By Kate Brannen
White Sands Missile Range, N.M. — A lot has changed in a year. The Army put its brigade combat team modernization equipment through a rigorous test in the desert here last fall, and the results led the Pentagon to conclude that most of the equipment was unreliable and none of it was ready to be fielded.
A year has gone by, and the Army is back at White Sands testing the equipment again. So what’s changed?
This time around, the test is bigger — and weirder, with soldiers playing Afghan village elders, issuing the call to prayer five times a day from a shipping container-turned-mosque and grilling meat in their free time.
The equipment is working better, although it’s too soon to tell how much better.
But perhaps the most important change is the Army’s shift of focus from the individual gadgets to the network that connects them.
In fact, the only thing that seems to be the same is the loud drone of the Class I UAV, the “flying beer keg,” hovering above the desert.
“I’m really excited about the network,” said Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the vice chief of staff of the Army, speaking at a Sept. 22 lunch in Washington.
“I don’t think anybody should get fixated on any group of things that necessarily connects to the network. I think those are less important than the network itself and the ability to connect things to the network now and into the future.”
The general visited White Sands Missile Range on Sept. 7 to observe the network and the connected sensors, robots and drones in action. Reporters were invited to view this year’s limited-user test on Sept. 17. While soldiers have been working with and testing the equipment all summer, the formal test took place Sept. 14-28.
The goal is to get soldiers connected and passing data, officials said, while downplaying the importance of the sensors, drones and robots that generate the data.
‘IS IT USABLE?’
None of the gear in last year’s limited-user test performed well. The gear originally was conceived for the enormous program that eventually was canceled — the Future Combat Systems. That includes Tactical and Urban Unattended Ground Sensors, the Class 1 Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, the Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle and the Network Integration Kit.
The NIK is a sophisticated suite of communications gear that includes the Integrated Computer System and the Ground Mobile Radio being developed as part of the Joint Tactical Radio System. These systems begin to form the Army’s tactical network backbone.
Following a December review, Pentagon acquisition executive Ashton Carter gave the Army permission to buy only one brigade’s worth of the equipment, citing “large reliability shortfalls.” He also gave the Army permission to buy up to $70 million in long-lead items for the second brigade set.
To get permission to keep buying gear for brigades two and three, the Army needs to prove in this year’s test that the systems are reliable and useful.
“The Army is less bogged down in the widgets this time around and [is] instead asking, ‘Is it usable? Is it mature enough and is it affordable to buy?’ ” Army spokesman Paul Mehney said.
Part of the reason the specific systems are less important is the rapid rate at which this technology changes, Chiarelli said. Since the FCS sensors, drones and robots were first envisioned, similar products have been rapidly fielded to Iraq and Afghanistan. Micro Air Vehicles search for improvised explosive devices in Iraq, PackBots have been used to clear caves in Afghanistan and ground sensors have long been used in combat.
So the network is front and center in development efforts.
“The idea that [the network] is the centerpiece of Army modernization only grows each and every day and each time I go out and see some of the things we’re able to do,” Chiarelli said.
And the network was expected to do more during this year’s test.
The test itself is much bigger, with a company-sized unit being swapped out for a battalion and the radius of the battlefield growing from 10 kilometers to 35 kilometers.
To communicate across this distance, the Army is using 15 NIKs, with 15 production-representative GMRs, compared with last year’s seven. They are able to keep connected out to 30 kilometers, triple the required range, said Lt. Col. Luke Peterson, product manager for network systems for Program Executive Office for Integration.
During this test, the Army evaluated the network’s performance against electronic attack, although officials were wary about providing details.
Living in the desert for weeks to test the equipment are soldiers from the Army Evaluation Task Force, first established in June 2007 to test FCS equipment.
This year, in addition to the equipment left over from FCS, they’ve been given the same items they would have if deployed to Afghanistan. This includes a combination of cameras and surveillance equipment positioned on observation towers and aerostats. They also have 44 mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, including 21 of the new ATV variant. The soldiers at White Sands are the only units outside of Afghanistan operating the new vehicles.
They are also facing an opposition force that has been given more leeway to be creative.
“Last year’s LUT was much more scripted,” said Col. Steve Duke from Army Test and Evaluation Command. He is in charge of making sure the test is realistic. He said he has “no vested interest in whether we buy this or not.”
“It makes me happy to see the opposition force unleashed,” he said.
The opposition troops flew kites to obscure the view of the Class I UAV. In one of the made-up villages, the locals wouldn’t let U.S. soldiers place the Unattended Urban Sensors. They captured a U.S. soldier and held him in an underground tunnel.
The red team of enemy fighters, wearing jeans, sunglasses and head scarves, seemed to have free rein. But they could not physically tamper with the equipment, so as not to break the digital data collectors on board.
When they weren’t fighting, they grilled a lot and played board games, dominoes and backgammon. At night, they sometimes lit up a hookah and hung out.
They were instructed to “have fun with it, but not to make fun of it,” said 1st Lt. Eric Muirhead, who worked with red teams to prepare for the role.
Members of the opposition force provided valuable insights into the equipment being tested.
They said the Class I UAV hindered their movement the most, calling it a “solid eye in the sky.” However, another soldier said they were most afraid of the observation towers, which are not a part of the equipment package.
They said sometimes the blue team got frustrated with the equipment and abandoned it to move more quickly. However, they said they saw this less and less as the soldiers grow more comfortable with operating the systems.
Soldiers on both sides fill out surveys and provide constant feedback.
Data was streaming in, but final results have not been tallied, said Duke from Army Test and Evaluation Command.
“Last year, some say there were challenges with reliability,” he said. “I say there were problems.”
To measure this year’s progress, the Army is spending roughly $12 million, “a tremendous investment in treasure to conduct this operational test,” Duke said.
The Army will collect its results from this year’s test and report in December to Carter for permission to continue with sets two and three.
Duke said he expects that this year “reliability has improved. How much? I don’t know; we’ll find out.”