A U.S. Marine Corps exercise conducted in late 2005 demonstrated what service and industry officials say is a low-cost system that can make imagery and other battlefield intelligence available to ground-level troops who typically do not have direct access to such information.

During the Agile Lion exercise, held Dec. 12-15 at the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, Ariz., troops equipped with handheld computers were able to tap into data banks that traditionally have been accessible only to those in command centers and aircraft cockpits, these officials said.

The exercise was facilitated by a computer network called the Advanced Information Architecture. It was developed by Northrop Grumman Airborne, Ground Surveillance and Battle Management Systems of Melbourne, Fla., and is based on off-the-shelf systems.

The Advanced Information Architecture relies on computer servers, satellites and terrestrial radio equipment , although the satellite communications links were not used during Agile Lion, according to Jim Stratford, a Northrop Grumman spokesman.

The network transmits imagery and other data from airborne targeting systems, such as those aboard Cobra attack helicopters, to another aircraft that acts as a central collection point, Stratford said. Text, graphics and voice data also can be stored on the airborne servers, according to a Northrop Grumman fact sheet.

Troops on the ground tap into the servers with handheld computers equipped with satellite and terrestrial radio links, Stratford said.

The system is designed so that troops like those down to the level of corporal can access only the information that they need, said Marine Corps Lt. Col. Robert Sofge, an Agile Lion project officer. That capability gives them resources normally associated with command centers without overburdening them with data, Sofge said Jan. 11 during a briefing on the program at the National Press Club here.

During the Agile Lion exercise, the computer servers were installed on a KC-130J Hercules tanker, an aircraft for which the military is exploring a wider range of missions. In the future, other aircraft, including high-altitude drones such as Global Hawk that provide wide-area ground coverage , could host the servers , Stratford said.

The prototype Advanced Information Architecture network was put through several mission scenarios during Agile Lion . In one, a convoy of ground vehicles used the network to obtain imagery of enemy forces ahead, Sofge said. Based on this information, the convoy changed routes and called in an air strike to take out the enemy forces , Sofge said.

In another scenario, a special operations team obtained imagery of a “high value” target and relayed that information to remotely located senior commanders for instructions on whether to fire, Sofge said. This took about two minutes, and did not require a single spoken word, he said.

The results of the exercise indicate that the Advanced Information Architecture could help the military better use the hardware it already owns, Sofge said. Better integration of existing assets is an area where the military has significant room for improvement, he said. “We don’t do it worth a darn,” he said.

The Advanced Information Architecture’s reliance on mostly existing equipment is another attractive feature for budget-conscious military officials, Sofge said.

Developing a new capability “without inventing something or building something” was a challenge, said Nick Gritti, Northrop Grumman’s Agile Lion program manager.

Stratford said fielding the Advanced Information Architecture, and equipping troops to tap into it, would be cheap relative to other military data-sharing systems, but he declined to provide specific numbers. Equipping the entire Marine Corps with this capability might be close to the “nine-digit” range, he said.

Comments: jsinger@space.com