The GD300 rugged wearable computer. (General Dynamics)
The U.S. Army is taking a two-technology approach to improve battlefield situational awareness for dismounted soldiers.
One track is called Nett Warrior. It calls for plugging “smartphone or smartphonelike devices” into Rifleman Radios to create a lightweight but powerful new battlefield communications tool.
The second track is the Joint Battle Command-Platform, or JBC-P program, which includes an upgrade of the software and the satellite link at the heart of the Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below and Blue Force Tracking network — or FBCB2-BFT.
By combining these two tracks, the Army plans to put friendly force and other critical situational awareness information into the hands of troops, while also feeding the locations of ground troops into the broader network.
The concept centers in part on a clever marriage of smartphones and radios. Smartphones — the Army calls them “end-user devices” or EUDs — act as the radio’s brain. Their data processing power, display screens and software applications will enable dismounted soldiers to send, receive and display maps, photos, text messages, email and other digital data.
The radio, meanwhile, provides a secure communication link for sending and receiving data. The radio also provides the system’s voice communication. For security purposes, the phone’s ability to link to wireless networks cannot be used. Soldiers and Marines will talk over the Rifleman Radio.
The Army is currently testing commercial off-the-shelf smartphones, commercial tablet computers and some specially built end-user devices to see how well each works with the Rifleman Radio in battlefield conditions.
Two big defense firms, General Dynamics and DRS Technologies, are urging the Army to buy rugged end-user devices they have designed to withstand shock, water, dust, heat and cold. But the Army is also considering commercial smartphones that cost much less.
A decision to buy one — or perhaps several — of the devices probably won’t be made until after additional tests during a Network Integration Evaluation in October, said Paul Mehney, a spokesman for the Army’s program executive office for systems integration.
To fix soldiers’ locations on the battlefield, the Rifleman Radios will automatically send positioning data to the JBC-P system, which displays the location of friendly forces as a blue dot on the digital maps in vehicles or on the screens of the end-user devices. Locations are calculated by the built-in global positioning transmitters of either the radios or the end-user devices attached to them, according officials at General Dynamics and DRS.
New JBC-P software is to be installed in the computers that are already mounted in combat vehicles, said Col. Tom Olson, the FBCB2 project manager. But there is a modest hardware component, too. JBC-P proposes to buy tablet computers that unit leaders will be able to use in their vehicles and when dismounted. That will be a change. “Our current capability is a mounted capability” only, Olson said in an interview.
While in the vehicle, the tablet would be connected to JBC-P through the vehicle’s computer. When dismounted, the tablet would be connected through a Rifleman Radio, Mehney said.
The Rifleman Radio itself is new. The Army has bought 6,250 so far from co-developers General Dynamics and Thales. It has been testing them on ranges in the United States, and sent some to Afghanistan for an operational assessment by the 75th Ranger Regiment that wrapped up — to favorable reviews — in February. The radios are expected to cost $1,800 apiece.
Rifleman Radios connect to one another and with vehicle radios to form an ad-hoc network. They connect to the Blue Force Tracking satellite network through satellite antennas that are mounted on vehicles or placed at fixed sites. For the Army, Nett Warrior and JBC-P are an effort to adopt commercial technology that is improving at breakneck speed — and at affordable prices.
As budgets tighten, “we’re beginning to really focus on commercial and government off-the-shelf technology,” Mehney said. “And we’re only going to be buying what we need” for the short term. That way as newer technology emerges or costs come down, the Army won’t be stuck with a lot of outdated and overpriced gear. “That’s a different construct from what the Army has done in the past,” he said.
In a posture statement sent to Congress, the Army said its plan for JBC-P and Nett Warrior will “take advantage of the commercial developments in the smartphone industry and tailor those capabilities to JBC-P requirements.”
But a lot of tailoring might be unnecessary. One solution “currently in development would connect an everyday cellphone to a tactical radio, allowing dismounted soldiers to exchange over-the-horizon command and control and beyond line-of-sight situational awareness information,” the posture statement says.
The Army has been testing smartphones and tablet computers that run on Android operating systems, said Maj. Gregory Soule, assistant product manager of Ground Soldier in the Program Executive Office Soldier. The Army has also tested Apple iPhones and iPad tablets running the iOS operating system, but so far, only Android has a version that is certified as secure enough for military purposes.
