Magazine article National Defense

Army's Blue-Force Tracking Technology Was a Tough Sell

Magazine article National Defense

Army's Blue-Force Tracking Technology Was a Tough Sell

Article excerpt

During their war preparations, U.S. soldiers initially dismissed the blue-force tracking technology--touted as one of the success stories of Operation Iraqi Freedom--as an unnecessary burden.

During the buildup for OIF, soldiers were reluctant to use the new system, said Army Maj. Jonas Vogelhut, the assistant project manager for Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below and its satellite communications version, the blue-force tracking, at Fort Monmouth, N.J.

Blue-force tracking systems, such as FBCB2, let commanders pinpoint the location of friendly forces on the battlefield.

Vogelhut led a group of experts that deployed to the Middle East to help with the installation and training for the BFT.

His team was embedded with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division. "Rather than bring their equipment from Fort Stewart, Ga., we would install 50 pieces of the equipment in that division [while deployed]," he told a National Defense Industrial Association conference in Fort Knox, Ky.

During the first days of training, Vogelhut's team encountered strong resistance. An officer of the 2nd Brigade 3rd ID told him his troops did not want to use blue force tracking systems. "We are very comfortable with the way we use the map and how we track the battlefield," Vogelhut recalled the officer saying. "All you are going to do is micro-manage us from the highest level, and we are going to hate it, but because it is an Army division we are going to do it," that officer told Vogelhut.

Vogelhut's office worked with them during the pre-invasion buildup in Kuwait and also once the U.S. forces entered Iraq. "In a short period of time we went from being a nuisance to something they liked," he said. "And lot of that was a change from the way we do business. We are not just going to give you a new product, stay a couple of days to train you and leave. We will stay with you, because your real learning will go on when you use it yourself. We are only going to stay in the background."

According to Vogelhut, one of the main criticisms was that the Army did not field enough systems. "We got to company level, but had we got into platoon level, a company would have better been able to maneuver instead of just trying to look outside a tank [or a] Bradley and see where their buddies were," he said. "It did not happen. We could not get there fast enough. That is the next level. [We have to] anticipate the need of the war fighter forward, so that all the fighters have the same operational picture."

The same capability also is needed for the dismounted force, Vogelhut said. Northrop Grumman recently introduced a handheld version of the BFT, which the company developed independently. The Army gave Northrop Grumman a $2 million contract to deliver 100 devices for testing with the 101st and the 82nd Airborne Divisions. The handheld ruggedized pocket PC uses beyond-line-of sight communication through a built-in L-band transceiver.

L-Band Woes

The FBCB2 system originally was designed for line-of-sight communications via the Army's EPLRS secure radio network. In Iraq, the Army fielded a satellite version of the BFT system. However, the Army is not comfortable employing an unclassified commercial L-Band communications link and wants to make it more secure, officials said. The service recently issued a solicitation to industry for ideas on how to address the processing of classified blue force tracking messages over commercial mobile satellite communications networks.

The L-Band satellite can only process a limited number of classified messages. The necessary bandwidth was not available to process timely situational awareness, and command and control messages during OIF, said the Army solicitation. The interoperability between disparate BFT systems used by the U.S. and coalition forces aboard ground vehicles and rotary-wing aircraft is also a problem, as well as having the ability to operate multiple commercial satellite providers. …

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