A Chinook helicopter flies over a convoy of friendly troops in Afghanistan. Beyond the next bend, the pilot spots a couple of men digging holes on the side of the road. He quickly pulls up a digital map that displays several blue icons. He clicks on the one representing the convoy, types a quick text message to warn of the potential danger ahead and continues on his way.
Several years ago, it would have been nearly impossible for the helicopter pilot to contact the ground force he just passed. But with a technology that is known as blue force tracking, units can “see” each other on the battlefield and communicate via text messages.
Soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have come to rely so heavily upon the system that they continue to demand the latest variants in large numbers. As the Army fields the technology, officials are still working out some kinks.
“Is the system perfect today? The answer is, absolutely no,” said Lt. Col. David Grauel, project manager for the blue force tracking system, which is known in the Army as Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below.
The FBCB2 is the Army’s principal digital command and control system at the brigade and below level. It comes in two variants: one that is based on the ground force’s ultra-high frequency radio network — the enhanced position location reporting system, or EPLRS — and one that utilizes a commercial satellite communications network.
About 30 percent of the FBCB2-equipped forces are on the EPLRS network while 70 percent have the sat-com version.
Both variants display the locations of friendly and enemy forces on bird’s eye view maps of the battlefield. They also provide tools for other capabilities, such as military graphics and overlays, medical evacuation requests and free text messages.
As the Army looks ahead, it sees a need to blend the two into a next-generation blue force tracking system. But before it gets there, officials say they need to improve the current technologies.
Soldiers have complained that the system occasionally misidentifies the vehicles they are in, and that communications via the L-band satellite link sometimes take too long to go through.
The former problem reflects the biggest complaint coming from forces fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Grauel. The issue originates from the system’s software, which has an “inflexible database structure” that is updated quarterly.
The database consists of entries filled with information on every single FBCB2 system. A typical entry includes data on the type of vehicle, the equipment aboard the vehicle (radio, laser range finder, GPS device, etc.), unit reference numbers, IP addresses and map symbols.
If a platoon leader from a Bradley unit who normally operates an EPLRS radio tries to log onto the FBCB2 system from another vehicle that runs a sat-com radio, he will not be able to access the network because his user profile shows that his equipment is not compatible with the sat-com network.
To fix the problem, engineers have developed new software that will upgrade the database with a “self descriptive situation awareness” capability to allow FBCB2 operators to update user profiles without requiring major reprogramming.
“The bottom line is that we will have a database structure that our soldiers can modify in the field without having to go through a four-month long cycle of database changes,” said Grauel.
The new software, called the joint capabilities release, will undergo testing at Fort Hood, Texas, in the April to May timeframe.
The complaints about the sat-com link are a result of network overload. Grauel told National Defense that the project office continuously receives requests for more satellite-based FBCB2 systems. “That’s a testament to how much these war fighters rely upon the systems,” he said.
Because missions in both Iraq and Afghanistan require units to operate in dispersed locations, the range of the FM radio-based systems — 25 kilometers — is insufficient to support those troops.
“It’s relatively easy to outrun your FM comms,” said Grauel. “With the blue force tracker, there are no range restrictions — if you can see the satellite, you can talk to anyone on the network.”
The project office is working on increasing the bandwidth of the EPLRS system and improving the L-band satellite capability by contracting for additional channels.
Another goal is to improve the hardware at the satellite ground station locations. “What that will allow is to have more platforms in theater transmitting simultaneously with fewer messages dropped, with a high message completion rate,” Grauel explained. Those network improvements will help reduce the latency of the system and eventually provide enough capacity for video and voice communications, he added.
The improvements also will help increase the compatibility between Army and Marine Corps systems.
“We’re still going to have architecture network differences between the services, but we’re going to make the connection better,” said Grauel. In the future, the network will not be based on unit hierarchy, he added. Forces will be able to identify units in other services and communicate. “If you’re in the vicinity of another unit, no matter who they are, you’re going to be able to talk to them,” he said.
To protect the data in the blue-force tracking network, the program office this month will begin distributing 45 prototype encryption devices that contractors will install in FBCB2 units. Grauel expects the crypto technology will be certified in the spring and begin deliveries in late fall.
For vehicles such as the Stryker, which was designed to accommodate the line-of-sight FBCB2 variant, the demand for the newer satellite-based systems is growing. In Iraq, units have been operating outside the range of their FM systems, and they want to be able to see their whole area of operations, said Grauel. About 60 blue-force tracking units are deployed to each Stryker brigade, and that number may be bumped up to 100 or 150 systems.
That in itself is generating a new problem, because those Stryker fleets now carry two separate FBCB2 systems that are mounted on the same vehicle.
“We’re doing it for operational reasons, but we really should be able to do better than that,” Grauel told attendees at an Institute for Defense and Government Advancement conference.
Stryker brigade leaders have complained about having too many screens in the vehicle and having two systems that are not integrated. “Anytime you have a mix and match of equipment, we’re not really doing the soldiers any favors,” Grauel told National Defense. “There are benefits to having both types of systems. And really in my mind, it screams for the need to have some kind of hybrid system or hybrid network in the future.”
That hybrid system is under development in the program office as the Army’s next-generation FBCB2, which is called the joint battle command platform. It is designed to provide a battlefield picture using both terrestrial and celestial links.
The JBCP will come in several variants. The full-up system will resemble today’s FBCB2 but soldiers will be able to remove the display unit from the vehicle for dismounted operations. Another variant will be a fully portable device. The third variant will function more as a beacon, so that the location of all vehicles and soldiers can be transmitted to the JBCP networks.
The new technology would rely primarily on the line-of-sight radio network to benefit from the Army’s large bandwidth channels. But it would have the capability to draw upon the sat-com network if the system runs beyond the reach of FM communications.
The JBCP will be employed at the brigade and below level and will be connected to systems that the current FBCB2 cannot incorporate. Those include the special operations miniature transmitter and some of the Marine Corps’ movement tracking systems.
“Our objective is to tie some of these disparate systems together and break down the stovepipes,” said Grauel.
The project office is seeking funds in the 2010-2015 budget in order to begin fielding the new system in 2012.
“We realize that what that is going to entail is working closely with our sister program offices that traditionally build the tactical radios in order to come up with this hybrid network,” said Grauel.
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