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Tech Brief: Dismounted and digital

The Army’s Tactical Marketplace allows unit leaders to distribute mission-specific apps and data to their soldiers’ handheld devices, even after they leave their bases or vehicles. Michael Anthony and Steven Mazza explain.

Sep. 18, 2012 - 02:07PM   |  
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Collecting and distributing the right information at the right time to the right soldier is critical to mission success. But updating soldiers during a mission is an operational hurdle that has been inadequately addressed, leaving gaps in communication and situational awareness. Dismounted soldiers face particular challenges in receiving digital assets and information because they are not guaranteed to be connected to tactical communications.

Ever adaptable, soldiers attempt to compensate by creating on-the-fly solutions, but these lack interoperability, security and accuracy. Leaders at lower echelons rely on drawn maps and radios to provide situational awareness and communications. Relaying the most up-to-date information via radio can be lengthy and labor-intensive, and voice communications are more prone to human error than digitally passing data.

That’s why the Army developed its new Tactical Marketplace, or TacMark, a comprehensive way to access, manage, display and store mission command information — applications, images, documents and other data — at upper and lower echelons at the tactical edge. TacMark is a software framework for the storage, management and distribution of digital assets. It allows leaders and soldiers to automate the distribution of mission-specific data to individual squad members through their assigned handheld device. A leader can create a mission pack — a bundle of digital information and applications for a specific mission — and send it to his troops’ individual mobile or handheld devices before they head out. Once beyond the wire, the mission packs can be updated with new information from the leader, or — if network capabilities permit — from higher echelons as well.

In use, the framework is designed to mimic the familiar user experience of commercial app stores or marketplaces. It provides automatic and transparent de-confliction and dependency resolution, removing the guesswork in building a mission pack. That is, it allows a soldier to automatically download the exact package of assets needed to support the mission pack on his device. This allows the squad leader to focus on building a mission pack around capabilities and not worry about the specific devices carried by his squad. TacMark enables ad hoc group creation and affiliation; user management and role assignment; and asset management, including sophisticated search and filtering, as well as tagging and distribution.

Its soldier-friendly user interface is designed to mimic commercial capabilities, such as a smartphone’s app store. Ease of use means, among other things, that TacMark can reduce the burden on soldiers at higher echelons. The distribution, installation and administration of software and data to end-user devices such as laptops or handhelds are managed by the G/S-6, the signal operations officer, with the support of a field support representative.

Instead, TacMark allows an appropriate-level commander to gather and distribute applications and data for each mission. This facilitates decentralized execution within the commander’s intent and consistent with the Army’s functional concept for mission command.

The Army’s formal fielding of handhelds through Nett Warrior is the first step in providing soldiers with smartphonelike technology on the battlefield. But TacMark also goes beyond existing products by offering an extensible framework that allows central control of deployment, interoperability with new and existing devices, complex workflows and the synthesis of multifaceted information.

The government-developed technology behind TacMark allows the platform to meet the Army’s future needs and requirements. As the service develops more mobile applications on ruggedized devices, TacMark’s extensible framework will provide uniform support for the gear of today and tomorrow. It is designed to handle new and unanticipated end-user devices, data types, applications and complex workflows.

The platform’s plug-in architecture and feature-complete application programming interface facilitate development by allowing third parties and DoD engineers to add new and updated capabilities. To be sure, everything that can be done in TacMark must be done through the API. This means that everyone who has access to the API has level access to all of TacMark’s features. This eases integration, as well as third-party development.

TacMark has been extensively tested and its operational benefits validated for use by lower and higher echelons, notably in a CERDEC Network Modernization Exercise and Joint Expeditionary Force Experiment in 2011.

The program may soon be handed over to the Army’s Project Manager for Mission Command, which oversees the development and deployment of mission command software applications.

It may see its first deployment on Army-issued handheld devices in fiscal 2013.

The expected October fielding of networked handheld devices under PEO Soldier’s Nett Warrior will enable tactical communications at lower echelons and, when complete, will allow application access to soldiers in eight Brigade Combat Teams. TacMark can support and run on Nett Warrior Capability Set 13, an integrated package of tactical communications gear. Delivered as a virtual machine, TacMark can be loaded as part of Nett Warrior’s tactical infrastructure, providing services to the Nett Warrior handheld device.

TacMark has been developed by the Army’s Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center’s Command, Power and Integration Directorate and has benefited from expertise under TRADOC’s “Connecting Soldiers to Digital Apps” initiative. It is part of the Army’s effort to extend the tactical communications network to lower echelons, and it represents the forefront of handheld communication in challenged environments.

Michael Anthony is a supervisory computer scientist and the mission command capabilities division chief for the Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center CP&I Directorate. He is an Army veteran who deployed as the Team C4ISR Senior Command Representative Southwest Asia during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Steven Mazza is a computer scientist and the CERDEC CP&I Directorate Mission Command Capabilities Division Handheld Technologies Branch project lead for TacMark.

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