Soule estimates that using commercial phones as end-user devices could cost the Army as little as “several hundred dollars” per device. The rugged end-user devices developed by General Dynamics and DRS cost a bit more.
General Dynamics is offering a GD300 “wearable computer” that can be clipped to a soldier’s wrist, forearm or chest. It’s an 8-ounce, smartphone-size device that runs on an Android operating system. It has an 8-gigabyte flash memory, a 3-megapixel camera and a 3.5-inch color touch screen f or displaying graphics, photos and maps. Cost: $1,206 per device.
“It looks pretty similar to an Android phone” and contains many commercial Android components, said Chris Brady, vice president for assured communications at General Dynamics C4 Systems. For security purposes, the GD300 is built without the ability to connect to cellphone and wireless networks, so it must work through the Rifleman Radio.
Rival DRS Technologies is offering the Army its Scorpion H2 handheld. It, too, weighs 8 ounces, and comes with “a cutting-edge dual core processor” for speedy performance, a 4-inch touch screen, an 8-megapixel camera and an eight-hour battery.
“No other device has that power-to-weight ratio,” said Bill Guyan, vice president of programs and strategy for DRS Tactical Systems. The Scorpion H2 will cost “under $1,500 per system,” he said.
General Dynamics and DRS are quick to point out the drawbacks of cheaper commercial smartphones.
Commercial devices are likely to be designed and built overseas, which could pose security problems, warned Mark Showah of General Dynamics C4 Systems. Making commercial devices secure enough for military use will add cost, he said.
Then there is the obvious problem with nonrugged devices. “Replacing a commercial device when it gets dropped or wet in a tactical environment has a lifecycle cost implication to the government,” he said.
“Cost is an important factor given current budget environment,” said Guyan of DRS, “however, it’s not just about cost.”
The requirement for ruggedness to withstand shock, heat and moisture “exceed the requirements of any known smartphone,” he said. “We believe that a COTS ruggedized solution — not a pure COTS solution — is the right choice,” Guyan said. “The system has to be reliable enough for soldiers to depend on.”
Initially, at least, the Army’s demand for end-user devices will be relatively small. In a request for information released in September, the Army said it planned to buy 7,600 “smartphone or smartphonelike devices” each year at a price of less than $1,500 per device. “Total procurement may be as high as 23,000 units,” the RFI said.
But the Army also plans to buy 180,000 Rifleman Radios, said Brady. To General Dynamics, that suggests an eventual need for at least that many end-user devices. But the market could grow even larger, Brady said.
“There are two camps within the Army with regard to smartphones,” he said. “One says that this is a device that we want in a commander’s hands. A team leader, a squad or platoon leader certainly would want this kind of situational awareness.”
But there’s another camp “who would say, really, I want some form of this capability on every soldier’s wrist,” he said. “My guess is they will continue to proliferate all the way down to each soldier.”
Guyan chalks up the small initial buy of end-user devices to the Army’s new acquisition strategy. “They want to buy less more often,” he said. Even so, he said DRS forecasts that the Army will buy more than 15,000 tablet and handheld computers and more than 40,000 end-user devices and begin fielding them in 2013.
JBC-P software upgrades are scheduled to be fielded to up to eight brigade combat teams in 2013, according to the Army.
JBC-P and Nett Warrior began as separate programs that would both produce hand-held computers connected to Rifleman Radios, but in the past year, elements of the programs have effectively merged, Mehney said.
“We’ve left the whole hardware piece up to the Nett Warrior guys,” said Olson, the FBCB2 project manager. They will decide which end-user device — or devices — the Army will buy to be loaded with JBC-P software and connected to Rifleman Radios.
JCB-P and Nett Warrior share a common goal: to push situational awareness down to the lowest echelon possible. In the case of Nett Warrior, “we’re fielding it to team leaders and above,” Soule said. That means the most junior soldier or Marine who get the radio-EUD combination would be a sergeant in charge of three other troops, he said.
Perhaps the first thing soldiers using Nett Warrior will notice is its light weight. The EUD and Rifleman Radio combination weighs less than 3 pounds. The end-user device, whether commercial or specially made for the military, weighs about a half-pound, and the Rifleman Radio weighs 1.7 pounds, according to radio maker General Dynamics.
