August 1, 2012:
After two years of additional testing and revisions, the U.S. Army is completing development of the new version of its "Blue Force Tracker" (BFT) device which monitors the location of vehicles on the battlefield. The new version is faster, more reliable, and has better security (encryption). There is a new interface that operates like a smart phone and is easier to learn. The new BFT has a new name, JBC-P (Joint Battle Command-Platform), and incorporates a related program, TIGR (Tactical Ground Reporting), which allows troops to report intelligence data digitally (including photos or video) and quickly send to headquarters and nearby units. This new version of BFT has been in the works for nearly a decade. In the meantime several software upgrades have been issued but JBC-P is a major hardware upgrade as well. There are over 100,000 BFT units in service.
Yet it all began by taking a chance. During the 2003, invasion of Iraq, Blue Force Trackers (GPS/satellite telephone devices) were hastily placed in thousands of combat vehicles. Anyone with a laptop, satellite data receiver, the right software, and access codes could then see where everyone was (via a map showing blips for each BFT user).
This hasty (all the stuff was still in development) experiment was a huge success and the United States proceeded to add more of this capability by producing and distributing 50,000 additional tracker devices over the next few years. There were some problems, however. The biggest hassle was the delay (often up to five minutes) between getting updated data from the satellite. Another big problem was that stationary icons, placed on BFT user screens to indicate enemy troops or dangers (like minefields or roadside bombs), didn't get updated accurately or in a timely fashion. Once the troops began to encounter a lot of roadside bombs that didn't exist (although Blue Force Tracker showed them), they began to lose faith in the system. Fixing this was not easy and many different solutions were tried. These problems played a major role in delaying delivery of JBC-P.
Last year's software update addressed most of the major complaints. For example, the delay between satellite updates was reduced to ten seconds (or less). This was a big help for units that were out of radio contact (common in Afghanistan with all those mountains) as the BFT messaging service uses the same satellite that delivers other BFT data. The new software helps clear away inaccurate icons indicating where the enemy is or may be. An improved BFT network allowed users to send more information to each other, including attachments. This enabled BFT to be used in automated command and control systems that work more effectively because they can pass more information, more quickly, between the headquarters and the troops.
The existing BFT laptop (which includes the satellite communications hardware) is being replaced by a similar, but much more powerful, unit that costs about 50 percent more.