New Army lab does the heavy lifting before the NIE

Aberdeen Proving Ground facility tests and evaluates software and electronics bound for field evaluation.

The Army's new lab at Aberdeen Proving Ground is crucial in testing and evaluating soldier electronics and software headed for the service’s third Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) that runs from March 14 through June 8.

Designed to help speed the development and integration of new battlefield communications and networking technologies into the Army’s active units, the semi-annual event held at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., has become a key part of the service’s Agile Acquisition process. Equally important to the success of the NIE is the infrastructure of laboratories that evaluate new systems before they are issued to soldiers.

Testing and validating new equipment is one of the NIE’s central roles. The integration laboratories at Aberdeen are an important part of this process because they evaluate and approve vendor-provided gear and software before it heads out for field trials.

The Program Executive Office, Command, Control, and Communications-Tactical (PEO C3T) at Aberdeen is responsible for building the Army’s network and integrating new systems and equipment into it. Because the command is conducting this work ahead of time, rather than leaving it up to forces in the field to deal with, it represents a major change in the Army’s integration process, said Jennifer Zbozny, chief engineer at the PEO C3T’s technical management division said at a March media briefing. The command works with the Army’s LandWarNet-Battle Command Directorate to map out operational mission goals and solider needs before the network is laid out, she said.

During this NIE there will be key differences in the network operations and capabilities, Zbozny said. Among them, the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) Increment 2 will be the first moving wide-area network. Its predecessor, WIN-T Increment 1, is a static network that operates from fixed, stationary command posts. The latest increment of WIN-T will provide commanders with communications on the move and allow units to collaborate and manage artillery support and intelligence applications while moving—something that the Army could not do before, she said.

Another major part of the NIE will be validating the entire lower tactical Internet. Where it was once a very sparsely populated area of the network, it is now served by the soldier radio waveform for use by mounted and dismounted tactical radios. The Army plans to deploy some 700 radios for vehicles and tactical operations centers per brigade combat team in Capability Set 13, Zbozny said.

The PEO also is working to integrate applications to ensure that they work over the network to permit commanders to carry out their missions. As the lead integrator, PEO C3T works with a variety of commands and laboratories within the NIE architecture to provide better systems and gear for soldiers. “Everybody’s really collaborating to make this work,” Zbozny said.

CERDEC’s role

The other organization supporting the Agile Process and the fielding of Army capability sets—packages of equipment and software that are annually issued to Army units as part of their refit cycle—is the Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC). The command has a long history of working across command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR), said Seth Spoenlein, CERDEC’s lab director. The center also supports many of the network activities and provides technical support to both programs of record and research and development efforts, he said.

For NIE 12.2 this spring CERDEC sent out requests for proposals and candidate selection. At the Aberdeen campus, CERDEC’s activities are focused around its C4ISR Integration Laboratory, which is the hub for both NIE and capabilities set fielding activities, Spoenlein said. “We’re excited about that because it allows us to test and integrate things in a controlled and replicable environment before actually showing up on the operational side,” he said.

Technology evaluations at the laboratory allow systems to be tested before they move on to soldier trials. CERDEC’s white paper and candidate evaluations have been a major boost to the spring NIE because it found a number of systems to be either not mature enough or in need of additional help and guidance before being included into Army networks, Spoenlein said. This process will be even more effective going into NIE 13.1 this fall, he said.