BOSTON — The Pentagon next year plans to expand its distribution of U.S. Army-designed equipment that is intended to help soldiers on the battlefield avoid friendly fire

This joint version of the Force 21 Battle Command Brigade and Below (FBCB2) system is expected to reach soldiers in the field in 2007 and 2008. The joint version of the system also might serve as an interim solution before a more capable version is deployed later in the decade, according to Army Col. Ray Montford, project manager for FBCB2 at the Army’s Communications Electronics Command at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey.

The FBCB2 system, which is built by Northrop Grumman Mission Systems of Reston, Va., uses GPS navigation signals and communications satellites to track the location of friendly forces on the battlefield, and relay that information to users who can view troop positions on screens in their vehicles. The system already has been installed on a variety of ground vehicles including tanks, armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles.

Troops who have used FBCB2 and other so-called blue-force tracking systems over the past several years credit them with helping to save lives in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, there are several different systems in the field, and one problem is that some of those systems often are incapable of feeding data into common displays. That makes it difficult for the troops using them to take full advantage of all the various sytems available to track friendly forces.

To address this issue, the Army to date has shared a limited number of FBCB2 systems with the Marine Corps, as well as coalition partners from the United Kingdom, Montford said during an Oct. 18 interview.

In 2004, the Pentagon’s joint staff directed the Army to develop of a joint version of the system, Montford said. Fielding the joint version of FBCB2 over the next two years will help make use of the system more widespread, he said.

The joint version of FBCB2 slated for fielding in 2007 and 2008 is known as the Joint Capabilities Release and will be interoperable with the Movement Tracking System, another blue-force tracking system used primarily during battle by the logistics community, Montford said. This will enable logistics forces to view the positions of combat forces, and vice versa, he said.

In addition to ground vehicles, FBCB2 is used in Army helicopters like Apaches and Blackhawks. The Army also has supplied the system to the Air Force for use in its Joint Surveillance Attack Radar System (JSTARS). To date, about nine of the aircraft have been equipped with FBCB2. That represents about half of the JSTARS fleet, Montford said. By f ielding the joint version of FBCB2, the Air Force will be able to equip the rest of the JSTARS fleet by the end of 2007, he said.

With the increased number of vehicles on the battlefield using the FBCB2 system, the joint hardware is being equipped to handle the higher level of input that they will deal with, Montford said.

The Joint Capabilities Release could be followed by an improved joint variant of the FBCB2 system, though Pentagon leadership has not yet approved the requirements documentation that would enable the military to request funding the work yet, Montford said.

Some of the improvements envisioned that could come to fruition in 2009 or 2010 include a more frequent refresh rate for the locations of the friendly forces on the battlefield, Montford said. A vehicle’s FBCB2 system currently updates the position information of other vehicles on its display every five minutes, or every 800 meters that a monitored object moves.

Frequency of updates is less important when a vehicle is stationary, Montford said. The time between updates would likely stay the same while the vehicles are stationary, but the system would refresh the position location every 100 meters traveled, he said.

Another improvement envisioned for the future is a “snail trail,” Montford said. This would include a line on the vehicle’s display screen indicating where it had traveled, so that troops could retrace their steps if they got lost, he said.

As FBCB2-equipped vehicles return from the field today, the military repairs, updates or replaces damaged equipment. As the joint version of the system is fielded, and possibly upgraded in the future, vehicles coming back from the field will receive the new systems, Montford said.

The Joint Capabilities Release, and any future upgrades, will be backwards compatible at least one generation, so that vehicles that have yet to receive the latest version will still be able to send their own location to vehicles equipped with newer versions, Montford said.

As Northrop Grumman works on the joint version of FBCB2, it is taking a “product line” approach to the software development, according to Rebecca Torzone, command and control product line manager at Northrop Grumman Mission Systems. This approach will allow future improvements to the software to be incorporated more easily than replacing all of the software, she said.

Some of the improvements that could be added to FBCB2 in the years to come include the ability to provide more combat identification information in the display — including information from a variety of other sensors and systems, said Lance Carroll, advanced systems manager in the tactical systems division at Northrop Grumman Mission Systems. This could involve, for example, using systems like laser range finder to feed data about the location of enemy forces and hardware into the FBCB2 displays, he said.

Northrop Grumman officials working on the FBCB2 program regularly receive feedback from troops who talk about how the system has helped save lives during current operations, Torzone said.

This has contributed to a passionate atmosphere with the program that has been a significant selling point when hiring new employees, she said.