Blue Force Tracking gains ground

Before to major combat operations in Iraq last year, many soldiers might not have been comfortable using technology to digitally communicate with one another and commanders as they crossed through enemy terrain.

However, engaging enemy forces during the fierce sandstorms of the Iraqi desert opened many soldiers' eyes to the merits of digital battle command.

Ten years after its conception by Army officials, the Blue Force Tracking system proved its mettle in battle, allowing advancing forces to communicate with leaders and one another. The digital system for tracking troop movement also gave policy-makers, commanders and troops an up-to-date battlefield picture, whether they were sitting at the Pentagon, watching in command headquarters in Kuwait or driving a Bradley vehicle in Iraq.

More importantly, the system allowed commanders and troops to distinguish between friend and foe and know at all times where allied forces were located. The aim of Blue Force Tracking is to not only prevent tragedies such as fratricide but also to allow logistics and supply forces to maintain a constant stream of materiel to troops.

Now the Army is teaming with other services to coordinate development of Blue Force Tracking technology. The Army and the Marine Corps traditionally work side-by-side on the battlefield as the United States' land force, but rarely did the two intermix prior to operations in Iraq.

As a result of the ever-closing gap between the Army and the Marines, Defense Department officials have instructed the two services to merge their research and development of Blue Force Tracking.

The Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC), a Joint Forces Command body responsible for approving the development of technologies and assets that are usable by each of the armed services, issued an order in August 2003 for the Army and the Marines to come together on a series of technologies, starting with Blue Force Tracking.

A previous memo, issued in June, ordered the development of "a Joint Blue Force Situational Awareness solution to enhance combat effectiveness and improve interoperability."

Blue Force believers

How much of a difference did Blue Force Tracking make in Iraq? One simply has to ask Army Lt. Col. John Charlton. On March 17, 2003, two days before the start of the war in Iraq, Charlton and his M2A3 Bradley crew meticulously cut and pasted laminated maps inside their 35-ton armored personnel carrier. Before the war, the Army quickly trained 3rd Infantry Division soldiers how to use Blue Force Tracking. However, they did not feel confident using the computer, so they didn't turn it on when crossing into Iraq on their first mission.

"What I should have spent the entire time focusing on was the small screen attached to my door," Charlton said after the war. "It had been accurately tracking my location as well as the location of my key leaders and adjacent units the whole time."

But four days into battle, amid the Iraqi sandstorms, the Bradley crew finally turned on Blue Force Tracking. The computer's imagery and Global Positioning System capabilities let them use Blue Force Tracking similar to how pilots use instruments to fly in bad weather.

"The experience of being forced to use and rely on Blue Force Tracking during a combat mission under impossible weather conditions completed my conversion to digital battle command," said Charlton, commander of 1-15 Infantry, 3rd Infantry Division, in Army documents.

"The Army had a vision [10 years ago] that if you could display your location, your buddies' locations and, with intelligence, enemy locations, commanders and soldiers could achieve a level of communication and information integration that would let you focus on your real jobs — commanding and warfighting," said Lt. Gen. William "Scott" Wallace, commanding general of the Army's Combined Arms Center and Fort Leavenworth, Kan. He oversaw U.S. Army and British ground forces in Iraq.

For years before the war, U.S. vehicles based in the Middle East did not have Blue Force Tracking. So on Sept. 25, 2002, top Army officials met at Camp Doha, Kuwait, to discuss several courses of action, but each had different time, money and equipment requirements.

The service decided to equip troops with the best. From October 2003 to March 2004, the Army's Program Executive Office for Command, Control and Communications-Tactical and (PEO-C3T) Northrop Grumman Corp., the Blue Force Tracking developer and systems integrator, installed more than 1,200 displays in Army, Marine Corps and British vehicles. Then they trained the troops to use the technology. The military also bought additional commercial satellite communications to give them mobile, wireless connectivity.

Blue Force Tracking came through, with both commanders and troops raving. "I could see the spatial relationships of my forces in battle," Wallace said. "I saw the Marines to my right and the British to the southeast."

"I never used another paper map product for the rest of the war and fought every fight thereafter using Blue Force Tracking," Charlton said.

Many people credit Army Col. Nick Justice for giving U.S. and coalition forces situational awareness. Justice oversaw Blue Force Tracking implementation for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Service leaders sent him over for a few months to sell commanders and troops on the technology. They found Justice convincing and self-assured. They wanted him there for the start of the war. He stayed well after the beginning.

"I came up through the enlisted ranks," Justice said. "I was a soldier down in the foxhole. Maybe I'm just passionate about it. But I've been there before."

However, Justice gives a great deal of credit to Col. Tim Cherry, the service's Blue Force Tracking training and doctrine system manager. "He's the best [training system manager] in the Army," Justice said. "Cherry just told the troops to turn it on, to take advantage of the technology, and they did."

Some military officials and the media feared that giving policy-makers and commanders the exact location of U.S. and coalition forces could cause them to tell warfighters how to fight instead of giving orders — to micromanage the war.

Justice said just the opposite happened.

"Eighty percent of the time, commanders and troops used to ask, 'Where are they?' or 'Where are you?' " he said. "You rarely heard that. They were focusing on their missions. They were coordinating moves and moving. And they both were doing it faster."

The military learned two key lessons on Blue Force Tracking: develop a comprehensive plan to field the computer system departmentwide and use handheld devices.

The Army and the Marines must now overcome significant engineering and operations issues, said Marine Lt. Col. Michael Sweeney, chief of the information superiority branch at the Strategic Division of Marine Headquarters' Command, Control, Communications and Computers.

"We have to figure out how to best move data at the tactical level," said Sweeney, who worked in Marine Corps headquarters in Kuwait during the war. "We will most likely have somewhat different systems for [commander] and [soldier and Marine] elements," he said. The Army uses Blue Force Tracking, and the Marines possess the Command and Control Personal Computer system. Each system uses different protocols, communications architectures and messaging standards, rendering them practically useless to each other, Sweeney said.

The Army and the Marine Corps met earlier this month to work on their JROC briefing due this summer, Justice said.

The two services will devise the Joint Blue Force Situational Awareness framework this year and field it by 2006, Sweeney said.


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