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ARTICLE 

Army’s Blue-Force Tracking Technology Was a Tough Sell 

12  2,003 

by Roxana Tiron 

During their war preparations, U.S. soldiers initially dismissed the blue-force tracking technology—touted as one of the success stories of Operation Iraqi Freedom—as an unnecessary burden.

During the buildup for OIF, soldiers were reluctant to use the new system, said Army Maj. Jonas Vogelhut, the assistant project manager for Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below and its satellite communications version, the blue-force tracking, at Fort Monmouth, N.J.

Blue-force tracking systems, such as FBCB2, let commanders pinpoint the location of friendly forces on the battlefield.

Vogelhut led a group of experts that deployed to the Middle East to help with the installation and training for the BFT.

His team was embedded with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division. “Rather than bring their equipment from Fort Stewart, Ga., we would install 50 pieces of the equipment in that division [while deployed],” he told a National Defense Industrial Association conference in Fort Knox, Ky.

During the first days of training, Vogelhut’s team encountered strong resistance. An officer of the 2nd Brigade 3rd ID told him his troops did not want to use blue force tracking systems. “We are very comfortable with the way we use the map and how we track the battlefield,” Vogelhut recalled the officer saying. “All you are going to do is micro-manage us from the highest level, and we are going to hate it, but because it is an Army division we are going to do it,” that officer told Vogelhut.

Vogelhut’s office worked with them during the pre-invasion buildup in Kuwait and also once the U.S. forces entered Iraq. “In a short period of time we went from being a nuisance to something they liked,” he said. “And lot of that was a change from the way we do business. We are not just going to give you a new product, stay a couple of days to train you and leave. We will stay with you, because your real learning will go on when you use it yourself. We are only going to stay in the background.”

According to Vogelhut, one of the main criticisms was that the Army did not field enough systems. “We got to company level, but had we got into platoon level, a company would have better been able to maneuver instead of just trying to look outside a tank [or a] Bradley and see where their buddies were,” he said. “It did not happen. We could not get there fast enough. That is the next level. [We have to] anticipate the need of the war fighter forward, so that all the fighters have the same operational picture.”

The same capability also is needed for the dismounted force, Vogelhut said. Northrop Grumman recently introduced a handheld version of the BFT, which the company developed independently. The Army gave Northrop Grumman a $2 million contract to deliver 100 devices for testing with the 101st and the 82nd Airborne Divisions. The handheld ruggedized pocket PC uses beyond-line-of sight communication through a built-in L-band transceiver.

L-Band Woes
The FBCB2 system originally was designed for line-of-sight communications via the Army’s EPLRS secure radio network. In Iraq, the Army fielded a satellite version of the BFT system. However, the Army is not comfortable employing an unclassified commercial L-Band communications link and wants to make it more secure, officials said. The service recently issued a solicitation to industry for ideas on how to address the processing of classified blue force tracking messages over commercial mobile satellite communications networks.

The L-Band satellite can only process a limited number of classified messages. The necessary bandwidth was not available to process timely situational awareness, and command and control messages during OIF, said the Army solicitation. The interoperability between disparate BFT systems used by the U.S. and coalition forces aboard ground vehicles and rotary-wing aircraft is also a problem, as well as having the ability to operate multiple commercial satellite providers. Additionally, current technologies are too expensive.

The Army is seeking improved satellite communications protocols, low cost terminals and antennas to support blue force tracking improvements. Efforts should primarily be focused on the L-band. However, Ku-band technology is also of interest.

Some of the technology challenges include the development of fast recovery (from blockages) coding techniques, protocols, low-cost modems and antennas that work with different satellite systems.

Some of the desired characteristics of the BFT satellite terminals are the abilities to track vehicles in motion and to make sure that the vehicle keeps a low profile.

Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin are among the contractors expected to compete for future FBCB2 upgrade programs.

The terrestrial-based communications could not support the battle command requirements of OIF, officials said. There also was a critical disconnect between the battle command capability of combat support, combat service support and special operations units.

According to Lt. Col. John Charlton, the commander of 1-15 Infantry of the 3rd Infantry Division (mechanized), the biggest problem with BFT was that the digital pipe was too small, and “we were forced to limit our message size to a few hundred bytes,” he wrote in a paper entitled “Digital Battle Command Baptism by Fire.”

The result, he said, was that the lack of bandwidth limited the typical free text message to “only a couple of paragraphs.”

“Even the most simple fragmentary order had to be segmented and sent in several messages,” he wrote.

The lack of bandwidth also hampered navigation and battle tracking, he added. “My position would update about every 10 to 15 seconds, but all the other friendly icons would update about every few minutes,” he said. “This really made battle tracking on the move difficult.”

