Friday, April 12, 2013

The Army -- not just your parents -- is belatedly learning about smartphones.

This week we talked about efforts to improve "jointness."  As far as I can tell, improvements in networked communications is the most important factor (aside from maybe cultural or institutional changes that might force jointness).  As Dr. Farley pointed out, when you have Marines and Army units not just unwilling but actually unable to communicate with each other as happened in Grenada, you've got problems.  So in this post I want to focus on one new piece of technology that might help improve communications -- Nett Warrior.  Here's a description of the technology.
The Nett Warrior (NW) is an integrated dismounted leader situational awareness (SA) system for use during combat operations. The system provides unparalleled SA to the dismounted leader, allowing for faster and more accurate decisions in the tactical fight. With advanced navigation, SA, and information sharing capabilities, leaders are able to avoid fratricide and are more effective and more lethal in the execution of their combat missions.

The NW program focuses on the development of the SA system, which has the ability to graphically display the location of an individual leader’s location on a digital geo-referenced map image. Additional Soldier and leader locations are also displayed on the hands-free digital display. NW is connected through a secure radio that will send and receive information from one NW to another, thus connecting the dismounted leader to the network. These radios will also connect the equipped leader to higher echelon data and information products to assist in decision making and situational understanding. Soldier position location information will be added to the network via interoperability with the Army’s Rifleman Radio capability. All of this will allow the leader to easily see, understand, and interact in the method that best suits the user and the particular mission. NW will employ a system-of-systems approach, optimizing and integrating capabilities while reducing the Soldier’s combat load and logistical footprint.
But let's back up a bit.  The Army has been trying, and failing, to develop something similar for years.  The first iteration was the Future Force Warrior (FFW).  (Note, this program has changed names numerous times; it was also called Land Warrior.  For more information about Land Warrior, check out this website.)
"The primary objective for FFW . . . was to demonstrate and confirm Soldier/SCU interoperability with the Army's Future Force communication network and the integration of the Soldier Radio Waveform into our FFW system." says Fitzgerald "We were able to accomplish this goal, while also running our system alongside the Future Force prototype and surrogate systems, fully integrated into the battle network of the exercise. This network interoperability allows soldiers to transmit voice and data, both with each other and with other units, greatly enhancing the situational awareness and combat effectiveness of our soldiers at a time when it is most needed."
The technology, however, was bulky, heavy, cumbersome -- and soldiers hated it.

But as Alpha kicks in doors, rounds up terror suspects and peals off automatic fire in deafening six-shot bursts, not one of the soldiers bothers to check his radio or look into the eyepiece to find his buddies on the electronic maps. "It's just a bunch of stuff we don't use, taking the place of useful stuff like guns," says Sgt. James Young, who leads a team of four M-240 machine-gunners perched on a balcony during this training exercise at Fort Lewis, Wash. "It makes you a slower, heavier target." 

The system weighed up to 16 pounds (a ridiculous addition given how much they already carry), had large hardware components, wires going everywhere, and, maybe more consequentially, added "stuff" onto the soldier's M-4 rifle that they never used.  A camera connected to the barrel of their gun allowed them to see around corners, which they found out was less useful in real combat scenarios.

The Army likes the potential of this technology because it integrates individual soldiers into the networked battle space.  Blue Force Tracking is a system that allows commanders and squad leaders to know where other units are, primarily by identifying certain vehicles via GPS on a map.  But the Army wanted to integrate individual soldiers into the Blue Force Tracking system via Future Force Warrior (just like in Ghost Recon!!!).  Again, the problem was soldiers hated the system.

The Army tried to kill the program (but killing things is harder than scaling them down until you can ramp them back up).  Enter . . . the smartphone revolution!  The computing power of today's smartphones is infinitely greater than anything prior to 2000.  So, after a quick name change (now the program is called Nett Warrior, named after a Medal of Honor recipient), the Army began experimenting with modified all-the-shelf technology, namely Android smartphones.  The new Nett Warrior device will use the Rifleman Radio to connect each soldier to the Blue Force Tracking system (hurray!), provide realtime GPS info for every soldier, and send pictures/video/text messages all on an encrypted system.  The technology won't be connected to a 3G/4G network because, well, we don't fight in places where those exist, and even if we did we would probably take them out to prevent the enemy from using it.  Connecting to the Rifleman Radio provides the data connection and encryption capability.

It appears the Army is beta testing the new design in live combat operations.  
If soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division happen to be on patrol in Afghanistan later this year and need support, they can probably just Google it. 
That's because they will be the first to get all kinds of high-tech gear: radios, smartphones, and wirelessly-networked vehicles, according to Watertown YNN. 
"In many places, we're so far removed," Col. Walter Platt told YNN. "We're using hand and arm signals and old FM communication much like we did in World War II." 
The centerpiece of the technology push is with Android smartphones, such as the Motorola Atrix, which will be issued to every soldier. 
This new platform is important for future combat for a variety of reasons.  First it individualizes
Blue Force Tracking.  The system we had in 2003 helped prevent fratricide and speed our advance to Baghdad.  But it only provided general locations for units (i.e. the squad vehicle).  When dismounted, soldiers can be spread out, but this new Nett Warrior system will help keep track of every dismounted soldier.  Moreover, it could provide key intelligence to commanders if a soldier happens to be kidnapped in battle.  Second, it Keeps It Simple Stupid.  Previous models were too bulky and added features that just got in the way.  Soldiers didn't need to see around walls.  They needed a simple solution that provided key benefits.  Third, most new soldiers already have experience with this technology -- who doesn't have an iPhone?!  The apps on this system are similar in kind (though not in substance) to those currently in commercial use.  Fourth, the benefits are great.  Being able to stream drone footage or pictures, send specific (clear) orders to disparate units, and provide accurate geospatial information to each soldier (and combined services) will greatly enhance our fighting capabilities.  In other words, this system dramatically improves situational awareness on the battlefield through a simple, efficient solution.

And upgrading this system will be easy.  I can imagine different versions for, say, squad leaders that might need a little bit larger screens to run different applications.  I can imagine a scenario like this:  a Stryker Brigade is raiding an urban area, the squad is dismounted and the squad leader is watching his unit move through the town on his Nett Warrior system via GPS.  So he is literally looking at a map of the town and seeing blue dots move.  He can then cycle to an app that provides real-time video from an overhead drone (or maybe a miniaturized one that lives with his Stryker, like the new Black Hornets).  Then, say he wants to send specific information to one group, he looks at his platform (zooms in if needed) circles a specific group of blue dots and a menu of options pops up ("Send Text" "Send Picture" "Stream Video" "Talk").  And he does what he wants.  Depending on the quality of the microphone piece, the system could benefit from talk-to-text software as well, freeing soldiers' hands from having to type messages.  That would allow greater flexibility for soldiers taking fire.   And as the commercial sector (I'm looking at you Google!) perfects an eyepiece component, I could see that being added to this system as well -- in essence, a mini version of the F-35 helmet display.

I jokingly (ok, maybe seriously) say that if I can't do it on my iPhone, I won't do it.  (Heck, even the University of Kentucky has an app that let's you schedule classes and pay tuition!!!)  The commercial sector has provided enormous value to consumers through mobile and tablet technology.  I'm glad to see the military is now figuring it out.  I'm sure there are kinks to work out with the Nett Warrior system, but at least it's a step in the right direction.

1 comment:

Vera said...

This is cool!