With a two-year budget of more than $6 billion to evaluate battlefield network gear, the Army has tapped the ultimate testers—U.S. soldiers—to help decide which systems to keep, which ones need tweaks and which should be junked.
When the Army kicked off its first network integration evaluation in May 2011, retired Gen. Peter Chiarelli, then vice chief of staff, said the exercises are “as much about learning as they are about testing” battlefield systems equipment, which the service considers its top modernization priority.
“The only way to fix problems is to accurately identify them” with the help of users in the field, Chiarelli added. Two evaluations last year involved 3,800 soldiers from the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division 3 and spanned 4,000 square miles at White Sands Missile
Range, N.M., and nearby Fort Bliss, Texas. The exercises helped the Army quickly pinpoint problems with particular systems and in a matter of months develop fixes that normally would take years, according to Col. Daniel Hughes, director of the System of Systems Integration Directorate.
During the first exercise, for example, soldiers panned the Nett Warrior System, which graphically displays the location of combat team members to facilitate tactical decisions. The testers said the computer, keyboard and helmet-mounted eyepiece ensemble was too cumbersome and too heavy at 12 pounds. Developers quickly fashioned a replacement for the next test in November 2011, ditching the separate keyboard and eyepiece for a small Android-based computer, which shaved off 6 pounds.
At White Sands, Pfc. David Kramlich questioned the utility of equipping rank-and-file soldiers with computers, noting that in combat they should be focused on their immediate surroundings rather than on a digital screen.
Hughes acknowledges warfighters should not be distracted by glancing at a computer, and says developers will rely on upcoming evaluations to help determine the best way to employ Nett Warrior. Its true utility could be at nighttime, he says, when the system’s GPS receivers and map functions can enhance situational awareness.
Soldier feedback also led the Defense Department to junk the refrigerator- size Joint Tactical Radio System Ground Mobile Radio, which did not transmit as far as required and was unreliable in the field. That decision spared the department $15 billion on the acquisition.
After the evaluations, the Army also determined it had to beef up tactical networks that connect the foxhole to brigade headquarters. Hughes says an unprecedented fast-track procurement for 5,000 single-channel, vehicle-mounted radios was launched in February to bridge the communications gap between soldiers wearing Rifleman Radios and brigade tactical operations centers.
Lt. Col. Troy Crosby, product manager for network systems, says soldier feedback indicates the new vehicle radios “will meet operational needs as a vital communications link to the tactical edge.” The Army plans to award an indefinite delivery-indefinite quantity contract for the vehicle radios in August and expects delivery to the first of eight brigade combat teams in October.
The next network integration evaluation, in May, will test another variant of the Joint Tactical Radio System manpack radio. This version runs the Soldier Radio Waveform, software that defines bandwidth, modulation and
During last year’s evaluations the manpack radio took more than one minute to boot up to handle a voice call, which is well beyond the tolerance of soldiers in combat who need to communicate quickly, says Col. Daniel Pinnell, commander of the test brigade. Also, the radio’s capacity to transmit data tops out at 1 megabit per second.
The Army and its manpack radio contractor, General Dynamics C4 Systems, have made adjustments to the radio based on soldier evaluations. The Defense Department has budgeted $1.2 billion for all variants in JTRS in 2012 and requested a $1 billion budget in 2013.
In May, the Army will conduct an evaluation of the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical Increment 2, also developed by General Dynamics C4 Systems. It is designed to wirelessly blast data across the battlefield from company, brigade and division headquarters while on the move. Using nodes installed on vehicles, the system can relay information at 30 megabits per second. The Army budgeted $1.1 billion for WIN-T in 2012 and requested $2.2 billion for 2013.
Last year, soldiers identified numerous problems with WIN-T, including poor voice quality with satellite transmission, inadequate integration of equipment in combat vehicles and insufficient training. According to Kyle Bond, an Army spokesman for the WIN-T program, developers have since improved training manuals, ergonomic design of equipment installed in vehicle cabs and integration of headsets with the WIN-T voice transmission system.
Bond says WIN-T officials cannot do much about the poor voice quality due to inherent problems with using a satellite that is 22,000 miles above the Earth. But, he adds, this method is preferable to no voice communications at all when troops are out of a range of a terrestrial WIN-T node. The exercise in May will be the first full-scale evaluation of JTRS synchronized with WIN-T. If it works, the Army will have an integrated, wireless Internet-based battlefield communications system.