March 12, 2015:
The U.S. Army is sending the latest version of its electronic troop location and communications system, JBC-P (Joint-Battle Command Platform) to troops to use during training and special exercises to specifically test the new features of JBC-P. This new version was eagerly awaited by troops who had used earlier models. The most welcome improvement was much faster (almost instantaneous) updates of information. The satellite signals are now encrypted and work no matter the weather, temperature of distance. While every vehicle is equipped with one of these devices, Individual troops on the ground now have a smartphone type device that allows them to chat and quickly shows on the display the location of nearby JBC-P users and has a zoom capability similar to Google Earth. Troops can quickly update enemy locations, bombs or otherwise dangerous areas. These smartphones are typically worn on the forearm for easy use in combat. The purpose of all these improvements is to enable troops arriving (by land or air) in an area where contact with the enemy is expected to immediately go into action knowing where everyone (on foot or in vehicles) is and where they are moving to.
These location devices and their subsequent improvements have changed the way American troops fight. The location devices allow brigade, battalion and company commanders to see, in real time where there troops are and what they are doing. The latest JBC-P version gives squad and platoon level operations instant awareness of their situation whenever there is a clash with the enemy or a patrol or raiding party looking for the enemy. This makes a big difference in the effectiveness of the operation, reduces friendly casualties as well as accidental injuries to nearby civilians.
There have been regular upgrades in these devices since first introduced as Blue Force Tracker (BFT) in 2003. In early 2013 the previous upgraded device, JCR (Joint Capabilities Release), was sent to Afghanistan for use in combat. JCR is part of an effort to link everyone in a combat brigade electronically while in the combat zone and, most importantly, while in combat. The new JCR version equipped individual troops as well as vehicles. Commanders could use a handheld device or laptop to view BFT locations. The commanders app could also be used to take data from troops about enemy locations or where minefields or other obstacles are and post it, so that everyone else with JCR equipment can see and share it. JCR also included better encryption and improved reliability.
This all is part of an effort that began in 2003 to perfect the “battlefield Internet”. All of this goes back to the American 1990s era Force XXI Battle Command Brigade-and-Below (FBCB2) project. Back in 2003, parts of FBCB2 (mainly BFT) were quickly issued to the troops for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. BFT is a GPS/satellite telephone device that was suddenly 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). The spectacular success of BFT got the attention of generals everywhere.
Over the next five years the U.S. Army built new versions of the BFT. Because this hasty (all the stuff was still in development) experiment was a huge success, the United States proceeded to add more of this capability and then produced and distributed 50,000 additional BFT devices by 2008.
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 begin to encounter a lot of roadside bombs that don't exist (although BFT showed them), they began to lose faith in the system. Fixing this wasn’t easy, and several different solutions were tried before a stable solution was found.
The army eventually fixed the major complaints and in 2011 BFT2 was sent to the troops. This version has a ten second (or less) delay between satellite updates. New software cleared away inaccurate icons indicating where the enemy is or may be. The BTF2 network allowed users to send more information to each other, including attachments. This enabled BFT2 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.
Currently, the army and marines have over 130,000 BFT tracking devices (plus thousands of laptops, special vehicle mounted computers and tablet type computers commanders on foot, all equipped to display BFT data for commanders). Since 2011 the army has found that that the BFT2 upgrade was over 40 times faster than the original BFT and transmitted data 30 times faster. This allowed BFT2 users to send each other pictures and documents. But while BFT2 took a long time to perfect, the army upgraded other aspects of FBCB2 as well and this led to JCR.
BFT and the battlefield Internet was not the first time radical technology sneaked up on the military. Portable radio, first widely used during World War II, radically changed how commanders operated, especially at the tactical level. But the current revolution is different in that the signals can easily be encrypted and carry visual, as well as speech, data. Thus commanders at all levels can eliminate face-to-face meetings, and just video conference, or talk freely about plans. But even Instant Messaging has become a powerful tool because many times a few short text messages are all that is needed to solve problems.
Finally, the Internet provided, for the military, many new ideas on how to efficiently handle information. The Internet has been militarized much faster than anyone expected. That has led to the military adopting new database and visualization tools as well. In a single decade the way commanders run their units and battles has changed more than it has in the past half century.