DoD oversight office says Army tactical IT systems still too complicated to use

When the Army launched its first Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) back in the summer of 2011, the idea was to use actual soldiers from a brigade combat team to test and evaluate a lot of new tactical IT systems all at once in Texas and New Mexico, making sure the systems played well together and were easy for soldiers to use before sending them into live fire situations in Afghanistan.

The concept has proved to be fundamentally sound, says a new report from DoD’s Office of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E), but the Army has a long way to go before it can credibly say its tactical networks are soldier-friendly.

“Network components, both mission command systems and elements of the transport layer remain excessively complex to use,” the office wrote in its annual report to Congress last week. “The current capability of an integrated network to enhance mission command is diminished due to pervasive task complexity. It is challenging to achieve and maintain user proficiency.”

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One of the Army’s key objectives is to bring reliable network access to smaller units at the company level and below. But DOT&E found the task has been complicated by the fact that too many of the systems the service is fielding are not exactly plug-and-play. They require large numbers of the supplying vendors’ field service representatives to connect the systems to Army networks once they’re in the field and keep them up and running.

“This dependency corresponds directly to the excessive complexity of use of network components.”

Some of the complexity, DOT&E says, comes from fundamental physics: The part of the electromagnetic spectrum the Army is committed to using for its soldier radio waveform, which transports IP-based voice and data to and from individual radios, has shorter transmission ranges than the Army’s legacy SINCGARS radios and it’s especially susceptible to being blocked by hills and mountains.

“Establishing and maintaining networked communications is complex and difficult. For example, loading the initial network plans in all the necessary radios, updating the network to accommodate a new unit task organization, and conducting a communications security changeover are lengthy and cumbersome tasks requiring each individual radio to be manually updated,” the report said. “This process requires in excess of 24 hours for a brigade combat team to complete; this is an excessive length of time for a unit conducting combat operations.”

But the Army has been working on the radio complexity problem. In the most recent NIE last fall at Fort Bliss, Texas, officials showed they could reprogram radios over-the-air in much the same way smartphones receive new software updates.

Gary Martin, the Army’s program executive officer for command, control and communications-tactical told Federal News Radio shortly after the event that the reprogramming process had been cut from a few days to a few hours.

“It was extremely successful,” he said. “And it’s all software-based, so we can roll this new capability right into production almost immediately.”

The Army is also testing a single sign-on approach to its tactical IT systems. It would use hard tokens akin to military members’ common access cards, requiring just that physical credential — perhaps a wristband or a smartcard — plus a PIN number, instead of separate username and passwords for each system a soldier needs to access.

Among other concerns raised in the DOT&E report are that the NIE doesn’t seem to have done enough to help the Army figure out how to bring modern technologies into its armored and infantry brigades. In the case of armored brigades, current tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles don’t have the space or electrical power to accommodate many of the technologies the Army is examining. For infantry units, the outlook is also challenging because they don’t have nearly as many vehicles as the Stryker brigades the Army has been using for the NIE.

“Most of the key network components, such as Joint Battle Command–Platform, are hosted on vehicles. The challenge of linking into the tactical network is particularly acute at company level and below, where light infantry units operate dismounted.”

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