WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army says it is ready to conduct its first wide-ranging test of its network gear in June even though the Defense Department’s testing office recommended the service delay the evaluation by six weeks.

Michael Gilmore, the Defense Department’s director of operational test and evaluation, ripped the Army in March during testimony before Congress, saying the service had fallen behind schedule and needed more time to plan the complex series of tests of up to 26 systems and six programs of record.

However, a month before the Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) is set to start at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., the Army is confident it will start on time.

“The vast majority of the planning process is complete, and we’re rapidly moving toward execution. By all accounts, it seems to be on track,” said Col. John Morrison, Land-WarNet/Battle Command director.

The results of the evaluation will inform fielding decisions for the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS), the Ground Mobile Radio, the Mounted Soldier System, the next­generation Force 21 Battle Command Brigade and Below system, the Network Integration Kit, the JTRS Hand­held Manpack Small Form Fit radio, and the Spider XM7 Network Command Munition.

The Army has never tested this many systems in development, Army officials said.

More than 3,600 soldiers with 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, and more than 1,000 vehicles will take part in the six-week event. Another 600 to 800 soldiers and government civilians out of Program Executive Office Network Integration will take part in the evaluation, said Col. John Wendel, deputy program executive officer for Network Integration.

“I can’t think of anything that is one-fifth the size of this,” Wendel said. “Just the magnitude of the whole thing is unprecedented.” And this is just the start. The Army plans to host this evaluation twice a year.

Army leaders hope to eliminate stovepiping in the test phase of weapon development. Soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan too often complained that new equipment did not work with the gear already in use.

Nowhere is this more important than the Army network, said Col. Rich Juergens, Brigade Modernization Command deputy commander. Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli listed the network as the service’s top acquisition priority.

“In the wake of [Future Combat Systems], [Chiarelli] took a look at what the modernization priorities were, and rightly put his finger on the importance of the network. He took a look at how the Army was modernizing the network and what he saw was a lot of good hard work being done but it was scattered all over the place,” Juergens said.

The NIE was designed to bring the computer, software, radios and sensors involved in the network to one training range and allow combat-hardened soldiers a chance to test the equipment’s true capabilities under realistic scenarios.

“It really is a fundamental shift in the way we have done this in the past,” Morrison said. “Individual acquisition programs were looked at in a stovepiped individual fashion. But in reality, all of the pieces and parts of the network need to be in one place if you are truly going to deliver a network capability.”

Because it is so new, members of the Defense Department’s testing office did not understand the entire plan, Army officials said. Since Gilmore’s comments to Congress, the Army and Defense Department (DoD) have had multiple meetings to bring the DoD’s Operational Testing and Evaluation up to date.

Morrison faulted himself and the Army for not thoroughly explaining how his service planned on hosting these tests so frequently.

“The fundamental thing that we needed to articulate that didn’t come across when we initially did the plan is that the NIE construct as it supports our network strategy of capability sets. It’s not a onetime deal. It’s really a building-block approach and it’s something that we really plan to be enduring. Once we crossed that bridge, I think we came to an understanding,” Morrison said.

Rehearsals for the evaluation started in May; soldiers trained in April on the new equipment, which they will use in June. It is a quick turnaround for a service that first laid the plans for the NIE last fall.

Success of the evaluation will not be measured by the performance of the systems. In fact, the Army expects some or many of the 26 systems it plans to test in June to fail.

But that is the point. Service officials would rather discover those problems on the training range than in combat. Juergens said that too often the integration portion of development has been ignored and led to too many weapons getting chucked into Afghan or Iraqi shipping containers, never to be seen again.

“We’re integrating the network on the front end versus the back end. If you look at how we’ve done things downrange, you would have seen that we pushed a lot of network capabilities downrange for all the right reasons, but the person who was integrating that was the unit S-6 on the ground. Now we’re going to bring that integration burden back,” Morrison said.

Wendel and Juergens said the NIE will save the Army money in the long run by catching faults early — funding the service can ill afford to waste in this budget environment.

“No, we have to say what’s the cost avoidance of having the twice annual, simultaneous test. There is some cost avoidance there for the Army and you can’t put into words the payoffs of running the full-up architecture,” Wendel said.