DOD launches high-tech command post project

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) last week kicked off a four-year, $20 million project to develop interactive decision-support information technologies that military commanders will use in future wars.

The so-called Command Post of the Future initiative will transform today's command posts— where the services' commanders, with a support staff numbering in the hundreds, make battlefield decisions, coordinate maneuvers and issue direct orders to troops— into high-tech, mobile posts. The project's goal is to cut by half the number of personnel who staff military command posts and to provide decision-makers with the ability to make quicker, more accurate decisions.

Most military leaders agree that today's large command post complexes are too difficult to deploy and will not survive on the high-tech battlefield of the future, where quick access to information will be key to victory. So the Pentagon plans to develop posts where most of the support staff are located far from the battle in secure installations while a small, highly mobile staff accompanies the commander to the battlefield.

"If you recall the command center we deployed to [the Persian Gulf War], it had a huge staff and practically glowed in the dark," said Ray Franklin, a consultant to BTG Inc. and a retired Marine Corps general. The Command Post of the Future will be "a much reduced logistic burden" that will make it easier to move troops and equipment worldwide, he said.

The project, scheduled to begin in fiscal 1999, will concentrate on developing various human/computer interface technologies such as large displays, voice recognition, intelligent agents, collaboration tools, electronic sand tables (which display friendly and enemy troop locations) and a host of network and communications technologies.

In the future, decision-makers "will have at their disposal a complex array of sensors and collection platforms, data sources and globally distributed expertise," said David Gunning, program manager at DARPA. "Success will depend on being able to leverage this information environment to rapidly understand and precisely control the battlefield."

DARPA plans to award multiple contracts for the development of what Gunning called "a new level of visualization and human systems interaction technology." The first three years of the project will be spent developing and testing candidate technologies in a series of experiments to take place at Army and Marine Corps battle labs. In the fourth year, fiscal 2002, DARPA will demonstrate the most promising technologies in an operational field test, Gunning said.

In future command posts, military commanders will be able to "view immediately understandable presentations of the changing battlefield situation [via] presentations [that] are automatically generated and tailored to the situation and the command decisions of interest," Gunning said.

For example, while on duty in the Command Post of the Future, a watch officer will be able to query the computer for a report on the current battlefield situation. The computer will access the watch officer's so-called pre-defined dialog management profile, which has been programmed to the watch officer's preferences, including the map scale and the level of detail the officer prefers. The computer will reconfigure digital maps, briefing slides and event time lines on the fly.

In addition, an information manager subsystem will handle requests for data residing on other command and control systems and ensure the feedback is neatly integrated into the various displays and output devices specified by the commander. The goal will be to allow decision-makers to query any point in the information infrastructure without needing the assistance of a large staff.

The Command Post of the Future also will enhance cooperation between coalition partners through the use of multilanguage speech recognition and speech-generation technology. In this high-tech environment, commanders will speak to the computer for answers to basic questions, such as, "Where is the enemy?" and "What were the major events of the last 24 hours?" Answers will be displayed or spoken by the computer in the language of the commander's choice.

Capt. Joe Yoswa, spokesman for the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, said the Army had a tough time moving a division command center around the battlefield during one of its last advanced warfighting experiments.

"We need to figure out how to effectively move around the battlefield with a less cumbersome system of systems," Yoswa said. The Command Post of the Future is a step in that direction, he said.

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