Electronic Weapons: Oz Electrifies Its Infantry

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March 25, 2010: Australia is spending $300 million to have an Israeli firm create a BGC3 (Battle Group and Below Command, Control and Communications) system for the Australian Army. The system will be based on a similar one used by Israeli land forces. All of this goes back to the American 1990s era Force XXI Battle Command Brigade-and-Below (FBCB2) project.

Parts of FBCB2 (especially the Blue Force Tracking, or BFT, system) were quickly issued to the troops for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Blue Force Tracker (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). The spectacular success of Blue Force Tracker (BFT) got the attention of generals everywhere.

Over the next five years the U.S. Army built new versions of the BFT tracking (for vehicles on the battlefield) device. 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 by producing and distributing 50,000 additional tracker 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), don'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 Blue Force Tracker 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 believes it has fixes for the major complaints. For example, the new BFT2 will have 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 about $1,500. BFT2 will cost $2,500 each (but will be a much more powerful piece of equipment).

Currently the army and marines have 60,000 BFT 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 expected to start shipping to the troops in another year or two. There are already hundreds of BFT2 prototypes undergoing testing. The field tests have shown BFT2 to be 45 times faster than BFT, and transmits data 30 times faster. This allows BFT2 users to send each other pictures and Word documents. But while BFT2 has taken a long time to perfect, the army upgraded other aspects of FBCB2.

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 is coming 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. This is what they are providing to Australia, which has become a major customer for Israeli military technology. The Israeli LAND 75 and 125 systems will equip over a thousand Australian vehicles, and 1,500 troops, as well as making it possible to quickly (within minutes) establish a command post anywhere, and know where your troops are, and be in touch with them.

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.

 

 


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