DOD orders common digital battlefield views

Defense Department officials learned that soldiers and Marines did not always possess a similar and timely view of the location of friendly forces on the battlefield during major combat operations in Iraq last year.

But military officials anticipate creating a single, integrated ground picture to improve communications and operations and minimize friendly fire incidents.

DOD officials want Army and Marine Corps warfighters to have a common view of ground forces by 2006, using digital capabilities known as Blue Force Tracking.

With the technology, locations of the enemy forces appear as red icons and friendly ones as blue icons on computer screens inside vehicles or on handheld devices.

Officials from the Joint Chiefs of Staff will review a framework designed to provide a common Blue Force Tracking capability. Army and Marine officials briefed members of the Joint Requirements Oversight Council last summer on the Joint Blue Force Situational Awareness framework.

"We need to converge to a single Blue Force Tracking capability," said Col. Lance Carroll, chief of the Technical Integration Division in the Army's Office of the Deputy Chief of Programs.

He spoke earlier this month at the Milcom 2004 conference in Monterey, Calif., sponsored by AFCEA International.

In June 2003, members of the oversight council ordered the development of the framework "to enhance combat effectiveness and improve interoperability."

Two months later, officials in the Joint Forces Command organization that is responsible for approving the development of technologies and assets instructed Army and Marine officials to reach an agreement on several matters, beginning with joint Blue Force Tracking.

Lessons from last year's invasion of Iraq helped DOD officials develop a plan to deploy Blue Force Tracking throughout the military.

Army warfighters use the Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below (FBCB2), while Marines use the Command and Control Personal Computer (C2PC) to receive information on friendly forces.

The FBCB2 and C2PC systems use different computer protocols, communications architectures and messaging standards, which pose significant engineering and operational incompatibilities, said Lt. Col. Michael Sweeney, chief of

the information superiority branch at the Strategic Division of Marine Headquarters' Command, Control, Communications and Computers.

Despite technical problems in fielding a common Blue Force Tracking capability, the FBCB2 and C2PC systems were valuable to forces in Iraq, military officials said.

They credit the systems with increasing communications and reducing friendly fire incidents.

Prices of the battlefield digitization systems are falling, said Lt. Gen. Steve Boutelle, chief information officer for the Army, at the Milcom conference.

When Army officials started fielding FBCB2 in the late 1990s, the systems cost $25,000 each. Later, prices increased to $35,000 per device. Now, they cost about $10,000 each, Boutelle said.

In October, DRS Technologies, which supplies FBCB2 systems, was awarded a $39.5 million contract from the Army to deliver more than 4,000 ruggedized units in 2005.

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