Army Software To Streamline Access to Ground-Based Networks

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BOSTON — The U.S. Army is developing software that could make it much easier for battlefield commanders to receive imagery and other data from satellites, according to officials involved with the project.

Today commanders on the battlefield often must make requests through headquarters elements to obtain satellite data, according to Ben Kerstiens, chief of the space division at the Army Space and Missile Defense Command’s technical center at Redstone Arsenal in HuntsvilleAla.

Through software dubbed the Vertical Integration of Space Technologies and Applications (VISTA), commanders could use handheld computers to tap directly into many ground-based computer networks that contain the information they seek, Kerstiens said in a March 6 interview.

Among the satellite-supported data feeds VISTA could help battlefield commanders access more readily are those pertaining to situational awareness, tracking friendly forces, missile warning, intelligence, weather forecasting and information operations, according to a fact sheet posted on Army Space and Missile Defense Command’s Web site.

The first VISTA prototype is expected to be ready for experimentation in 2011, according to Sue Randle, VISTA program manager at Army Space and Missile Defense Command.

The software is intended to run on computers that are part of the Force 21 Battlefield Command Brigade and Below situational awareness system, which operates at the so-called secret collateral level of classification, Kerstiens said.

In addition to giving commanders the ability to reach into military networks to find satellite data and related products, VISTA will also include so-called intelligent software agents that push mission-relevant information to battlefield commanders as it becomes available, Randle said. This is similar to the online news alerts that many people in the civilian world subscribe to, she said.

The intelligent agents will be tailored both to the commander’s particular mission and his geographic area – with the capability to adjust to troops’ movement, Kerstiens said. Special care is taken with the intelligent agents to ensure the relevancy of the information bulletins to the commander’s mission in order to avoid overwhelming him with data unrelated to his mission, he said.

The intelligent agents also are tailored to provide only the most relevant information due to constraints with the bandwidth-limited communications networks used to transmit the data, Randle said. Operating within bandwidth limitations is a key aspect of the VISTA development effort, according the fact sheet posted on the command’s Web site.

The Army began working onVISTA in 2007. L3 Communications Global Security & Engineering Solutions of Huntsville is the prime contractor for the effort.

The service has spent $2.6 million to date on VISTA development, and has $3.2 million budgeted for the effort in 2009, Kerstiens said. He declined to comment on the budget request for VISTA for 2010.

Meanwhile, Army Space and Missile Defense Command also is developing software that uses intelligent agents to provide updates on space situational awareness issues. The Joint Awareness Warfighter-Space (JAWS) effort is intended to update Army officials on matters including space and terrestrial weather issues that could affect the operation of missile warning sensors, communications satellites and navigation signals, according to a fact sheet posted on Army Space and Missile Defense Command’s Web site.

In a report accompanying its version of 2009 National Defense Authorization Act, the House Armed Services Committee noted the similarity between VISTA and JAWS, and called on the Army to study the possibility of merging the two programs.

Kerstein declined to go into detail about the study because it had not yet been sent to Capitol Hill at the time of the interview, but said the command is unlikely to merge the two programs because they are intended for different users with different needs.VISTA is intended for commanders involved with tactical battles at the level of brigade and below, where they need to focus on “bullets and artillery shells coming at them, not satellites flying overhead,” he said.