April 2, 2011: The U.S. Department of Defense has developed a holographic 3-D map display system called UPSD (Urban Phototonic Sandtable Display). This system does not require special glasses, and replaces the current 3-D system which is presented on large flat screen displays in 2-D. This new 3-D tech is yet another aspect of an ongoing revolution in how combat headquarters are equipped, organized and operate.
These innovations began over a decade ago, but took its current form seven years ago when the 1st Cavalry division went to Iraq with fifty special PC systems, each equipped with three flat screen displays and wired so that the fifty PCs can communicate with each other over an encrypted network powerful enough to handle VOIP (telephone calls via the Internet). The use of three displays enables each user to view what they are working on now, a battle map and a screen full of information from another member of the network. Half of these PC "work stations" went to the division headquarters. The other 25 went to eight brigade level command posts (combat brigades and support commands) in the area the division is operating in (the Baghdad vicinity.)
Local networks like this are popular in corporations, enabling people who work together a lot, but are dispersed in many different locations, to constantly stay in touch. The software they use has come to be called "groupware" and has special features that makes it easier to share data and collaborate on projects. The army "groupware" project (officially, "The Command Post of the Future") had been in limbo for several years, as no one wanted to pay to have it installed in their combat division for a real life workout. But in 2004 there was a war on, and the commander of the 1st Cavalry division heard about it, saw a demo and liked it enough to take it on. One thing the 1st Cav officers quickly realized was that with this groupware setup, they could eliminate a lot of face-to-face meetings, and the need to travel through dangerous areas of Baghdad to get to the meetings.
But there was a more fundamental reason for going with "The Command Post of the Future". The current generation of senior officers (Colonel and above) grew up with PCs, and had access to the Internet in college, before the Internet went commercial and evolved into a mass media as the World Wide Web. These officers understand what you can do with networked PCs, and have been using laptops in the field for years. "Groupware" and other "collaborative software" is all the rage right now both inside and outside the armed forces. Actually, the Internet is basically groupware, but the idea for groupware was around before the World Wide Web (which is little more than using the Internet via a browser) came along in the early 1990s. Most senior officers accept the fact that the future of warfare is going to be with networked command and control systems.
Back then, "The Command Post of the Future" was not that much of a jump from then current systems. A century ago, officers were getting used to running a battle using telephone and radio while looking at a map. Before that, you ran a battle by standing on a hill (for a better view, often while on horseback) and issuing orders to aides, who dashed off to deliver your instructions. By World War II, the radios were everywhere and the concept of running things via a "network", while looking at a map, in a bunker or a jeep, was established.
Now it's going up to the next level, with the power of computers, and lots of data handling software, plugged into the network. This is an important difference. While the commander of an army or a division could look at a map and discuss the situation with subordinates over the radio, to actually move an army or division, not to mention sending it into combat, involved a lot more planning and detail work than most people realize. With over 15,000 people, over 5,000 vehicles, over 30,000 electronic devices (radios, night vision goggles, GPS receivers, PCs) and thousands of tons of supplies (mostly fuel and ammunition), a combat division (usually consisting of at least half a dozen brigades) requires that a lot of decisions be made and calculations performed before anything happens. Computers, however, now make the decisions and calculations much easier.
It wasn't always this way. Combat divisions first got computers in the 1970s. These were not mobile and were used for stuff like payroll and general records keeping. The army keeps lots of records. Personal Computers started sneaking in during the 1980s, as troops used their own PCs to make life easier for themselves on the job. By the late 1980s, combat divisions had PCs officially, and during the 1990s, PCs replaced typewriters and a lot of filing cabinets. "The Command Post of the Future" worked because the divisions already have most of their records on PCs, and a few dozen officers and NCOs sitting in front of networked PCs could do the work of hundreds of staff troops to gather, organize and analyze the information needed to make a division move or put it into combat. The three displays of the "The Command Post of the Future" led to the use of a 3-D battlefield display for officers to plan future operations, and control current ones.
UPSD is also a vital tool for the air force in mission planning (working out the moves warplanes will make when going into enemy territory.) The army picked up this air force mission planning technique, and have successfully used the computer aided version of this for small unit operations (convoys, patrols and raids.)