Army to test, fix communications tech at home, not abroad

Monday - 5/23/2011, 6:45pm EDT

By Peter Buxbaum
Special to Federal News Radio

The Army is taking a new approach in how it buys and integrates communication technologies in theater.

The Army has designated the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, First Armored Division, based in Fort Bliss, Texas, as a test bed for the evaluation of components and equipment, and their integration into the network. The team will work under the auspices of the Center for Network Integration and the Brigade Modernization Command, which also is based in Fort Bliss and commanded by Maj. Gen. Keith Walker.

The point of this effort is to let communications equipment be tested and integrated in an "operationally realistic environment," said Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army vice chief of staff, Monday during a press conference. The effort "has a two-fold intent: to provide an operational venue to replicate the downrange network in order to evaluate new technologies and emerging capabilities and ultimately to remove the integration burden from the operational unit."

Right now technical issues that emerge in theater must be fixed in theater, Chiarelli said. "We will now bear that integration burden, not our commanders and soldiers downrange," he added.

Department of Defense officials also expect the effort to rationalize and streamline acquisitions of communications technology.

The 2nd Brigade Combat Team will conduct a series of network integration evaluations, twice a year beginning next month, Chiarelli said. The Army will use the evaluations to perform network enabled training exercises and to develop doctrine and tactics with respect to the acquisition and integration of communications systems.

"This is as much about developing tactics and doctrines as it is about certifying equipment, Chiarelli said.

The Fort Bliss location was chosen, according to Walker, because of its vast geography, larger than the State of Connecticut, and with terrain that includes everything from mountains to desert. "We will be able to replicate the whole spectrum of environments we might face," he said.

Having an entire brigade combat team available to perform the exercises will also let the Army evaluate the equipment across different combat configurations, said Walker, including tank battalions, and motorized infantry, light infantry and Stryker teams.

"Getting a new capability into the hands of soldiers in an operational environment along with the engineer who developed it is the fastest way to stop a dumb idea or advance a good idea," Walker said.

Col. John Morrison, director of the LandWarNet Battle Command, expects the Army to test five or six capabilities during the June exercise, with the emphasis on "lower echelon communication at the company level and ways to bring the soldier into the network."

The service initially plans to test commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) personal digital assistants and smartphones used by soldiers in the field, according to Morrison.

The officers present also signaled a shift in how new technologies will be distributed among soldiers.

"We may approve the use of smartphones and apps but we won't be handing every piece of equipment to every soldier," said Lt. Gen. Susan Lawrence, the Army's chief information officer. "The days are past when we commit to a particular tablet computer and then buy it for all soldiers. We will buy what we need for who needs it now."

This approach has the advantage of letting the Army increase capabilities as new versions of products are introduced. "We will be buying less equipment more often," Chiarelli said, "and incrementally improve network capabilities over time."

Peter Buxbaum is a freelance writer.

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