Fort Bliss is playing a vital role in the Army's ongoing efforts to keep up with technology and continually modernize itself.
The large-scale Network Integration Evaluation is held twice a year at Fort Bliss, at its surrounding training ranges and at White Sands Missile Range.
The NIE, as it's commonly called, evaluates radios, computers, batteries, software, antennas and other equipment.
"It runs the gamut," said Lt. Col. Andy Morgado, operations officer in charge of planning for the NIE.
The main purpose of the exercise is to put equipment into the hands of real soldiers in realistic warlike scenarios, Morgado said.
"We're now developing future concepts," he said. "The Army is focusing its time, energy and resources into this and that's keeping Fort Bliss relevant as an installation to the Army and the nation."
The 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, is attached to the Brigade Modernization Command, which is headquartered at Fort Bliss. The Brigade Modernization Command is one of three Army agencies that manage the NIE.
More than 3,000 soldiers from the 2nd Brigade and an additional 1,000 soldiers, civilians and contractors from the rest of the country participated in the most recent exercise, which ended in mid-November.
The Brigade Modernization Command and the 2nd Brigade have teamed up for "another successful Network Integration Evaluation," said Maj. Gen. Dana J.H. Pittard, commander of the 1st Armored
Division and Fort Bliss.
"We are quickly becoming the hub for testing and evaluating most of the Army's future combat systems," Pittard said. "For new equipment and innovation, the future is right here at Fort Bliss and White Sands."
El Paso Mayor John Cook said that it's easy to see the impact of this large-scale exercise. It helps to protect Fort Bliss during any future Base Realignment and Closure processes that may occur and makes it attractive for other military operations to locate here in the future, he said.
"It brings soldiers from all over the country to practice and do military operations here that they can't do other places," Cook said. "Some stay in our hotels, eat in our restaurants and enjoy the things that El Paso has to offer."
What the NIE seeks to do is put equipment into the hands of a real Brigade Combat Team that is trained to deploy anywhere in the world at a moment's notice, Morgado said.
Realistic scenarios that they may encounter in the field are then created to test and evaluate the equipment, he added.
"We're in a pretty unique time," Morgado said. "We're wrapping up two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, though there are still a lot of people in harm's way. Now, we're looking at threats we could be facing in the future and anticipating them."
The Brigade Modernization Command comes together with two other Army organizations to manage the NIE -- the Army Test and Evaluation Command and the System of Systems Integration Directorate.
The Brigade Modernization Command's role is to take concepts and "put them in the dirt and take them for a roll," Morgado said.
Thirty-five to 40 different systems or pieces of equipment are tested every six months during the NIE, he said.
The Army takes a look at present-day capabilities, where the service needs to be in the future and then looks to fill those "gaps," Morgado said.
It seeks possible solutions Army-wide and from private industry, he said. The NIE then tests those possible solutions with no preconceived notions, Morgado added.
"A negative outcome is just as good as a positive outcome," he said.
If soldiers don't like the way a particular piece of equipment performs, "we'll say, 'Don't spend a dime of government money on it,' " Morgado said.
Fort Bliss and White Sands are ideal for this type of exercise because of their vast land mass, he added. Fort Bliss, for example, has 1.2 million acres of training ranges that extend into New Mexico. White Sands has an additional 2.2 million acres.
Combined, that's an area almost the size of the state of Connecticut.
This large desert training ground also allows the Army to use its communications systems without interfering with civilian functions, Morgado said.
A key part of the NIE is getting feedback on the equipment being tested. Objective data are collected from sensors on the equipment, but privates to commanders are also asked for their input, Morgado said.
"The question we want answered is 'Would you take this into combat with you?' " Morgado said.
Col. Beth Bierden, director of Network Integration with the Brigade Modernization Command, said the goal is to "take advantage of new technology and integrate it into what we can do, how we fight wars and even how we avoid fighting wars."
Equipment tested during the NIE can end up in Afghanistan within a year, she said. The key word is "integration," she said.
Before, the Army would come up with an advance in how a radio works, for instance, but it would be up to the commander in the field to figure out how to make it work with other technology, Bierden said.
"They don't have time for that," she said. "They're fighting a war."
Creating an improved network of radios, computers and software allows commanders to make better and faster decisions, Bierden said.
"We're making a difference in the Army," she said. "Technology has permeated everyone's lives. We're taking advantage of that inside the Army as well."