The system was not user friendly, he added. The Graphic User Interface on the FBCB2 is “about the most non-intuitive operating systems and GUI that I have ever used,” he said. “Even the simplest task took multiple steps to accomplish and some of the procedures simply did not make sense.”

The operating system also seemed to be very unstable, he said. “If users did not follow the shutdown procedures explicitly, bad things happened the next time you tried to boot up. Improper shutdowns created bugs in the system, and we had to wipe and reload hard drives several times to correct the problem.”

The FBCB2 system they used during the war lacked collaborative planning tools, he said. He had one FBCB2 system in his M577 vehicle and one FBCB2 laptop for the tactical operations center.

“The laptop was not wired to the FBCB2 network and was only for creating orders and graphics. The problem was that only one person could work on it at a time,” he said. “Each staff officer had to wait to type in his section of the FRAGO. It would have been much better to have a networked laptop with each staff section and mission planning tools that allowed those staff sections to collaborate and assemble their products digitally on FBCB2.”

According to Charlton, the mission data loader was “too large, slow, unreliable and the procedures for transferring files are tremendously difficult.”

On its end, Vogelhut’s office is working on releasing software version 3.5.5 of FBCB2, “which will double the allowable message sizes, permitting more information to be transmitted” at each time, he said. After that release, the office also will be working on improvements in the customizable reports, giving users more information in the areas of logistics and battle damage assessment, he added.

The Army also envisioned that it would employ FBCB2 as a source of information on the location of enemy, or red forces. But the red-force tracking feature has not worked as promised, because, unlike the blue force tracking, it requires an operator to constantly update the database.

“Red Force tracking is a manual type of effort,” said Vogelhut.

Blue force vehicles equipped with FBCB2 easily can be tracked in real time. Red force tracking is not an “automated feed,” Vogelhut stressed. “Soldiers on the ground would feed the information into the system.”

That means soldiers must be trained to constantly follow enemy positions and update the information. Because of the rapid fielding of the system (roughly from November 2002 to March 2003) and the need to train on the fly, there was not enough time for units to learn how to update the red force data. “The problem with updating the BFT [in OIF] was a training issue,” said Vogelhut.

“You see a bad guy, and you put a spot report in the system, but then the guy moves,” he said. “The spot reports are only good for a certain time frame...and they won’t be up to speed unless you update them,” said Vogelhut.

The Army has an automated intelligence processing tool, called the all-source-analysis system, that could feed back into some versions of the FBCB2 and inform on enemy positions. However, ASAS classified information only can be accepted by the secure EPLRS radio version of the FBCB2.

“For enemy data there are some systems that have some level of input analysis,” Vogelhut added. For example, “The LRAS (long-range advance scout) sensor inputs directly into the FBCB2, but that is not fielded in large quantities.” With LRAS, which is a laser surveillance system, the soldier would have to focus on one specific vehicle, usually in the center of the formation. If the soldier, at some point, has to get cover, he may lose track of the enemy vehicles.

“A lot of questions about the red force tracking have to do with the data that come into the system,” said Donald Winter, president of Northrop Grumman Mission Systems. Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor for FBCB2.

“What we have been trying to do is design a system, which can take that data and disseminate it to all of the blue forces that need to have it,” Winter said in an interview. “Everybody knows what the latest intelligence reports are. It also provides mechanisms whereby any of those troops that are engaging can send their own reports in. So, they can actually supplement the intelligence report that comes out of the system.”

According to Winter, the amount of experience that the troops had with the BFT system was limited, because it was fielded on short notice.

While the company is not working on any sensors to specifically address the red force tracking issue, it is working primarily on “the interfaces to the intelligence activities and also [on] the mechanisms of distributing that information.”

According to Vogelhut, “It is the bigger focus of the Army to incorporate the direct feed of enemy information. No matter what system would pick up that info it would be transmitted to the FBCB2.”

According to Imad Bitar, the deputy director for battlefield digitization at Northrop Grumman Mission Systems, the company delivered 1,300 FBCB2 units for U.S. and coalition ground vehicles and aircraft in OIF, and installed the L-band BFT version on 130 platforms per brigade. He told reporters at the Association of the U.S. Army convention that the FBCB2 fielding concept is being revised. Northrop Grumman hopes the Army will install up to 300 to 320 FBCB2 systems per brigade, and possibly go up to 600 or 700 per brigade in the future.

To date, the Army has fielded more than 2,500 FBCB2 systems. The plan is to field 20,000 additional systems in the next four years, according to Vogelhut. The Army also is responsible for making the system joint. In OIF, the technology was shared with the Marine Corps and British forces.

“We plan to capitalize on that effort in the coming months,” said Vogelhut. His office is working with the Air Force to get situational awareness in the cockpit through the Link-16 radio, he said. Making BFT joint would be relatively simple, he said, because “our software has been built with flexibility in mind and focused on future joint interoperability.”

BFT systems currently are operational in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.

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