Turning to the troops

(This is the second in a series of articles looking at Defense Department efforts to bring new technology to the battlefield.)

FORT HOOD, Texas—1st Lt. Scott Gregory Trahan, a platoon commander here in the 4th Infantry Division, talks enthusiastically about how the computers in all the Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles in his platoon provide pinpoint accuracy on the location and status of enemy and friendly forces.

Trahan, who is in his second tour with the 4th Infantry Division, the Army's first prototype "digitized division," said he would not want to go into a real battle without the experimental Force XXI Battle Command, Brigade and Below (FBCB2) computer installed in his Bradley fighting vehicle.

But as might be expected with an experimental project, Trahan said he still sees "room for improvement" in the FBCB2 software, such as an ability to quickly call up and send out a series of "canned" messages that are commonly needed, rather than creating every message from scratch.

What might not be expected, though, is the degree to which the Army is listening to Trahan and other 4th Infantry Division soldiers who are testing new applications and systems in the battlefield as part of the Force XXI project. For example, according to Trahan, the Army acted on almost all of the recommendations he and others made after exercises in 1996.

Terry Edwards, technical director of the Central Technical Support Facility here for the Force XXI Integration Office, said the experiences of Trahan illustrate a prime tenet of the development of the "digitized" Army. "The key is working with the soldiers here," said Edwards from his office in the small village of trailers that make up the ever-expanding CTSF compound. "We have learned more from being with the soldiers than anything else."

Force XXI is one of several initiatives across the Defense Department that aim to provide a larger role for information technology in battle. As with the other services, the Army hopes to use the technology to enable soldiers throughout the battlefield, in tanks and in command centers, to share information rapidly about the location and capabilities of troops on both sides and other vital data.

The Army has tapped the 4th Infantry Division to take the lead with Force XXI testing. "We're just not integrating technology here," Edwards said. "Technology has to be worked into the business process" of the tactical Army, he said. The soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division make sure that CTSF and its contracting team, headed by TRW Inc., do not "lose track of what that technology is supposed to do...and who is using it," Edwards said.

Solving Problems

The challenges are manifold. On one hand, the Army wants to find out the strengths and weaknesses of the technology and how best to make use of it. But the Army also needs to learn what problems come along with technology solutions. And these challenges exist at multiple levels of command.

Staff Sgt. Joseph Young, a platoon sergeant under Trahan, said he would like to see the Force XXI developers try providing the Bradley fighting vehicle crews with eyepieces connected to the FBCB2 computer, rather than having to keep squinting down at the flat-panel display.

Meanwhile, far up the digital chain from Trahan and Young, Lt. Jeff Quinn, the 4th Infantry Division's assistant division information officer, struggled with how to manage the fire hose of information pouring into the 4th Infantry Division Tactical Operations Center (TOC) from the 114 information systems—including intelligence, maneuver control and logistics—that make up the tactical Army's system of systems, the Army Battle Command System. "Our biggest challenge is information overload. How do we present this information in a logical fashion?" Quinn said.

And Chief Warrant Officer Joe Kobsar, the audio/video technician on the 4th Infantry Division's G-6 (automation) staff, said the sheer number of computers in the TOC, and the ganglia of wires needed to hook them all up, also had a direct impact on the ability of the TOC to rapidly move forward on a fast-changing battlefield. "It took two days to move the TOC," Kobsar said.

The Army is looking for the soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division to identify these kinds of problems and, wherever possible, to help determine the solutions.

Kobsar, for example, eventually devised an information display solution, working with the aid of Logicon Inc., one of the small army of contractors supporting the division. He examined the information display problem, and determined that the solution was to equip the 4th Infantry Division TOC with the same kind of video production van NBC uses to broadcast a major sporting event—only the 4th Infantry Division video production van resides in a military shelter mounted on the back of a camouflage Humvee, instead of in a trailer sporting the NBC peacock.

The digital production van pipes all the computer video display signals needed for the TOC—as well as live video from unmanned aerial vehicles and the all-important CNN news feed—through a single system that is easily controlled by a staff officer from a push-button console in the TOC.

Thinking Small

While the chief focus of publicity about Force XXI has been on large-scale exercises conducted at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, Calif., Edwards said the real development and testing of the digitized Army is conducted in smaller-scale maneuvers on the ranges and training areas here at Foot Hood as well as in a networked simulation facility with 80 computers. Those systems enable the simulation of larger forces without incurring the $10 million to $15 million cost associated with full-blown field maneuvers.

Managing information and ensuring that the right data gets to the right user at the right time has become a key focus of CTSF development efforts, Edwards said.

Edwards described command and control as "GIGO" technology—garbage in, garbage out. "You have to figure out how to package and preset the data.... Concepts of subscription have to be taken to a new level." CTSF is working to develop ways to ensure that users, such as operations officers, will receive only the data they need to execute a mission.

For example, at the platoon level, prepackaged messages in the FBCB2 software means a Bradley fighting vehicle commander needs to use only six keystrokes to call in a strike on an enemy target, according to Harvey Carter, the TRW site manager at Fort Hood.

Devilish Details

The ability to call in a strike with so few keystrokes involves a myriad of technical details of which the commander will never be aware. But such details have to be understood and managed for the Army to fully exploit the power of digitization, Edwards said.

"This is a details business," he said, "and it's the small things, not the glitzy stuff, that really matters. Configuration management matters. How do you distribute software updates to a force dispersed around the world? How do you conduct training for that force?"

Col. Winn Noyes, director of the Force XXI Digital Force Coordination Cell, worries about training and a lot of other issues that at first glance seem to have nothing to do with the development of a digitized force. In fact, from Noyes' perspective, digitizing the Army actually has little to do with bolting computers into tanks, Humvees and Bradleys.

If the power of those computers is to be harnessed correctly, the Army must drastically reform warfighting basics, and it is Noyes' job to figure it all out, he said. The Army must change its doctrine, training, leadership development, organization and soldiers, "and this must be all coordinated and synchronized across the Army," he said.

Noyes said this drastic reformation of the Army is complicated by the fact that Army leadership views "digitization as additive" to basic warfighting skills: Soldiers need to know how to fight both a digital battle and, in case a cheap rocket takes out an expensive computer and its map display, an old-fashioned analog battle.

Despite the enormity of his task, Noyes said, "I'm very comfortable with the process we have in place that identifies problems and works solutions. We have a workable plan to take us to the first digitized division by 2000."

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