Nett Warrior replaces the Land Warrior system — a somewhat clunky computer, keyboard, viewing monocle and radio combination that weighs about 10 pounds. The “Nett” in Nett Warrior does not refer to the Internet or any other network but is a salute to World War II Medal of Honor recipient Col. Robert Nett.
Nett Warrior is “designed for someone operating on the ground away from their vehicle,” Soule said. Maps displayed on the EUD’s screen depict not only terrain, buildings and other physical features, but they also produce pop-up icons to mark the location of friendly troops, suspected roadside bombs, possible enemy positions and other items of concern to soldiers.
Through the Rifleman Radio, the EUD can tap into the Army’s Tactical Ground Reporting — TIGR — database to retrieve patrol reports, photos, video, updated maps and other intelligence.
Soldiers will also be able to chat and send and receive text messages and email, and they will be able to use applications developed specifically for combat, such as an app that quickly calls in fire support, and another for rapidly requesting medical evacuations, Soule said.
Dozens of additional applications are in various stages of development by government agencies and commercial companies. There’s a health-monitoring app for tracking blood pressure and temperature. A threat updating app continuously searches Army databases for new information on nearby enemy activity. And a language translation app turns spoken English phrases into Pashto and Dari or vice versa — although “it’s not good enough right now,” Soule said.
While waiting for JBC-P to arrive in 2013, the Army has been upgrading FBCB2 with “bridge” software called the FBCB2 Joint Capabilities Release, or JCR.
This interim software provides a couple of important improvements. First, it enables users to toggle between FBCB2 and TIGR, “marking the first time TIGR will be on a platform-based system inside a patrol vehicle,” the Army says in a document describing JCR.
TIGR has proved “extremely successful in theater,” said Olson. Developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in 2006, TIGR provides troops with up-to-date intelligence, such as the locations of hostile actions and roadside bombs, photos of insurgents, photos tagged with GPS coordinates, videos, patrol reports and other information. It offers a searchable database of incidents, individuals and unit activities.
“With TIGR at their fingertips, soldiers on patrol can adapt to unexpected circumstances, react to changes in the mission and conduct additional planning while in their vehicle,” the Army document says.
Another important improvement that comes with JCR is Blue Force Tracking 2, an upgraded satellite link “that gives us 10 times the throughput to the platform” compared with the original Blue Force Tracking system, Olson said. Greater speed means that location refresh rates will occur in near real time and data will be delivered much faster. In addition, Blue Force Tracking 2 enables data to be encrypted to the secret level, Olson said.
The Blue Force Tracking 2 upgrade will be used by JBC-P as well.
When FBCB2 debuted in 1997, satellites weren’t part of the system. Location information was sent and received over Enhanced Position Location Reporting System — EPLRS — radios, which are limited to line-of-sight transmissions.
Peacekeeping operations in Bosnia revealed the limitations of line-of-sight communications in mountainous territory, and later, the war in Afghanistan highlighted a shortage of EPLRS systems. That spurred the development of Blue Force Tracking, which enabled FBCB2 to send and receive data via commercial satellites, said Guyan of DRS. BFT put satellite antennas on vehicles and tracking software on the vehicle computers, and the Army has been updating it ever since, he said.
With BFT2 and JBC-P, the Army says it will get “more joint interoperability, more fratricide prevention, more security, more bandwidth, more users and more information,” as well as “enhanced data encryption, better maps, better collaboration tools and more precise location information for vehicles, aircraft and dismounted soldiers.” And JBC-P will offer a more modern user interface with drag-and-drop icons, touch-to-zoom maps, “free draw” to annotate maps, photos and other digital graphics, and group chat. And TIGR will be integrated as part of the JBC-P software package.
To save money, JBC-P won’t add a lot of new hardware. Instead, JBC-P software will be loaded into the JV-5 Block 1 and 2 computers that now run FBCB2, Olson said. The Army has about 100,000 of them installed in 65 different types of vehicles, and the Marine Corps has about 10,000.
But the Army does plan to buy thousands of “one-way situational awareness reporting beacons” to be installed on vehicles so JBC-P will know the location of “100 percent of vehicles and aircraft in the operational environment of the battlefield,” the Army posture statement says.
The goal for JBC-P and Nett Warrior is to bring situational awareness and mission command information down to the dismounted soldier level, the statement says. The result should be “greater combat effectiveness and reduced fratricide.”