December 17, 2013:
After years of requests, and complaints, from the infantry, the U.S. Department of Defense has finally developed mapping software that is easy to use, does what needs to be done, and fits on a laptop computer or, more importantly a smart phone. Although the U.S. Army created their own version of "Google Earth" for combat use in 2008, there was no easy way for most troops to use it until recently. This mapping software (TIGR for Tactical Ground Reporting System) isn't from Google, it just looks like Google Earth. Its inspiration wasn't Google Earth, but rather mission planning software the U.S. Air Force and Navy have been using for decades. While ground troops use forms of mission planning, these are not usually as precise as those used by military pilots and more subject to unexpected changes and the need to rapidly reconfigure the battle plan. For this the troops need accurate and up-to-date maps, preferably with zoom capability and they need them fast. The solution was secure (in a military sense) TIGR apps for smart phones, at least Android smart phones using military approved security apps that can access stuff like TIGR.
But it all started nearly a decade ago. Back then the number, and intensity, of troops calling for this sort of thing finally got the attention of the brass, and TIGR began development as a DARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency) effort. In 2006, the first combat units got TIGR for testing. Using Rapid Fielding Initiative money ("mad money" for quickly obtaining anything the troops believed they needed) units are able to buy whatever laptop and satellite communications gear they believed they needed for combat troops to use TIGR in Iraq.
TIGR initially solved two problems. First, obviously, it provided troops with maps of their area, but it also showed icons indicating previous incidents (good and bad) and reports of enemy activity in general. The maps were updated by the users, like a Wiki, and by intelligence troops, so that the maps tended to show what is out there now, including recent construction or battle damage. TIGR gives troops, especially patrol leaders, an easy way to report what they saw on their missions. It's these reports that create a clearer picture of what the enemy is up to, and what friendly troops have been doing as well. Sergeants and lieutenants have long complained about passing along written patrol and after-action reports, and never getting much of anything back. Now they have all that stuff, from thousands of patrols and combat actions, at their fingertips.
TIGR looks like an Internet application, which was intentional. If a soldier knows his way around one of the Internet mapping programs, he will quickly get the hang of TIGR. And by now, most troops know how to enter a report via a web site form, and attach digital photos or video. These last two items the troops have been using for years. The battlefield pictures and videos are not just mementos, but also seen as valuable information about what's out there, and what to watch for next time out. Troops informally create online collections of this battlefield images. Facebook for the combat zone so to speak.
Now the infantry have a mission planning tool, and it's even more useful than the one the pilots use, at least in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's because the ground troops are doing most of the fighting. The infantry run about ten times as many patrols and other combat missions as do the aviators. And the ground troops are far more likely to get shot at. Just as the pilots discovered decades ago mission planning tools can be a lifesaver because they allow you to carefully plan out the mission and discover a lot of problems before you are actually out there.