Nett Warrior

DOD tech demo moves battlefield intell to the tip of the spear

As the number and sophistication of the sensors the U.S. military deploys to gather information on the battlefield has soared, so has the level of situational awareness available to commanders and tacticians. The people who haven’t benefited that much so far are the ones who do the actual fighting.

Providing timely and relevant information about the movement of both friend and foe to those at the pointed end of the spear has been a persistent problem. The kinds of networking and display technologies that now allow those in the higher echelons to rapidly collect, analyze and disseminate information have been nonexistent for lower echelon warfighters.

Things could change soon, however, thanks to commercial mobile devices. The technology that’s changing the way civilians work and communicate with each other may also be the answer for the military grunt.

That was a focus, in fact, of the third annual “Agile Bloodhound” technology demonstration — the result of a partnership between the Marine Corps, the Office of Naval Research (ONR), the Marine Corps Forces Pacific Experimentation Center and others — that was held Nov. 13-14 in Hawaii.

The intent of the meeting was to show what combination of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets could be used to deliver tailored intelligence to front-line troops. Those included  a serverless chat system that both individuals and groups could use, even when not connected to the network, and ActiveWiki software enabling collaborations that produced unique views of the battlespace.

But it was the use of smartphones and tablets that impressed the most. Given that they use such devices regularly in their private lives, the assumption was that troops would be able to use them also in the field.

Agile Bloodhound proved “the ability of young Marines to use handheld devices with minimal training [and] to receive relevant tactical information from enterprise resources, including intelligence sources, in an expeditious manner,” said John Moniz, the ONR’s Agile Bloodhound program manager.

Smartphones are also the focus of the Army’s Nett Warrior program, a leftover of the more extensive Ground Soldier System that originally envisioned soldiers equipped with a 10 lb. wearable computer. Nett Warrior, itself a part of the now defunct Future Combat Systems program, has survived mostly because of its reliance on relatively cheap smartphones as the end-user device.

Commercial phones such as the Samsung Galaxy Note are carried by team leaders in chest-mounted harnesses. With them, leaders can spot other soldiers on the battlefield with digital “chem light” markers on the smartphone display. They can also receive and send text messages and other information.

So far, the smartphones exclusively use the Android operating system, which the Army says it prefers because it’s open source. Before they are deployed in the field, the smartphones are wiped clean of all of commercial applications and are loaded up with Nett Warrior software.

Nett Warrior is already in use by soldiers in outfits such as the Army Rangers and the 10th Mountain Division.

The program illustrates a major problem in taking smartphones to the battlefield, since it’s not possible in those situations to build out towers and other cellular infrastructure that smartphones use in the civilian sector. Solutions such as MANETS (mobile ad hoc networks) that use the cellphones themselves to build network nodes on the fly are under consideration, but no optimal solution has so far been found.

The Army has partially gotten around the problem by connecting the smartphones to the network through the data-capable Rifleman Radios that each soldier carries. The smartphones can’t be used for voice communications that way, but they can receive and send data and text messages.

For Moniz, current developments in the information architectures used by the Marines are showing progress by moving away from the single-purpose systems that have traditionally been fielded to allow for increased integration of more diverse systems.

However, he said, while the amount of intelligence data generated has grown significantly, “the means to determine and disseminate relevant information to the forward edge is still under development, as exemplified by [the recent] Agile Bloodhound 2013.”

How all that works out is still to be decided, but it’s obvious the military is now reliant on the smartphone. The Army, for example, has committed itself to swapping out the devices used in Nett Warrior as needed in order to provide soldiers with the latest in processing power and capabilities.“We are beholden to the commercial industry,” said Jason Regnier, deputy program manager for Nett Warrior. “We have to keep up with them.”

The Marine Corp is also looking for ways to get smartphones to its forward units as quickly as possible, even though a fully integrated system may still be some ways off.

“The acquisition community participated in Agile Bloodhound 2013,” Moniz said, “and will be looking for expeditious solutions.”

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