WASHINGTON — The Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Agency is bringing a Skype-like capability to the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan to help Iraqi and Afghan units deal with threats they encounter.
By providing tablets or smart phone devices to Iraqi or Afghan soldiers, who can tap into unclassified networks and communicate with JIDA experts from farther afield, these soldiers can report roadside bombs or be taught how to handle unique threats as they come along.
The system, called the "Virtual Advise and Assist," uses a small satellite dish, two computers, a phone and a router that can be carried by one soldier. As long as there’s power, an advise and assist team can set up and stay in touch with soldiers with the tablets or phones who are deployed forward via a Skype-like capability.
JIDA displayed its system currently deployed as proof-of-concept pilot programs in Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa at a recent capabilities showcase at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, where one contractor described the system as having bandwidth good enough to watch the Superbowl.
“Due to new operational constraints of coalition forces to advise and assist partner nations and not have forces outside of the wire, it is imperative to provide partner nations with a capability to enable them to collect information and also see information shared by coalition forces,” JIDA spokesman David Small told Defense News. “The concept is deployed in order to accomplish those objectives and fill in the current information gap for coalition forces.”
As US forces maintain an advise and assist role in both theaters, “JIDA is encouraged by this concept,” Small said, acknowledging at the same time that “technology cannot always replicate an in-person approach for frontline collaboration and information sharing.”
In Iraq where the Islamic State Group is finding creative ways to build and deploy improvised explosive devices daily and has the freedom to scatter them throughout the battlefield, the capability will give Iraqi units fighting on the front lines the ability to collect essential post-blast and exploitation data. This is especially helpful since there are no US soldiers fighting alongside them.
Essentially, JIDA is trying out its Virtual Advise and Assist capability in one of the most challenging hot spots in the world.
The tablet based system allows the soldier to transfer information discovered in the battlefield back to headquarters through an unclassified network that interfaces with coalition databases, Small said. And soldiers with the tablets can interface with coalition databases as well.
JIDA is working to take the application from the tablet version and create apps for other standard Android devices as well as the Special Operations Force tablet system also being used for virtual advise and assist called MYTRAX, according to Small.
Feedback from the warfighter so far is that the capability “looks promising,” Small said.
But there are many things that will need to be ironed out, according to a few contractors at the JIDA event at Fort Belvoir. There are questions over how the soldiers will use the tablets, whether they will get damaged easily, or even end up in the wrong hands.
JIDA will work to answer those questions as it tests out the system such as whether the team in charge will be able to easily shutdown a tablet remotely if it lost or stolen.
“This reporting tool remains in the early stages of evaluation across [Central Command and Africa Command] regions,” Small said, adding he anticipates the evaluation will continue through 2016.
If the capability is successful, JIDA’s next steps will be to decide on how widely the tool needs to be distributed and who should get them in order to properly support advise and assist missions, Small said.
For instance, Small said, a tablet may be better suited in one region while a phone may work better elsewhere.
Additionally, JIDA is working “some translations through the Army Research Lab of the keyboard and labels within the reporting format into various languages from initial feedback to facilitate US Force interaction with partners for the advise and assist mission,” Small said.