Army’s network evaluations set for a reboot

The desert exercises that Army leaders have lauded for saving the service billions in acquisition dollars is set to face cost and manpower scrutiny.

The U.S. Army’s high-profile network evaluations – complex field exercises involving thousands of soldiers testing the latest communications gear – may be headed for a reboot.

Defense industry officials and Army leaders are slated to discuss the future of the Network Integration Evaluations this week at AUSA’s winter meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno has placed a robust emphasis on updating the Army’s collection of tactical radios, mapping programs and smartphones known as the Network. It continues to be the service’s top modernization priority ahead of the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, and the Ground Combat Vehicle.

To help ensure its success, the Army has held four Network Integration Evaluations. During the most recent of these, NIE 13.1, nearly 5,000 soldiers, Army civilians and contractors converged in the desert along the borders of west Texas and eastern New Mexico. They were joined by the 1st Armored Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team, which as the test player unit, executed training scenarios that helped determine whether systems and equipment were suitable for battlefield use.

Soldiers worked with the Army’s wearable soldier communication system known as Nett Warrior, the M109 Paladin Integrated Management, or PIM, artillery system, the Spider networked munitions system, Joint Battle Command-Platform communication system, and the RAM Warn or counter rocket, artillery, mortar system.

Each soldier tests up to five systems or pieces of equipment, after receiving at least a few days’ training with each piece. In total, soldiers with 2nd Brigade spent more than 4 million man hours training on equipment for the latest NIE.

Most soldiers agree that the NIE concept is worthwhile, but the Army may soon be unable to devote such an extensive amount of resources to a single program. The Army spent $260 million on the NIE in 2011.

The current financial climate and the looming threat of mandatory defense spending cuts under sequestration threaten to devour the Army’s training budget. Funding to reset the thousands of vehicles and weapons system returning from the warzone is also likely dry up.

Last year, the price tag for the NIE caught the attention of Congress. Lawmakers questioned whether the $260 million the Army spent on the evaluations in 2011 was worth it. The Army responded with an estimate that the NIEs might have cost $260 million, but they saved the Army $6 billion in ending inefficient or unnecessary weapons programs such as the Ground Mobile Radio.

“There are folks who will look at it from a funding perspective too. And is the NIE costing too much? And some have,” Phillips told last year. “We have to do this. We can’t afford not to.”

It’s unlikely that the Army will scrap the NIE concept, but it may have to evolve in this era of do more with less.

Some in the acquisitions community maintain that these massive field evaluations should be opened up to include improvements to soldier uniforms and equipment. This has been done in the past but only on an informal basis. But others maintain that it would be unwise to transform the highly-focused NIE into a gear-testing free-for-all which will yield only broad-brush evaluations at best.

Army leaders have already discussed changing the name of the NIE to the Capabilities Integration Evaluation (CIE) as soon as 2014. Citing the $6 billion savings figure, Army leaders have said the NIE might be their best tool to reigning in unnecessary spending in their acquisitions branch.

With that said, Army officials said they must be careful not to unload too much onto the evaluations in White Sands for fear that the NIEs or CIEs will get too big.

“We don’t want to bite off too much and we don’t want to have too many programs that are out there. We have to be careful that we right size the number of systems we want to take out and put in the hands of soldiers. So they’re not overstressed and they can look at these systems so we get the best feedback possible,” Phillips said in April 2012.

The Government Accountability Office wants the Pentagon to tighten its oversight of the Army network effort to prevent the fiscal missteps that ultimately killed the Future Combat Systems (FCS) program.

The network effort grew out of the Army’s failed FCS program – a transformational effort designed to create a lighter, more agile and capable force. FCS was a large and complex development effort to provide a networked family of weapons and other systems for the future force. The Pentagon killed the program’s fleet of 27-ton Manned Ground Vehicles, criticizing the design as ill-suited to survive current battlefield threats.

The GAO maintains that the complex, multi-phased effort could be in for a risky future. In a Jan. 10 report, GAO officials said that the Army plans to spend $60 billion on the network over the next two decades without sufficient data that the program will succeed.

“The Army’s strategy addresses some aspects of cost, technology maturity, security, and readiness, but as implementation is still under way, data for assessing progress are not available at this time. … Given the magnitude and financial commitment envisioned, a consolidated reporting and budgeting framework could yield more consistency and clarity in the justifications for Army network initiatives and facilitate congressional oversight,” the report states.

To help ensure a different fate for the network, the GAO recommends that “the Secretary of Defense should identify an oversight body to determine how capability set 13 — as fielded in operational units — has actually impacted overall network performance, capability gaps, and essential network capabilities and make recommendations for adjustments, as may be necessary,” the report states.

The GAO also recommends the Defense Department “identify an oversight body to determine how well the Army is rapidly fielding mature and militarily useful network capabilities to its operating forces and maintaining robust industry participation in the process.” GAO also recommends that the Pentagon consolidate Army tactical network budget elements and justifications into a single area of the Army budget submittal.