PENTAGON: The Army showed off an impressive array of battlefield wi-fi gadgetry today in the Pentagon courtyard, exhibiting new-found realism about what gadgets it might not need.

Consider the hardware to connect the individual foot soldier to the brigade-wide command network, which has been stripped down from a 14-pound prototype to a militarized smartphone plugged into a handheld radio.

Originally, “there was a requirement on the program for it to operate one meter underwater for two hours,” Brig. Gen. John Morrison, “LandWarNet” director on the Army staff, said in a roundtable with reporters. “This is something that was going to be strapped to a soldier’s back. If that soldier was one meter underwater for two hours, it didn’t matter if the equipment was working.”

“We don’t need that big-ass box that we had,” said one combat veteran who wore an early 12-pound version on a deployment. “I appreciated the capability,” he said. “I wished it was lighter, [but] I still wore it.” Today’s version, based on commercial Android smartphones, definitely gives up some of the early models’ features. It’s easier to break. Soldiers can’t operate the touchscreen while wearing standard-issue gloves (though special gloves are available). The display is harder to read in glaring sunlight or in darkness, and the system won’t keep operating after the electromagnetic pulse from a nuclear bomb. On the other hand, it costs and weighs a fraction as much.

So, after more than a decade of experiments — variously named “Land Warrior,” “Ground Soldier System,” and, now, “Nett Warrior” (with two t’s, after World War II hero Col. Robert Nett) — that saw less than four brigades’ worth of equipment actually deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army will be able to issue the stripped-down system to eight brigades by the end of fiscal year 2013 and another six in 2014. The original plan would not have started fielding for at least two more years, said Morrison, and would have cost $800 million more.

“Instead of going for the home run that takes us seven years to get in the hands of soldiers, you can get something in the hands of soldiers within months to years and get that capability fielded,” said Col. Dan Hughes, director of “system of systems integration” for the assistant Army secretary for acquisition. “So we’re becoming smarter shoppers.”

The slimmed-down Nett Warrior is one part of what the Army calls its “Capability Set 13,” after the fiscal year in which it will be fielded. Seven brigades will start getting their gear this October; a test brigade at Fort Bliss, Texas already has its “13” kit and put it through months of field trials called “Network Integration Evaluations,” or NIEs, tough tests where soldiers rejected some equipment. Capability Set 14 will follow the next fiscal year, equipping six more brigades.

The current Capability Set includes some 15 systems, the idea being to test all the technology together at Fort Bliss to work out bugs and develop standard procedures before issuing the equipment to troops in the field. Together, the 15 systems address at least 10 operational needs identified as problems by forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. The two most critical, the Army says, are Nett Warrior — which connects troops on foot to networks they could previously access only from their vehicles — and what’s called WIN-T Inc 2, Warfighter Information Network – Tactical, Increment 2 — which connects commanders in their vehicles to networks they could previously access only from stationary command posts.

WIN-T also shows the Army’s new modesty in action, because the Pentagon’s cutting the network’s 2012 budget in half. To help cover unbudgeted expenses on fuel, whose cost has risen, and on shipping supplies to Afghanistan via the more expensive northern route, necessary because Pakistan is closed, the Defense Department is taking $414 million out of $838 million appropriated for this year but not actually spent.

But Army officials told Breaking Defense that cut won’t affect Capability Set 13. The original plan was to rapidly issue WIN-T across the Army and install it in ordinary Humvees. Now WIN-T will be fielded more slowly, starting with just the eight brigades in Capability Set 13, and only on more robust M-ATVs, the all-terrain version of the Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicle.

Two of those vehicles from the Fort Bliss brigade were on display at the Pentagon today, including the brigade commander’s, packed with electronics. “It’s a bit tight,” laughed Specialist Allison Ferrone, a signals technician, as she pointed to the cramped seat in back from which she operated the network gear while the vehicle bounced down desert roads and, on occasion, got stuck in mud. As for the WIN-T network itself, “Sometimes it freezes on you,” she said, but only “once every couple of weeks.” The rest of the time, though, she could provide the commander all the capabilities once limited to static command posts — mission updates from subordinate units, intelligence databases, even VoIP phone calls to any secure phone in the world — while on the move. The only difference between the command vehicle and a fixed headquarters, she said, was that the screens were a lot smaller.

Before, those capabilities were only available at fixed locations, said another soldier from the Fort Bliss brigade, Warrant Officer-1 Eric Bache, a veteran of 14 years who has deployed to Afghanistan, Kuwait, and Kosovo. “[It was] extremely painful to move it,” he said. “This is really an on-the-move system… You really don’t have to stop.”

The most recent Network Integration Exercise put 3,800 soldiers in the field for 43 days, said the head of Fort Bliss testing, Brig. Gen. Randal Dragon, during which every single command post relocated “at least three times.” At the beginning of the exercise, brigade soldiers took 12 hours to set up a command post; by the end, Dragon said, the time was down to three. The brigade went through simulated combat against a “hybrid” enemy combining guerrillas and nation-state opponents, foot troops and vehicles, over a vast area that sometimes stretched the command network over a hundred miles. Army units generally operate out of fixed bases where they have had a long time to build up their network infrastructure. In the next war — whatever it may be — the Army will probably have to deploy into new theaters where it has no bases, where the ability to operate out of vehicles on the move will be essential.

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