Information Warfare: BFT2

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March 11, 2017: After nearly a decade of development, testing and feedback from the troops the U.S. Army is installing its high-speed version of its "Blue Force Tracker" (of vehicles on the battlefield) device in nearly all of its armored and unarmored combat vehicles. The new BFT2 version is ten times faster, more reliable and has better security (encryption). Yet it all began by taking a chance.

During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Blue Force Tracker (BFT, 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 has proceeded to add more of this capability by producing and distributing 50,000 additional tracker devices. There were some problems, however. The biggest hassle was the delay (often up to 300 seconds/5 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 don't exist (although Blue Force Tracker shows them), they begin to lose faith in the system. Fixing this was not easy, although several different solutions were tried often in parallel because BFT had become very popular with battlefield commanders.

The army believes it has fixes for the major complaints. For example, BFT2 has a ten second (or less) delay between satellite updates. New software will help clear away inaccurate icons indicating where the enemy is, or may be. The BTF2 network will also allow users to send more information to each other, including attachments. This will enable 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.

While the existing BFT laptop (which includes the satellite communications hardware) costs $1,500. BTF2 will cost $4,000 each. In 2010 the army and marines had about 55,000 BFT1 tracking devices (and far fewer laptops equipped to display BFT data for commanders) and plans to get at least as many of the BFT2 units, and perhaps as many as 120,000. BFT2 is was supposed to start shipping to the troops by 2012. But the BFT2 prototypes and pre-production models used for testing kept revealing new glitches or situations where performance was seriously degraded. This was especially true in Afghanistan, where the many hills and mountains can disrupt satellite communications.

Another thing that slowed down delivery of BFT2 was the accessory items, which largely consisted of new software. This consisted of JBC-P (Joint-Battle Command Platform) which needed the new BFT2 features to work at all. Especially important was the 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. Another popular new feature was TIGR (Tactical Ground Reporting), which allows troops to report intelligence data digitally (including photos or video) and quickly send to headquarters and nearby units.

There have been regular upgrades BFT and associated software and devices since the first combat test of BFT in 2003. In early 2013 one of the new upgrades, JCR (Joint Capabilities Release), was sent to Afghanistan for use in combat. JCR was part of an effort to link everyone in a combat brigade electronically while in the combat zone and, most importantly, while in combat. The 2013 JCR 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. Further tweaking and bug fixes finally got BFT2 into service.

 

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