Software Offers U.S. Army Overview of Blue Force Tracking on Battlefield

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The U.S. Army is hoping that new software will help tie together all of its different systems that use satellite signals to help troops avoid friendly fire accidents during battle.

Troops today rely on a variety of what are known in military lingo as blue force tracking devices. These devices, which help U.S. troops distinguish between friends and foes on the battlefield, include off-the-shelf hardware and systems developed specifically for the military to lessen the risk of fratricide. However, these devices work in isolation, and cannot feed into a single display that allows commanders to get an overview of forces in a specific theater of battle.

Army Space and Missile Defense Command hopes that its work under the Joint Blue Force Situational Awareness Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration, which is slated to wrap up in September, will yield software that can process the inputs from the various blue force tracking devices, and combine them into a common display for commanders, according to Kirby Brown, director of the Army Space and Missile Defense Battle Lab.

Army Space and Missile Defense Command has been working closely with other branches of the U.S. military, including Strategic Command, Joint Forces Command and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, as it seeks to build on the successful use of blue force tracking devices in Iraq, Brown said during an Aug. 17 interview at the 2005 Space and Missile Defense Conference. The National Defense Industrial Association, the Army Space and Missile Defense Association and the Air Defense Artillery Association sponsored that event.

Blue force tracking devices typically use signals from the GPS constellation of navigation satellites to pinpoint the location of troops on the battlefield, and transmit that information to commanders through communications satellites. A variety of companies developed versions of the devices for uses such as tracking truck fleets, and their equipment has proven useful for the military as well.

The Pentagon is working on developing a single joint blue force tracking system for its troops that will likely be fielded at some point after 2010, but wants an interim solution to integrating the information from devices used today, which is where the software developed by the Defense Information Systems Agency comes into play, Brown said. The software’s development cost was under $1 million, he said.

The software was used in June during the Coalition Warrior Interoperability Demonstration in Portsmouth, England, a joint exercise that included militaries from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. The exercise, which is conducted annually, is intended to examine readily available technology that can improve coalition command, control, communications, computers and intelligence work on the battlefield.

During the June exercise, information from U.S. and United Kingdom blue force tracking devices was sent from England to the U.S. Army Strategic Command mission management center in Colorado Springs, Colo., where it was processed before being sent back to the theater of operations, Brown said.

The software performed well, and the Army plans to wrap up testing this month after using it to process inputs from additional blue force tracking devices, Brown said. Troops on the battlefield could likely begin using the software immediately if the Pentagon made the decision to deploy it, he said.

Other projects at the Army battle lab include reducing the equipment load for Army space support troops. Army space support teams have been deployed to Iraq to help provide ground forces with space products like satellite imagery during major combat operations as well as post-war reconstruction.

Over the past year and a half, the Army Space and Missile Defense Battle Lab has reduced the size of computers used by those teams to display products like battlefield maps derived from satellite imagery, Brown said. One of these computers already has been used by space support officers who deployed with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division. Feedback thus far has been positive, he said.

The battle lab also is working on building ground stations that could be used to control small experimental satellites and high-altitude near space vehicles, Brown said.

The military plans to begin demonstrating a series of tiny satellites called TacSats that could be controlled directly by troops in the field beginning this autumn, and has displayed increasing interest over the course of the past year in the development of near space vehicles that could loiter around 20,000 kilometers to perform communications or sensing missions.

The prototype ground stations are being designed to interface with the satellites or near space vehicles through Internet Protocol links that ease the ability of troops in the field to directly control the assets, rather than having to rely on operators far away from the battlefield, Brown said. The ground stations could be demonstrated during the Pentagon’s Joint Expeditionary Force Experiment 2006 next spring, he said.