition strategy on balancing capability with cost will keep the system agile. Outrageous requirements lists are a thing of the past, Odierno has said, especially ones with no consideration for costs.

With planned defense spending shrinking, it’s a wonder if the Army can keep its focus on the Network and avoid the distractions of replacing the vehicle fleets.