Made to order

The logistics commanders get better control of their vehicles, their convoys and also the assets distribution... to support the warfighter'

'Lt. Col. Jeannette Jones

Photo courtesy PM Logistics Information Systems

Movement Tracking System taps satellite links to help logistics units resupply troops on the fly

On the battlefield, even the best-laid plans sometimes need to be changed in an instant. A routine scouting mission can turn into a firefight, leaving a unit of soldiers low on fuel, ammunition or other supplies.

That's when logistics units drop their usually humdrum image and spring into action to deliver vitally important supplies to warfighters.

And that's why the Army is implementing the second generation of its Movement Tracking System, which lets commanders track truck convoys and their supplies, said Dallas Linke, senior vice president of programs at Comtech Mobile Datacom Corp., which developed and produces the system.

'It allows for vehicle-tracking worldwide using L-band satellite communications capabilities to enable the safe movement of these vehicles, primarily in hostile areas,' Linke said.

Comtech originally developed the technology for civilian applications, but it has modified and adapted it for military use. Today, the technology is used almost exclusively by the military.

The Movement Tracking System is similar to, but separate from, Blue Force Tracking, which lets military leaders track friendly and enemy forces.

Army officials wanted to get beyond the previous, antiquated, low-tech method, said Lt. Col. Jeannette Jones, the Army's product manager for the system.

'I've been in the logistics community basically my entire career, since 1983, and the way we used to track visibility of things like convoys and assets on the road was basically through radios,' Jones said. 'And in the logistics community, we never had enough radios, so it's not like we had one per vehicle.'

To close that communications gap, the Army in 2003 started developing a commercial product to create the system it needed. The basic requirement was a tool that could provide communications and in-transit visibility while trucks and supplies were moving along a road anywhere in the world.

The system uses the Global Positioning System and has two-way messaging for communications between trucks and commanders. The Army uses the system primarily for logistics, but it also uses it for command and control.

'By virtue of that two-way messaging and its mapping capabilities, the logistics command-and-control stations can see where their vehicles are during a mission,' Jones said. 'The logistics commanders get better command and control of their vehicles, their convoys and also the assets distribution and redistribution to support the warfighter.'

Situational awareness

The Movement Tracking System's data is shared with the Blue Force Tracking systems to give commanders situational awareness of the battlefield.

In a war zone, logistics quickly can become complex. Convoys often comprise vehicles from different units, and the supplies they're carrying can be fuel, food or repair parts.

'Let's say the convoy is going down a road and they come into a firefight'they can use that two-way messaging not only to tell the rest of the convoy they're in trouble, but also they can message headquarters,' Jones said. 'There have been some incidents where that has occurred. There have been distress messages sent forward, and we believe the system saved the lives of the logistics soldiers in these convoys.'

Soldiers in the trucks access the system via ruggedized laptops. Making all of the system's components rugged was the biggest challenge in modifying the system for military use, Linke said.

The second generation of tracking systems now going into trucks includes radio frequency identification capabilities, Linke said.

The addition of RFID makes it easier to redistribute supplies on the fly. For example, if a convoy is going down the road on a mission to deliver fuel and a nearby infantry unit comes under attack, the convoy can be redirected to supply the infantry unit after the firefight.

'That's something we were never able to do efficiently and quickly before,' Jones said. 'We just didn't have the communications or mapping or the data to do that and redirect a convoy safely.'

The new system also has a panic button soldiers can use to send out a group message with a distress signal. That feature came from the request of soldiers in the field, Jones said.

'Soldiers believe this system has literally saved their lives in some instances,' she said. 'With the two-way messaging and the alert capability, they were able to get help in distress situations.'

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for GCN's sister publication Washington Technology.

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.

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