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Network systems are too complex even for the military's digital natives

Nov. 26, 2013 - 03:45AM   |  
By BARRY ROSENBERG   |   Comments
The Army's Command Post of the Future and other network systems are often too complex and counterintuitive, some officers say.
The Army's Command Post of the Future and other network systems are often too complex and counterintuitive, some officers say. (Army)
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I’m hearing a lot about “simplicity” from military leaders recently. More accurately, they’re talking about “complexity,” in that new networking and communications technologies are too complex to operate — even for the young digital natives who populate the armed services.

Army Chief of Signal MG LaWarren Patterson said this recently about Capability Set 13 networking technologies: “It’s too complex. I’m hearing it from every BCT and warfighter. You need a PhD to turn on some of this stuff. We need the simplicity to be outside the box. Let the chips and hardware and software [inside the box] do the hard work for the soldier. This is the trend, and I’m hearing it loud and clear.”

Now we’re also hearing it from lower-ranking officers in the field, who are speaking up about the problem of complexity — in this case issues related specifically to the user interfaces for the Distributed Common Ground System-Army (DCGS-A), the Command Post of the Future (CPOF) and the Movement Tracking System (MTS).

“The steepest learning curve for soldiers lies in simply fighting the user interface,” write Army MAJ Chrispin Burke, MAJ James King and LTC Niel Smith in a recent article in Small Wars Journal. “In general, most battle command programs are counter-intuitive to soldiers who grew up with the functionality of Microsoft Windows.

“For example, CPOF, which is found in nearly every tactical operations center, is based on UNIX, meaning that most functions run completely counter to those of Windows. Worse yet, there is little commonality among systems; the skills required to master CPOF are of little use when trying to navigate DCGS-A or MTS.”

And according to the authors, “the DCGS-A’s interface is so poor that troops often elect to fight without one of their most valuable tools.”

In their commentary, they offer four recommendations about how to fix the problem: (1) establish a common Army user interface; (2) require usability metrics as part of the contract deliverables; (3) code the software using open concepts, and design the software for user modding; and (4) design software to export information into Microsoft Office formats.

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