Army will expand battlefield tracking app

Units using the tracking technology in Afghanistan and Iraq so far have reported no friendly fire deaths, the Army's Thomas Plavcan says.

Courtesy of Army

Having successfully used its Blue Force Tracking system in the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Army will broaden use of the tool for identifying friendly and enemy forces.

The service by 2008 will add more than 40,000 BFT devices for tracking vehicles and troops. It also is spearheading an effort to create a ground-troops tracking application for use by all the military services.

Now, about 1,500 of the tracking devices are installed in Army, Marine Corps and coalition vehicles and helicopters, as well as at command posts, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Units using the devices can get a common battlefield view, with friendly forces identified in blue and enemy forces highlighted in red.

Units using BFT and the related Force XXI Battle Command Brigade-and-Below tracking technology so far have reported no friendly fire deaths, said Thomas Plavcan, deputy project manager for FBCB2.

BFT and FBCB2 use the same application software running under Sun Microsystems Solaris, but BFT uses ground-based radio links for communications and FBCB2 uses satellite transmissions.

As a result of the tracking app's success, the Army chief of staff and the Army Training and Doctrine Command's system manager decided to accelerate the program.

The 40,000 units the Army plans to field over the next four years will include 7,000 handheld versions of BFT, known as the Commander's Digital Assistant. During the same timeframe, the Marine Corps will outfit thousands of its vehicles with additional systems.

'When we talked to soldiers, many said they needed it installed in higher densities at the company level so that platoon leaders, first sergeants, support units and other key players would have better battlefield awareness,' said Lt. Col. John Bullington, the Army's BFT product manager.

In addition to its monitoring capability, BFT also lets troops send e-mail messages to one another.

In one of the reports the Army has gathered about the system's field use, a soldier called BFT a lifesaver. He recounted an instance of a captain using the device to locate allied troops and alert them to imminent danger.

Used for warning

'In the vicinity was a burning building that had explosives in it,' the soldier said. The system also showed a soldier and a platoon leader in the surrounding area near the building.

'They called them up and had them vacate the area,' he said. 'Shortly afterwards there were several explosions that shook the area so hard it shattered out a few windows.'

The tracking systems cost roughly $10,000 per ground unit.

Because of the limited supply of BFT and FBCB2 hardware, many ground units used other tracking systems that weren't compatible with BFT, such as the Marine Corps' Mounted Digital Automated Communications Terminal (MDACT).

'Basically, we had two different systems out there that couldn't communicate,' Bullington said.
Last summer, the Joint Requirements Oversight Council assigned the Army to be the lead service to forge a single system for all ground forces.

'When they came out with that tasking memo last August, it was clarified that it means all services,' Plavcan said.

For instance, the Army is also studying ways to transmit Blue Force Tracking data to Air Force communications systems that will give pilots up-to-date views of ground troops.

The services have had many meetings to discuss the best path forward. Today, they are looking at a plan to merge the Marines' MDACT with BFT.

'In order for them to use our software, there are some things that we have to do to it,' Bullington said. The services will work to unify the systems and complete testing for implementation in 2006.

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