The Army’s new network tools, set to be deployed to units in 2021, were heavily influenced by a new factor: soldiers.

Through exercises and training events, the Army’s Network Cross-Functional Team received feedback on its design decisions for Capability Set ’21, the set of new network tools set to be delivered to soldiers next year as part of the service’s network modernization efforts.

“This is the first time really in recent history that the network has really focused on soldier feedback. And it’s important and it played a huge role in that,” said Col. Garth Winterle, project manager for tactical radios at the Army’s Program Executive Office Command, Control, Communication-Tactical.

The Army recently completed its critical design review of Capability Set ’21 and is in the beginning stages of procuring network pieces for delivery. In the lead-up to making purchases, feedback from units helped show the differences between how the new network tools perform in the field versus in a lab.

“Soldier ingenuity, leader know-how, the skill craft that our soldiers bring and the tradecraft they utilize in the field is a lot different than how we conceptualize it back here,” Col. Rob Ryan, deputy director of the Network CFT at Army Futures Command, said at a C4ISRNET event in June.

Testing for the capability set has been ongoing in lab-run experiments and with limited field tests in the last few months. Through the field experiments, the Army modernization team received feedback from units on what volume of various capabilities the soldiers needed, what capabilities were usable and what “attributes” of each capability soldiers found to be more important than others, said Winterle.

Disruptions caused by both the coronavirus pandemic and a deployment of the 82nd Airborne Division to the Middle East at the end of December forced the modernization team adjust its testing plans. Defender 2020, a massive exercise scheduled to take place in June with European allies, was altered. Army leaders had planned to use the event to test network equipment with allies.

However, network tests are “back on the calendar” in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2020, Winterle said.

“The design decisions that were made at critical design review are still up on the table for revision or reassessing after continual soldier feedback,” Winterle said. “This is a continual evaluation, continual process.”

Maj. Gen. Peter Gallagher, director of the Network CFT, said in a June 9 webinar with industry that several testing events, like a Joint Warfighting Assessment and Defender 2020, were altered, as were combat training center rotations and other exercises.

Those “are always great venues for us getting feedback from soldiers and leaders on improving the network design,” Gallagher said. Ryan said that the network team received feedback from soldiers during the development, build and delivery phases of network design.

In forthcoming testing events, the Army wants to figure out how many radios are needed and where they need to be located, Winterle said. The service also plans to evaluate if it undervalued and overvalued certain capabilities.

Andrew Eversden covers all things defense technology for C4ISRNET. He previously reported on federal IT and cybersecurity for Federal Times and Fifth Domain, and worked as a congressional reporting fellow for the Texas Tribune. He was also a Washington intern for the Durango Herald. Andrew is a graduate of American University.

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