KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — U.S. soldiers patrolling Kandahar-based Regional Command South have a new favorite situational awareness tool.
It is a touch screen, handheld device that soldiers call TransApps, after its origins in DARPA’s Transformative Apps program.
The device is programmed with apps for tracking the user’s movements, taking pictures, displaying maps and relaying position information to other soldiers carrying the same devices.
“We get any number of good idea projects that come to us on a regular basis. This is one that individual soldiers have seemed to grab onto the best that I’ve seen,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. John Conniff who is the J6, or chief of communications, for Regional Command South.
Conniff spoke in the brick building at Kandahar Airfield known informally as TLS, for its history as the place where the Taliban put up their last stand after the invasion that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The Taliban remain a threat today, occasionally lobbing small rockets into the sprawling Kandahar Airfield complex operated by the allies. On May 24, a rocket landed close to a group of people waiting to board an aircraft but there were no reports of injuries, officials here said.
Soldiers in two additional brigades have received the TransApps devices since the Army began rolling them out about a year ago, Conniff said. Early bugs were worked out by imbedding engineers with units at their patrol bases. When troops return, they tell the engineers what worked and what didn’t work, and the engineers fix the devices, Conniff said.
It might come as no surprise that Marines don’t agree with the Army about handheld smart devices. In an interview at Camp Leatherneck on May 23, the Marine Corp J6 for Regional Command Southwest was skeptical when asked whether he would consider equipping Marines with smart devices.
Lt. Col. Roger Standfield said he would consider the idea “cautiously, perhaps.” He said he’s guarded about becoming enamored with “new toys” on the battlefield. “This is not a test and evaluation area,” he said.
Standfield was not asked specifically about TransApps, a topic that the Army official raised during an interview the next day.
Conniff said the TransApp devices have their limitations. They operate over a closed cellular network established by attaching antennas onto vehicles and erecting fixed towers. Because it is standalone network, the soldier’s position data cannot be fed into the Army’s radio-based tracking networks, known as Force 21 Battle Command Brigade and Below, and Blue Force Tracker.
FBCB2 and Blue Force Tracker show the locations of vehicles about every 10 seconds. When soldiers leave their Strykers or MRAPs, they can no longer see the tracking information or feed their locations into it.
The TransApp devices fix that problem, but only for other soldiers equipped with the same devices.
Even so, the dismounted tracking information is valuable for another reason. “They can look back at the routes that they’ve taken to make sure they’re not creating a route that can be targeted,” Conniff said.
Army technologists are exploring an alternative concept in which smart devices — either off-the-shelf or specially ruggedized equipment — would be plugged into a soldier’s radio to report his position over the radio network.
“I’ve seen the pictures, too. That doesn’t help our 30,000 guys in the area right now,” said Conniff.
In Conniff’s view, the early fears that the devices could fall into the wrong hands have not borne out. “We always thought that if you had these type of devices [soldiers would] lose them on a regular basis. They don’t,” he said.