Soldiers from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, prepare their equipment to execute Network Integration Evaluation 18.2. | Photo By Vanessa Flores
In early November, Soldiers from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division defended the Tularosa Basin, across Multiple Domains, from the invading Devonian forces.
In doing so, they performed a wide range of mission command and intelligence analysis functions to support testing of new capabilities. They employed assets on land, air, and cyberspace to locate, track, and defeat a highly-capable, near-peer, threats.
This was the last time Soldiers conducted a scenario as described above in support of integrated testing, since the final Network Integration Evaluation, or NIE 18.2 was recently executed at Fort Bliss.
The Army decided to forgo the NIE construct, instead utilizing the Joint Warfighting Assessments (JWAs) and Cross Functional Teams to continue advancements towards modernization priorities.
Since its inception in 2011, over the past seven years, the NIE enabled the Army to evaluate all of its tactical communications systems at the same time and place. Doing so, allows Program Managers to detect issues and determine if their system can interact with other systems in a combat environment.
“The NIE is an event that allows users to see how different systems work together and what actually happens when they are put to work together,” said Col. J. Ward Roberts, acting director, Office of the Chief Systems Engineer. “This, versus the traditional way, where the system is put together as a stand-alone piece of technology. Some systems may work great alone or in a lab, but the system is not being put to the test with the same scale and demanding environment that the NIE brings.”
The advantage is the NIE has three to four different systems on the network at once, while it may be complicated upfront, the lessons learned on how to configure the different devices within a brigade and in an operational environment, is instrumental in equipping Soldiers with modern, connected technologies.
Changing with the times, the NIE brought in offensive cyber threats, to attack the network with a world class “red team” of intruders. Their main objective: detect weaknesses. This allows the system owners to make upgrades and put in place cyber defenses, limiting the vulnerabilities within their system and protecting the network. The stressing of the network ensures it is more defendable, reliable, easier to operate, and capable.
At this scale, this event has not been replicated. Traditionally, a program has a lab environment that does similar evaluations of the systems, but rather than having Soldiers operate the equipment, they are typically run by industry personnel and those who may already be familiar with the systems.
“When units go to a training center, their focus is to shoot, move, and communicate. They are not learning about system vulnerabilities to cyber defense and electronic warfare. The training centers are beginning to bring cyber and electronic warfare, but not to the scale we do for tests,” Roberts said. “This is not an organic capability to installations, like a gunnery range. Instead, the infrastructure, operational scenario, and network architecture are built specific for each event, enabling both Soldier feedback on systems and a significant training benefit in the Cyber Domain.”
As the Army continues to advance with lessons learned from past NIEs, the agile process will shift from purchasing one large system of technology with the expectation of a 20 year life span to upgradable, interoperable technologies with a five year or less life span.
“We need to drive the requirement so a capability can be bought and fielded to a segment of the Army, but in a standardized approach, so the next time we buy, it’s not the same kit, but it’s the same capability and it’s being done in a deliberate path so it is interoperable,” said Roberts. “As we progress Soldiers do not have to go back and relearned everything, rather it is a common operating environment with a standard.”
Moving forward without the NIE at the helm of modernization, change is inevitable for the system development community. Program Managers will adjust their development and testing strategies to keep up with technology progressions.
The integration and test community’s task at hand is to create smaller events to test out the kits — but at the same time keep the benefits the NIE once provided. Currently, the JWAs are the natural progression from the NIE, as they include joint and multinational participation.