February 28, 2013: The U.S. Army is sending the latest version of its electronic troop location and communications system, JCR (Joint Capabilities Release), to Afghanistan. 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 gear equips individual troops as well as vehicles. Commanders can use a handheld device or laptop to view BFT locations. The commanders app can 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 includes better encryption and improved reliability.
This all is part of an effort that began in 2003, when BFT (Blue Force Tracker, the predecessor of JCR) was first used, and that turned into a larger project to perfect the “battlefield Internet”. All of this goes back to the American 1990s era Force XXI Battle Command Brigade-and-Below (FBCB2) project. In the last decade BFT evolved into JCR and became part of an overall battlefield Internet project called CS (Capability Set) 13.
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.
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. For example, two years ago 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 100,000 BFT tracking devices (plus thousands of laptops equipped to display BFT data for commanders). Actual use demonstrated that BFT2 was over 40 times faster than 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.
After 2003, as combat operations continued in Iraq, so did the flow of money for new communications gear, software, and communications capability. As a result, there were soon several improvised battlefield Internet systems that enabled commanders to quickly establish electronic Command Posts in combat zones. The tools were available, there was a need, and things just happened. Many components of this new form of command post (the fast satellite data links, PCs, large flat screen displays and laptops everywhere, plus easy networking) remain fairly stable. Most of the change has been in the software. But even this aspect is kept under control because most screw-ups occur in front of senior commanders. This provides an additional incentive to get these things working right.
Israel paid close attention to the American experience and quickly adapted the most successful U.S. ideas for Israeli use. Israel later sold this to Australia, which has become a major customer for Israeli military technology. The Israeli LAND 75 and 125 systems equipped thousands of Australian vehicles and troops, as well as making it possible to quickly (within minutes) establish a command post anywhere, know where your troops are, and be in touch with them.
All this 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.