Information Warfare: April 27, 2004


The army is integrating its Blue Force Tracker (BFT) system with its MTS (Movement Tracking System) into a single vehicle tracking system. MTS systems have been used by commercial trucking firms since the 1990s. Both BFT and MTS rely on satellite communications and GPS on the vehicle to send position information. With MTS, the position data is sent to the trucking company dispatcher, who can then tell where all the firms trucks are at all times. MTS systems also provide an email and instant messaging capability, so the truck driver and dispatcher can communicate. BFT is different in that each user also can see where all BFT users are on a computer display. This gave the BFT users a picture of where all friendly users are at all times, thus making it easier to run the battle and avoiding friendly fire incidents.

Just before the invasion of Iraq last year, 1,200 BFT and 1,700 MTS systems were installed in army and marine vehicles. Both systems were a great success. Theres one problem, however, the air force, marines and navy all use different systems to track vehicles on the ground. The army is trying to get everyone to agree on a common system, or at least an easy way to share data. To further that, the new BFT/MTS system will be able to communicate with the air force JSTARS (a four engine aircraft that uses a ground radar to track vehicles below) and Link-16 (a communications system that links aircraft and ground controllers in real time). The marines have their own tracking system, but it does not use satellite communications and is thus less effective. Last year, the army lent several hundred BFT systems to the marines so that all the ground forces in the march on Baghdad would know where everyone else was at all times. 

The army is in the process of installing 40,000 of the new BFT systems in combat and support vehicles. For combat units, there will also be BFT equipment that does not use the satellite link, but instead uses radio communications. This will work because the vehicles in a battalion generally stay within several kilometers of each other. The information from these local BFT networks would be passed to a terminal with a satellite link, and thus be available to the air force JSTARS and everyone else using BFT systems. This approach reduces the demand for satellite communications, which is always in short supply during a war.

The navy is participating in a program that will equip all aircraft with digital, satellite based communications, similar to what the air force is using, that will enable everyone in the air to more accurately identify who is who on the ground. By having all friendly warplanes using this tracking equipment,  many friendly fire incidents would be eliminated. Warplanes have been  the most frequent attackers in such incidents. 

One problem the Department of Defense is having with all this is that new commercial technology (like MTS and cheaper satellite communications) is becoming available so rapidly that existing Pentagon programs designed to upgrade military communications are being overtaken. The military is adapting, as the army did, by simply discarding systems that have fallen behind commercial technology and integrating the better commercial stuff for military use. That is what led to the rapid introduction of BFT and MTS. This attitude is becoming pervasive in the Department of Defense, which is a good thing. However, it makes sense, as the alternative is to get dragged before Congress and the media and asked to explain why billions are being spent on obsolete technology while better and cheaper stuff is available in the commercial marketplace. 


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