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Plan Would Give Soldiers a Common Geospatial View of the Battlefield

Jul. 29, 2013 - 03:45AM   |  
By BEN IANNOTTA   |   Comments
The Command Post of the Future system incorporates specialized, up-to-date geospatial data.
The Command Post of the Future system incorporates specialized, up-to-date geospatial data. (Army)
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The Army wants to give troops and the brass a common geospatial view of the battlefield, but as with other proposed military improvements these days, the timing for completing the geospatial vision is an open question because of budget pressures.

If the vision becomes reality, a general looking at his Command Post of the Future battlefield display could see the same terrain and features as an intelligence analyst seated at a Distributed Common Ground System-Army computer, or a soldier looking at friendly troop positions on a smartphone or vehicle display.

Today, these systems are fed terrain images and data through what Army officials sardonically call separate “cylinders of excellence.” An officer in a command post might be looking at a 1-to-50,000-scale map while his troops in the field are looking at 1-to-100,000-scale maps. One map could be populated with different information about the status of features, such as bridge or roads, than the maps the others are using.

“Especially in the fight we’ve been in Afghanistan, if you don’t have the high-resolution data, and you don’t have it synchronized and up to date, and it’s not continuous across all these systems, you’re literally putting lives in danger,” said Daniel Visone, director of the Army’s Geospatial Acquisition Support Directorate at Fort Belvoir, Va.

The Army has begun the hard work of dissolving these separate cylinders, and geospatial elements are a big part of the work. The perfect geospatial “end state,” as officials call their ultimate goal, won’t come until everyone is working off of the same Standard Shareable Geospatial Foundation. That won’t be achieved until 2017 or 2018 — long after most coalition troops leave Afghanistan. Even those dates could be fluid: “Everything depends on budget,” Visone said.

The Army Geospatial Center, where Visone works, is crafting the new geospatial vision under a broader Army effort called the Common Operating Environment initiative. The goal of the COE is to corral the service’s disparate networks and communications systems into a better-organized collection of systems that will be based on data standards and nonproprietary software. Aside from preventing mistakes on the battlefield, the goal is to save money by ferreting out redundancies.

The Army drafted a COE implementation plan in November 2011 and released it publicly in January 2012. Digital maps are not the only element of it: “You don’t want 40 different [program managers] building 40 different chat services,” Visone said. But there’s no doubt that the geospatial piece is critical.

The Army is working on Version 2 of the COE equipment and plans to test it at one of the Army’s twice-a-year Network Integration Evaluation in 2015 or 2016. The end state will be tested with COE Version 3 in 2017 or 2018.

Lots of work has been done since 2009, when then-Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli began trying to whip the Army’s fractious networking programs into a well-organized collection of systems. For starters, the service knows how the new geospatial enterprise will work. The Army’s terrain teams and DCGS-A personnel will “manage the foundation and publish it using open standards, and let mission command [programs] pull all of their foundation data from DCGS-A,” Visone said. “Where there isn’t a |DCGS-A, we’ll find other mechanisms to manage the foundation, but at least it’s managed and synchronized once.”

The Army knows it must cope with situations in which users are so far out in the field that they can’t connect to the cloud computing infrastructure that’s at the heart of information modernization in the Army and elsewhere.

Initially, all the enthusiasm about cloud computing raised fears that disconnected users might be forgotten.

“There was this thought that everything was going to be serviced by a cloud, right, and that all data would be in clouds,” Visone said. “Well, that doesn’t work if you’re going to be disconnected.”

The solution is to think carefully about where classes of information, such as full motion video, should be stored, he said. Some kinds of information will need to be kept within reach of disconnected users. Visone said that doesn’t make him anti-cloud.

“On the intel side, they want to be able to index information across the ‘INTS’” — types of intelligence — “so that you can, with geospatial temporal context, look for behaviors and patterns across all different types of information you never had access to before,” he said.

Not only that, in a cloud model, making software updates will be a lot easier and cost-effective for an Army struggling to find cost savings anywhere it can: “I don’t have to touch 5,000 boxes,” Visone said.

The biggest breakthrough of late might not be a technical one. There appears to be buy-in for the concept from the operational side of the Army.

“My personal opinion — and I’ve been working here since 1986 — [is that] over the last years, this is probably the most recognition geospatial has ever gotten as a cross-cutting capability,” he said.

Ben Iannotta is the editor of Deep Dive Intelligence.

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