BOSTON — The Army’s chief information officer wants the Pentagon to tighten the security of the satellite navigation information that troops have been increasingly transmitting and receiving in recent years to avoid friendly fire accidents, according to a senior U.S. Army official.
Lt. Gen. Steven Boutelle, the Army’s chief information officer , said the Department of Defense should allow troops equipped with Blue Force Tracking systems to relay their position data through secure military communications satellites. In most cases, troops are using less protected systems like commercial services to relay Blue Force Tracking data, Boutelle said in a March 7 interview.
The military probably does not need to launch communications spacecraft dedicated to the Blue Force Tracking mission, but should make better use of new satellites as they come on line, Boutelle said.
As the Pentagon buys new secure communications satellites like the Advanced Extremely High Frequency, which is scheduled to launch for the first time in 2008 to begin replacing the existing Milstar constellation, and other new systems like the Transformational Satellite (T-Sat) Communications System, which is expected to begin launching in 2016, it should consider adding the capability to relay Blue Force Tracking data, Boutelle said. Similar opportunities also may be found with new secure communications systems under development in the classified arena, he said.
If dedicated Blue Force Tracking payloads are not added to new satellites, the military should place troops using those devices high on the priority list for using the satellites’ regular capacity, Boutelle said.
The military uses a variety of Blue Force Tracking systems that can pinpoint the locations of U.S. troops using GPS navigation signals. These military systems, include some devices that were developed in-house, like the Grenadier Beyond Line of Sight Reporting and Targeting system, which uses both classified satellites as well as the U.S. Navy’s UHF Follow-On constellation to relay data. However, many systems used by troops in the field are commercial products that use commercial satellite links, making them less reliable in case of emergency, Boutelle said.
Even some military-developed systems, like the Force 21 Battle Command Brigade and Below system, rely on commercial satellites to relay position data.
Despite the fact that most Blue Force Tracking systems do not use secure communications satellites to relay their data, military leaders have frequently touted them as a major success story from battles in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The possibility of using secure communications satellites for Blue Force Tracking traffic has come up periodically over the past five years during discussions at the joint staff level, but no commitments have been made and the issue has consistently been tabled for later discussion, Boutelle said.
Boutelle said he had met with troops who have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that they have often cited Blue Force Tracking systems as a key capability when fighting in areas with unfamiliar terrain or when navigating through sandstorms. Much of the attention on Blue Force Tracking has focused on ground forces, but pilots in a variety of types of aircraft have taken advantage of the capability as well, he said.
“Blue Force Tracking is absolutely critical,” Boutelle said. “They need it — and they need it protected.”
While secure communications satellites are not immune to threats like the missile used by the Chinese military in its Jan. 11 anti-satellite test, that demonstration indicates that enemies are aware of the capability that the U.S. military derives from space, and will not be shy about trying to disrupt it, he said.
Boutelle said he wished troops had wide access to secure communication satellites for Blue Force Tracking today, and said he will be concerned until they do.
“I think we’re long overdue, and we put ourselves at a greater risk if we don’t make a decision,” he said.
Maj. Regina Winchester, a spokeswoman for the Air Force, and Loretta DeSio, a spokeswoman for the National Reconnaissance Office, said officials were not available to respond to Boutelle’s comments.
Congressional aides said that while Blue Force Tracking should be considered a high priority, satellites expected to be deployed in the next several years like Advanced EHF are likely too far along to make modifications to their design without risking technical problems that could be costly and disrupt the launch schedules. Commercial communications satellites today likely have sufficent protection for the Blue Force Tracking mission, and those under design for the future may offer great protection, the aides said.