Infantry: Halo Out There

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June 24, 2009: After years of requests, and complaints, from the infantry, the Department of Defense has finally developed mission planning software that is easy to use, does what needs to be done, and fits on a laptop computer. RealWorld combines digital maps and 3-D gaming technology with military procedures and equipment specifications to produce a program that enables commanders, and troops, to quickly put together a simulation of a mission. This is what mission planning is all about.

RealWorld is just in time, because the troops were already putting together their own mission planning software. Last year, the U.S. Army created their own version of "Google Earth" for combat. This computer application isn't from Google, it just looks like Google Earth. The troops call this mapping software TIGR (Tactical Ground Reporting System). It's inspiration wasn't Google Earth, but mission planning software the U.S. Air Force and Navy have been using for decades.

The most recent versions of the mission planning stuff looks like a commercial (as in from a software store) flight simulator, but with a lot more information displayed. Combat pilots have long used systems like this, which have been on computers for over twenty years, to plan their missions. Before that, it was done manually, on paper maps. Mission planning was not just about who would be where, when and doing what, but also where the enemy defenses were, and the lay on the land. That's because the best approach, to get under the radar, is on the deck. For that, you have to know where the hills and valleys are.

For years, army and marine infantry officers who knew of these mission planners, suggested to their bosses that similar tools be developed for the troops. Patrols, tactical movements and all manner of combat missions could be more quickly, and effectively, planned with mission planner support. Civilian wargame and simulation experts were also eager to do it, and knew, especially in the last five years, that the technology was there. The Department of Defense had already created a huge digital database of maps, and laptop computers were powerful enough to handle the graphics and data storage. The military had Internet type access in the combat zone.

The number, and intensity, of troops calling for this sort of thing finally got the attention of the brass, and TIGR began development as a DARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency) effort. Three years ago, the first combat units got TIGR for testing. In the last year, using Rapid Fielding Initiative money ("mad money" units are given to buy whatever gear they believe they need for combat troops), TIGR went to war in Iraq.

TIGR actually solves two problems. First, obviously, it provides troops with maps of their area, but with icons indicating previous incidents (good and bad) and reports of enemy activity in general. The maps are updated by the users, like a Wiki, and by intelligence troops, so that the maps tend to show what is out there now, including recent construction or battle damage. But it's second use is equally important. TIGR gives troops, especially patrol leaders, an easy way to report what they saw on their missions. It's these reports that create a clearer picture of what the enemy is up to, and what friendly troops have been doing as well. Sergeants and lieutenants have long complained about passing along written patrol and after-action reports, and never getting much of anything back. Now they have all that stuff, from thousands of patrols and combat actions, at their finger tips.

 TIGR looks like an Internet application, which was intentional. If a soldier knows his way around one of the Internet mapping programs, he will quickly get the hang of TIGR. And by now, most troops know how to enter a report via a web site form, and attach digital photos or video. These last two items, the troops have been bringing back for years. Not just as mementos, but as valuable information about what's out there, and what to watch for next time out. Facebook for the combat zone.

 Now the infantry have a mission planning tool, and it's even more useful than the one the pilots use, at least in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's because the ground troops are doing most of the fighting. The infantry run about ten times as many patrols and other combat missions, as do the aviators. And the ground troops are far more likely to get shot at. Just as the pilots discovered decades ago, mission planning tools can be a lifesaver.

 Even before TIGR was put to use, DARPA got working on RealWorld, which takes advantage of scenario builder software included in most video games, along with all the other tools that make games like Halo so addictive.. The troops are familiar with this stuff, having grown up with it. RealWorld has been in development for the last three years. There are hundreds of beta copies of RealWorld out there, and the troops want it, fast. Because RealWorld deals with air support in detail, it's expected to be useful to pilots doing electronic warfare and ground support missions. In a year or so, RealWorld will replace TIGR, and the ground troops will finally have a mission planner the equal to those used by the air force and navy.

 


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