The Army has developed a test and evaluation strategy for its tactical network, which officials say will help guide what capabilities they buy and then field in 2021.

The integrated tactical network is a mix of existing programs of record and commercial off-the-shelf capabilities that allow a unit to communicate in congested environments and improves battlefield awareness. Four infantry brigade combat teams will use those tools in 2021, and the Army’s intent is to incrementally distribute newer capabilities to units every two years until 2028.

Throughout the Army’s testing of the ITN, it has relied on operational deployments as well as exercises and lab tests to reduce risk, understand what’s needed and to refine the service’s strategy.

Through the end of calendar year 2020, the Army has outlined a series of tests and exercises to help inform how it evaluates these technologies. This entire effort serves as a form of prototyping in which developers accompany operators as a way to get feedback that is used to make quick fixes to existing systems or to show off new systems the Army is considering buying.

Moreover, Army leadership will try to answer a series of questions related to its 2021 fielding. These range from how many systems should exist at each echelon, what density to support certain capabilities is necessary at certain echelons and what capability trade-offs — in terms of complexity, affordability and size weight and power — can be made without detracting from performance.

Under an evaluation framework, the test community seeks to answer certain questions under three broad buckets: effectiveness, suitability and survivability.

For effectiveness, testers will want to know if the ITN can enable mission command throughout operations, if it’s interoperable and if it’s expeditionary. On the suitability side, they will want to know if the ITN is operationally appropriate and provide adequate user experiences. Lastly, survivability will consider if the ITN can operate in a cyber and electronic warfare environment, documents state.

All of this will factor into the Army’s critical design review for the ITN, an acquisition term that essentially ensures a program can meet standard requirements for cost, schedule and performance.

Fielding to the first brigade

Thus far, the ITN has been fielded on an experimental basis. This includes the Security Force Assistance Brigade, elements of 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, which is using it now in Afghanistan, and now the 1st Infantry Brigade Combat Team/82nd Airborne Division, which is the first full brigade to get the ITN.

Army officials have said they needed to prove some concepts out at lower echelons first before scaling to a brigade, but also, some of the capabilities are actually designed more for lower echelons.

The current fielding and test schedule for parts of the 82nd, which will help provide the Army information on the full capability set 2021, runs from the end of September through January 2020. In February 2020, the Army will begin to exercises and user surveys.

Officials have noted that the kit of equipment as is, while experimental, provides next level capabilities.

The ITN is “far more reliable, it’s far more intuitive, it’s far more resilient,” Maj. Gen. James Mingus, commander of 82nd Airborne Division, told C4ISRNET. “Even though it’s not going to be the perfect network, which will never exist, it’s going to be 10 times better than the systems and the mission command systems that we have right now.”