FORT BLISS, Texas -- It was a toasty 105 degrees in the Southwest desert when the Army hosted its media day for the Network Integration Evaluation 17.2.
Members of the 101st Airborne division's 2nd brigade hid their vehicles out amongst the so-called "chia pets"--the clumps of sand and vegetation that turns what should be a flat and featureless desert into a maze of mini sand dunes. They provide cover for friend and foe alike. Conditions like this make communicating using hand signals all but impossible. Radio links here become vitally important.
It's just one of many reasons that the Army comes here once per year to test out new and emerging network technologies at the NIE. Fort Bliss and the adjoining White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico is one of those rare spots in the continental United States where units can engage in electronic warfare without having to worry about interfering with civilian networks. The Federal Aviation Administration has no jurisdiction over its skies. Units can fly unmanned aerial vehicles here without needing FAA authorization.
Both signal jamming and UAVs with improvised explosive devices strapped to them are part of this year's scenario, Brig. Gen. Joel Taylor, commanding general of Joint Modernization Command, said during a briefing in a decidedly cooler hotel conference room near the El Paso airport.
The red team receives training from Army intelligence units prior to the exercise and the goal is to give them the "best in breed" of what the bad guys have to attack U.S. forces. And those lately are non-kinetic weapons.
While the Southwest desert is often used as a stand-in to train U.S. forces heading to the Middle East, a much different environment is on the minds of Army leadership of late.
"If you look at what's happening in Eastern Europe, some of the folks over there have used battalion-sized groups and augmented them with electronic warfare capability, unmanned aerial systems, cyber elements--some of those supported from the home country," Taylor said.
The fact that the enemy can reach out and attack a small Army unit from higher echelons thousands of miles away through the network is not lost on senior leaders. The year 2014 looms large as Russia effectively used electronic warfare and cyber attacks to damage Ukrainian forces' ability to carry out command and control. New technologies being introduced at the NIE will have to withstand the red force's EW and cyber assaults.