The Army has just finished its second Network Integration Evaluation (NIE). This large exercise appears to have accomplished its primary goals of accelerating the notoriously slow acquisition process, field-testing entire networks, and gathering valuable end-user feedback. Sometime massive bureaucratic efforts do work.
Although complete tactical communication systems were tested, the smartphones were the center of attention. Some results are already filtering out.
Non-ruggedized commercial smartphones aren’t rugged. Some have argued that relatively inexpensive “non-rugged” commercial smartphones are adequate for battlefield conditions (See Christian Monitor). They’re wrong. A few problems of commercial smartphones include:
Phones failed to function when they got too hot.
Displays could not be read in bright sunlight.
Micro-USB connectors failed (and even broke off) due to physical stress.
“Dirt got everywhere.”
NIE was designed to find problems and it did. Nett Warrior stalled and had problems with texting. Blue Force Tracking (FBCB2/BFT) portrayed inaccurate positions on the JBC-P Handheld. The Rifleman Radio has range issues. Soldiers worry that the radio’s noise will betray their position to the enemy (they want a headset).
Warfighters don’t want smartphones. This may be the biggest surprise. For months, we’ve been hearing that the old-fashion hierarchal model of distributing information only to the rear echelon must be up-ended, and that every warfighter needed Situational Awareness data in real time. Yet, according to National Defense, many soldiers in the NIE found the handheld communication systems to be distracting and unnecessary. The effort of pushing connectivity to the frontlines is not dead; it’s just that not every single soldier needs a smartphone.
The next NIE is scheduled for spring, and it will be intresting to see how many of this NIE results will be incorporated. Will proponents of “non-rugged” smartphones abandoned their dream of supplying troops from the nearest Wal-Mart? Will the brass accept that the current generation of warfighters can launch a ground assault without consulting a Facebook page or their Twitter feed? The NIE is looking like a success, but its true worth has yet to be proven.